Playing Small Business Owners: Teaching Management, Self-Efficacy, Economic Equality and Authentic Skills through Casual Games


Going Virtual with Casual Games:  Strategies for Teaching during a Pandemic

An Eight Part Series. Part 4

David Seelow, PhD©

Many of us fondly remember our first experience running a business: The Lemonade Stand in front of our house. Small business operators, and tiny entrepreneurs, we were usually helped- by our small business owning parents. School did not add much to these early ventures- in my day females took Home Economics and boys, Shop, entirely stereotypical. Rarely did one take a business course if they were on a so called academic track. Already we see here numerous educational red flags: gender segregation and segregation between academic subjects and vocational subjects.  Business does not fit clearly on either side. Even in college, a business major has some split between the classroom academic world and the practical world served by internships and field placements.

Games and simulations can help bridge many of these unhealthy educational divisions. and do so beginning in the elementary grades and continuing into post graduate professional programs like the infamous MBA. In a game, players can learn critical on the job skills in a safe and fun environment. A child can run a virtual lemonade stand or even a real estate tower.  Games can simulate business operations from sole proprietorships to large corporations.  Students are more likely to become small business owners- and these businesses drive the day to day economy, so I want to suggest four small, causal games that can be played online in short burst from elementary school through college and well into adulthood. I play all four and I am rather late into adulthood.

Papa’s Pizzeria to Go

Who does not love pizza? In a pandemic pizza remains a premiere delivery option for food. For any student, there will most likely be a pizza parlor or pizzeria nearby. The mobile version of the wonderful Flipline Studios (2014) Papa Louie’s small business simulation franchise has you playing Roy who must cover the pizzeria while Louie is away (business must be good for Louie). Running a pizzeria is no easy task. Why? Everyone wants pizza. It is all about time management and keeping the constant stream of customers happy. You go through a hectic week managing four stations: “The Order Station,” “The Topping Station,” “The Baking Station,” and “The Cutting Station.” Perfect for a smart phone or tablet, you drag toppings onto the pie with your finger, slide the pie into and out of the oven and cut the pizza with two fingers. You get a satisfaction score and, hopefully, tips.

What makes the game a challenge, and fun, revolves around those crazy customers who might want any number of toppings: six banana peppers, and eight pepperonis, cut in six slices. It must be cooked just long enough and served hot, on time. These customers are hungry! The more customers the more challenging the game. Thankful for customers past, I never worked in a pizzeria. My tips would not fill any child’s piggy bank.

The game helps players build important time management skills and cultivate the customer service skills sorely missing from much of today’s economy.

Tiny Tower

In Tiny Tower (NimbleBit, 2011) you move up from small business operator to running a more corporate like business, the eponymous real estate tower. Much like towers in large cities like New York or Chicago, the ‘tiny’ tower has many floors serving many different purposes. Some floors are residential and some commercial.  The commercial floors offer retail, creative, recreational, food, and service. Capitalism in a microcosm, your goal in the game is to turn a profit, but that profit depends on keeping workers happy. 

Each worker has a skill set you need to hone, and a dream job you would like the bitizen to have. There are little pop up quests to perform, but overall, you must collect coins or the in-game currency Bux- which makes play easier- and build floors. However, spending real money is not necessary. Gameplay primary revolves around taking bitizens up the elevator to their desired floor, managing the workers- 3 items can be sold per store, and building your tower. You can easily play the game in short bursts of time and lose on quality in gameplay.

Tiny Tower Screen Shot

The game simplifies managing a real estate building, but the game can be played in elementary school, so such simplification makes sense. Furthermore, the skills carry along to older students as well. One natural tendency will be to build a tower higher and higher which necessarily complicates the game. That tendency can be, and should be, for the most part resisted. Over building and over development is a capitalist function that in the long run rarely serves any one well. Likewise, rampant consumerism has deleterious long term consequences that the game allows to emerge and help spur classroom discussion of capitalism’s benefits, but also its significant limitations.

For me, the game’s value consists in the need to balance happiness or satisfaction with financial stability. Allow students to play the game over a few weeks and then bring their experience into whole class discussion about financial success and consumer or citizen satisfaction. How does building affect the larger community? Should one run up massive profits if tenants are not a happy or if the less well off- the non-VIPs in the game’s language, cannot live in your tower? How do students define success? Apply game tasks to concrete thinking about their future. What kind of building would optimize the future environment they will be living and working in? Use the game as a launch pad for talking about development, community, success, and happiness. There are critical questions rarely thought about on more than a superficial level. The game can also be played alongside the game Landlord Go discussed below.

