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ILLUSTRATING THE NATURE OF SOCIAL INEQUALITY WITH

THE SIMULATION STAR POWER*

A simulation called Star Power provides an invaluable means to help students


understand structural social inequality. This paper explains how Star Power
achieves this goal and provides suggestions on how to inculcate the following
points that are both central to sociology and difficult to adequately convey to
students: 1) Students see how those in power maintain their position by
structuring the system to their advantage; 2) they learn how the structure of
this system makes advancement for others difficult; 3) privileged students
begin to recognize the impact of their own family’s social position that they
tend to overlook in favor of their personal effort and merit. By becoming more
aware of structural inequalities, students realize that for the lower classes to
join the most powerful in society, they must triumph over a system in which
those in power make rules that protect their own interests, usually at some-
one else’s expense.

LAUREN DUNDES ROXANNA HARLOW


McDaniel College McDaniel College

SOCIOLOGY INSTRUCTORS STRIVING to con- structural barriers (especially if they have


vey the impact of inequality face a difficult not experienced such obstacles) and, conse-
challenge (Abrahamson 1994; Delivered Brezina byquently, frequently
Ingenta to : believe that the disad-
1996; Davis 1992; Groves, Universidad
Warren, and Autonoma De Barcelona
vantaged seal their unfortunate fate simply
Witschger 1996; Haddad and Lieberman Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
because they give up too readily in the face
2002; Manning, Price, and Rich 1997; of hard work. Perhaps, they think, if prop-
McCammon 1999; McClelland 1996). We erly motivated, those in the bottom strata of
can tell students, for example, that the rich- American society would achieve the Ameri-
est 20 percent of U.S. households own 84 can Dream, like those highly vaunted per-
percent of all U.S. wealth (Macionis 2002), sons glorified for their “rags to riches”
that the median net worth of whites is transformations. So, if the oppressed could
twelve times that of blacks and Hispanics only follow the lead of these success stories,
(Oliver and Shapiro 1995), and that white then social parity would ensue.
males are overly represented in managerial To show the limitations of such logic,
and professional occupations while women instructors need vivid lessons about struc-
and people of color are overly represented tural social inequality. Simulations requiring
in clerical and low-paying jobs (Reskin active participation can increase students’
1998). However, extensive statistics and enthusiasm and prompt critical thinking
ethnographies alone cannot broaden many about complex issues (see Dorn [1989] for
students’ view of these phenomena. Stu- an extensive literature review about the
dents are often understandably blind to merits and limitations of sociology simula-
tions). In addition, these exercises take in-
*Please address all correspondence to Lauren structors out of the role of an authority who
Dundes, Department of Sociology, McDaniel provides the right answers (Cross and
College, 2 College Hill, Westminster, MD Steadman 1996).
21157-4390; e-mail: ldundes@mcdaniel.edu. Star Power, created by R. Garry Shirts in
Editor’s note: The reviewers were, in 1969 (and available through Simulation
alphabetical order, Dean S. Dorn, Davita Glas-
Training Systems, Inc. in Del Mar, CA; see
berg, and Wendy Jean Harrod.

