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When college students reinvent the world

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For weeks, 400 World Sim students work in groups of 20 to invent cultures – whose often-silly names belie serious values outlined in everything from government structures to gender relations. Then they come together in a giant space – like the cold and pungent rodeo arena – to discover what happens to their societies when confronted with trade systems, war, and depletion of natural resources.

Professor Wesch sets up the simulation by giving each culture a certain amount of power in the beginning – symbolized by playing cards. Then, based on a complex set of rules the class has devised together, students go through each round of the game – striking alliances, trading cards, and sometimes starting “wars” over resources.

The cereal bits represent diamonds, for instance, that have sparked deadly conflict in Africa and are often sent to India to be cut by child laborers. Because nonrenewables such as fossil fuels are often in areas sacred to indigenous peoples, the teaching assistants hide paper symbols for these resources within the special stuffed animal that represents each group. At one point, a member of the Detinu culture hugs the group’s camel tight in a futile effort to protect it from the invading Evanaves (named after teaching assistant Evan Nave). They capture it all on video and then watch and discuss Wesch’s edited version – the years 1450 to 2100 condensed into 20 minutes, complete with dramatic soundtrack.

Nowhere is it clearer how personally some people take the game than when the “genocided” Bagheera and Phanat Nikhom have to spread out to remote parts of the arena to represent the death of their cultures. The video shows in slow motion the looks of shock and despair on their faces.

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