Landlord Go

From developing and managing a single skyscraper to controlling a portfolio of valuable buildings Landlord Go (Reality Games, 2018) challenges players to build a real estate empire. Students can discover the world former President Donald J. Trump operated in as they buy property in their neighborhood or across the globe. As an augmented reality game (AR) Landlord to Go allows students to move about their home locale or the campus region where they attend school and assess property to buy. The game’s sophisticated artificial intelligence and GPS feeds real time date into the game making the player’s experience genuinely authentic (PocketGamer, 2020). In fact, when someone enters a real property that you own in the game world you earn virtual rent! As the developer’s advertise, Landlord Go is “Monopoly for the Real World.”

That is the virtue and the vice inherent to the game and its antecedents. Students will learn about economics, real estate, and monopolies, but monopolies, capitalism and American society are problematic neighbors, more like frenemies. Let me back up and say that the best way to approach this dynamic AR game begins with discussion of the Parker Brother’s classic board game Monopoly (1938). Most students will have played this game with family and friends and if they have not urge or even require this- in social distancing safe times-game. Monopoly asks players to build a monopoly, but a monopoly violates the principles for free market capitalism, crushes competition, while ill serving the public. Yet, monopolies are a dominant force in the United States, now more than ever. Although not strictly speaking monopolies much of the American economy is strangulated by a few massive corporations in many different industries. Corporations buy up smaller businesses, expand their reach and stifle real competition. Look at Amazon, Facebook, Hilton or Marriott, Walmart, or Target. Small retail stores are knocked out of business, bookstores have virtually disappeared, and big box chain stores invade all cities, towns, and villages homogenizing once diverse and unique main streets. Students need to learn about the dominating power of huge corporations on the world economy and Landlord Go provides a perfect springboard for critical lessons in American history and economics.

For a start ask students who owns the local hotels- they will be surprised how many different hotel chains with slightly different branding can be traced back to mega corporations like Hilton and Marriott. Such a concentration of power inevitable supports the wealthy not the average citizen most students will become.

After discussion of Monopoly movee back and have students play the game Monopoly was modelled on The Landlord Game (self-published). This game designed by Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie in 1903 presented a dual system of rules. One set stressed the drive toward monopoly and the other a desire for sharing wealth based on the single tax theory of Henry George. You have here a crucial historical lesson on how a woman, an early feminist and design pioneer, has been buried by history and replaced by Charles Darrow who stole her game and repackaged it before selling the copyright to Parker Brothers. A man displaces a woman, takes credit for her genius, and profits in money and fame. Even more striking for students will be the fashion in which a game designed to teach equality was co-opted and transformed into a game that teaches inequality. Sure enough since the Great Depression American society has gown increasing unequal. The few grow richer and richer- more rich than entire countries, and most of us tread water, while many drown. Many citizens still buy into this practice, as the American Way as the gulf of inequality growns wider and wider! The deepest value of Landlord to Go is the historical and economic lessons it provides a window into discussion and debate.

Punch Club

A superb on going casual game, Punch Club (Lazy Bear Studios, 2016) provides the player with an important third person perspective. You play a kickboxer working his way up the ranks. The third person point of view allows the player to manage the boxer, but also reflexively learn a good amount of self-management too. The player takes the boxer through legitimate tournaments and less legitimate ones. This is boxer is no Mike Tyson. He is a middle of the road trying to improve. To improve, you need to manage the boxer’s training. Training involves lots of exercise and a good diet, but a good diet necessitates money and a so so boxer cannot live by his feet or fists. He needs a job. Nothing comes easy. The game’s reflexive nature revolves around the player realizing the immense amount of hard work and effort being a professional athletic requires. Many students dream of becoming Floyd Mayweather or Connor McGregor, but the fantasy that success comes easy needs a reality check and this game gives students that valuable check.

As a player you cultivate the boxer’s three skill areas: strength, agility, and stamina. Generally, only one or two skills can be maximized, and this teaches the need to focus on your strength while keeping some balance in your overall approach to the sport. Mohammed Ali had tremendous agility, George Foreman tremendous strength. Actual fights are controlled by the A.I, but the loss of player control has the virtue of stressing the player’s need to prepare for the fight and not just manipulate kicks and punches that characterize most fighting games. Most performance competitions are won during many hours of preparation not the few hours of actual game play.

It is an immersive game with a fun story arc. The boxer witnessed his father’s (also a kick boxer) murder, and he must track down the killers. It is a replay of the Daredevil origin story-how trauma motivates self-development. Speaking of Daredevil and comics, the game offers a wonderful pastiche of 1980s and ‘90s pop culture, including the title’s take off on Fight Club (Fincher, 1999-film, Palahniuk, 1996-novel). For adults, the nostalgia aspect is fun, and for students tracking references can be a twist on Trivial Pursuit. Asking student to track down references produces a lesson in cultural history.

The game also offers a way to talk with students about sports management, a career area of interest today. The biggest virtue of the game; however, is precisely what many game reviewers dislike about the game such as this review in IGN,

          Punch Club became a constant, demoralizing struggle that shattered my    enthusiasm. I grew intensely bored, frustrated, and eventually bitter.         Enduring the grind gradually got me out of my hole, but after 20 hours —      the     vast majority of which spent not fighting — with plenty more ahead, I’d have        sooner started over and played differently from the beginning than finished           my first playthrough. I decided to stop playing altogether (Dyer, 2018).

If you conceive of games as pure fantasy-full of nonstop action, such a complaint makes some sense, but if a game yields any genuine lessons, and this game does, then that lesson is the daily grind. The few exciting hours of a sporting event demands countless hours of preparation.  Life is a fight. It is hard work. Escape and fantasy is easy. For pure entertainment, the game might lack some, though not much, but as educational value, the game unexpectedly delivers a real punch!

Works Cited

Dyer, Mitch. “Punch Club Review,” IGN, Updated 24 November 2018, https://www.ign.com/articles/2016/01/15/punch-club-review/

“How Landlord Go uses real-world data to deliver the most authentic property simulation on the market.” PocketGamer, 16 July 2020, www.pocketgamer.com/articles/083560/how-landlord-go-uses-real-world-data-to-deliver-the-most-authentic-property-simulation-on-the-market/

Authentic Field-Based Lessons Ideas

Papa’s Pizzeria to Go

Have students spend half a shift volunteering at a local pizzeria. They can keep a journal observing the minute by minute activities. How many pizzas are served? How many are made at one time. What kind of pizzas are ordered and how are they cut? What kind of response do customers offer to workers? How long does a pizza remain in the oven? How long does it take to prepare one? What is the profit on a single pizza? How many pizzas are picked up and how many are delivered? What are the tips like? What happens if someone calls in sick? After the few hours on the job have students write about which skills they have observed would be valuable if they were to open their own small business someday.  Although filed observations are critical in education schools, I think that they benefit all students in the upper grades and in many college programs.

Tiny Tower

Just as practicum skills are insufficiently used in high school and college so to are primary research methods, at least outside the natural sciences. Secondary research from books- and today reading entire books will be a limited reality- can be supplanted by teaching primary research methods like interviewing. Have students interview a local real estate developer or property manager. What decisions are made in terms of a building’s height and square footage. Why are some retail outlets on some floors and not others? How are decisions made about types of stores or space to rent out? How does rent change based on floor number? What kind of amenities to tenants want? How do you balance worker satisfaction, customer satisfaction and profit?

Next, have students compare their findings with how they operated their Tiny Tower? Which businesses did the operate? Which floor did the place the business on? How often did they move employees around? What was their profit and how many employees were happy?

Finally, ask students to design their own tower using either paper and pencil or an appropriate computer program. How many floors will they build? What rent will they charge? Which business will they include and how will space be allocated? What about the aesthetics- color, decorations, carpets, paintings? This exercise presents design thinking at its best. Do not forget to have students think through the relationship of their building to the community. How does the building fit in with the community? Does the building displace some businesses? Do the tenants represent a different economic class than long term residents? Will the tower’s employees be local, or will they be brought in? These discussions and inquires offer invaluable learning opportunities.

Landlord Go

Conduct a contest with students to see who builds the biggest real estate empire. Use this activity as a prelude to a lesson on the history of monopolies in the U.S. including antitrust laws and President Theodore Roosevelts policies. Next ask students to identify current examples of government monopoly busting. Discuss why certain companies have not been identified as monopolies. Finally, ask students to conduct some field research in their home communities or a community near campus. Ask them to identify each of the major businesses, who owns them and where they are located. Students should go back through historical maps, archives and local historical societies and identify the stores and business in the same community 25 years ago and fifty years ago. They can write a historical account of the changes over this time, say from their grandparents time to their parents time to today. A last step might be for them to sketch out a community plan for 25 years in the future- what business will be present, who will own them, where will they be located and what will life be like in their community’s future?

Punch Club

Ask students to translate what they have learned managing their kickboxer to a field they would like to enter someday, especially a field or hobby where they have autonomy in the sense of succeeding based upon their own personal performance. If they want to be an athlete, a cook, a musician etc., what must they do to maximize their chances of success?  Have students sketch out a monthly schedule with goals, benchmarks for success, daily schedules for working out, practice, studying and nutrition. How does what you eat effect your stamina and so on? Even if the goal is to be a superior student this exercise has rich lessons to offer.

Resource

The Monopolists’ Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Next Up: Part 5 of the series will discuss 2 Augmented Reality casual games that get students out of the home and school buildings for outside learning.

*** If you want consultation, or professional development help with online learning, course design, game-based learning, games in the classroom, comics in the classroom, film, or Language Arts/Literature contact me at: davidseelow@gmail.com.

Purchase or recommend to your library our book Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2019), a practical guide to classroom teaching with popular culture  forms.

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