Teaching Sociology, Vol. 33, 2004 (January:32-43) 32


SIMULATING INEQUALITY WITH STAR POWER 33
http://www.stsintl.com), provides an ingen- trading different colored plastic chips (with
ious means by which to teach students about different assigned values) to earn the high-
the creation of inequality through the use est score possible. The simulation is pack-
and abuse of power. This simulation is pri- aged with posters of rules for students to
marily useful for illustrating the structural- consult during the exercise. One poster lists
conflict perspective of inequality that re- the value of each of the different colored
flects Karl Marx’s notion of exploitation. chips; the total point value depends on how
This viewpoint suggests that the benefits of many of a particular color a participant can
the privileged come at the expense of those obtain during a trading session. Students
who are less so; in other words, elites main- begin the round with five chips and may
tain their positions of power by making acquire more as they trade with each other.
rules and taking actions that work to their Only the “best” five chips can count, how-
advantage while reinforcing the subordinate ever, in calculating one’s score at the end of
position of others (Sorensen 2000). Accord- a trading session. The class is then divided
ing to Marx, inequality and exploitation are into three roughly equally sized groups—
integral to the capitalist system, necessarily those with the greatest number of points,
alienating people from the economic and those with the fewest points, and those in
political process. The simulation is also the middle. However, we have found that
useful for demonstrating the concept of the simulation is just as effective, if not
false consciousness, showing students how more so, when the top group is slightly
and why exploitation does not necessarily smaller, making the inequality even that
lead to social class (or social status) solidar- much more pronounced and more represen-
ity and societal change. tative of how wealth is distributed in the
This paper explains how Star Power United States.
achieves its goal and providesDelivered by Ingenta
suggestions to :
Although in his manual Shirts recom-
Universidad Autonoma De Barcelona
for how to maximize its impact. By present- mends that students write their scores on the
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
ing practical examples of the lessons from board, we have found it easier and less time
Star Power, we hope to provide instructors consuming to circulate among the students
with effective and engaging techniques that and determine their range of scores. If the
allow students to experience the frustrations top score is 19, then we might ask for a
that can result from some of the causes of show of hands as to how many students
inequality. As Lenski (1966) states, “The have a score between 17 and 19. Depending
distribution of rewards in a society is a on whether the number of students is well
function of the distribution of power, not of above or well below a third of the class, the
system needs” (p. 63) or meritorious ac- instructor can change the range that deter-
complishment, and students find themselves mines which students are placed in the top
having to grapple with this during the exer- group. This same process occurs to divide
cise. Insights gained from participating in the remaining students into two more
the simulation can then provide a basis for groups. Those in the group possessing the
learning about more specific theories of highest number of points after the first
inequality that are not directly addressed by round are given buttons with a square on it,
Star Power, such as issues ranging from de- while the second and lowest groups are
industrialization and globalization to racism given buttons with circles and triangles re-
and sexism. spectively.
The next stage is a bonus round. Bonus
THE STRUCTURE OF STAR POWER rounds of the game allow each group to
unanimously allocate three bonus chips,
The hour-long simulation, designed for a worth a considerable amount, to one or
group of between 18 and 35 people, in- more people within the group, offering
volves individuals blindly drawing and then these select few the chance for upward mo-
34 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY
bility (or a secured position in the highest groups as) an egregious abuse of power that
group). Usually during this process, a few Squares find intoxicating, though to varying
of those from the lower groups—Circles and degrees. Once, a group of Squares actually
occasionally Triangles—are promoted to the decreed that no one in the highest group
Square group, since their total score (often could ever be demoted and no one in any
after the bonus rounds) exceeds the score of other group could ever be promoted. In
someone in the top (Square) group. The another instance, the most powerful group
lower scoring Square(s) then takes the pro- was comprised solely of women, a group
moted person’s place in the lower group. sometimes perceived as less power-hungry.
The second round of the game involves an- Yet they, too, made rules that kept them-
other session of drawing and trading the selves in power at others’ expense. Interest-
plastic chips. This time, however, the ingly, the Squares are so exhilarated by
Squares are able to draw from a bag with a their power that they often protest the end-
greater proportion of higher-valued plastic ing of the simulation while those in the
chips, rewarding their earlier performance other two groups usually seem annoyed that
(and helping to ensure their top position in it did not end sooner, given the sense of
the game). This stage is followed by an- futility they feel.
other bonus round.
Up to this point, the instructor provides Reactions to Inequality and the Abuse of
the rules for drawing, counting, and trading Power
plastic chips. The key turning point of the After the implementation of unfair rules, the
simulation is when the instructor gives the lower-status groups either give up or want
Squares complete discretion in making the to rebel. Both the defeatism and disobedi-
rules for trading after the second round of ence are fueled by the Squares’ usual glee-
play. Circles and Triangles, however,Delivered
are byful
Ingenta to : for the other groups’ game
disregard
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able to submit their suggestions for trading rule suggestions (submitted to the Squares
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
rules, but they must do so in writing and are in writing for their consideration). Occa-
told that the Squares are free to accept or sionally, we have had Squares ball up and
reject them as they see fit. The simulation hurl the written suggestion toward the other
ends when attempts to trade under the new groups or dramatically rip it into quarters.
rules have failed (when it is apparent that When the Circles and Triangles conclude
the Squares have abused their power and that the rules are unfair because the Squares
that the other two groups are frustrated and are abusing their power, many become
resentful). hopeless to the extent that they are not even
willing to try to improve their lot.
THE RESULTS OF STAR POWER On the other hand, because of the Circles’
and Triangles’ sense that the Squares lack a
Maintaining Inequality through the Abuse legitimate basis for their power, students
of Power will commonly subvert the rules—usually
After conducting the Star Power simulation by pretending to obey them but then defying
more than 20 times in Introductory Sociol- them in practice. Such rebellion is usually
ogy classes, certain patterns continually seen when students take more chips than
reemerge. Most importantly, the group in they are supposed to or claim that they have
power, in our experience, has always made handed over all tokens of value when such
rules that protect and enhance their power chips are in fact hidden from the Squares.
and impede nearly all of those in the other This outcome of the simulation illustrates
groups from advancing. In other words, the how consistently overt abuses of power can
Squares structure the game overwhelmingly ultimately be ineffective and hard to en-
in their favor. The creation of these rules force, threatening the privileged position of
tends to be (and is viewed by the other the oppressors.
SIMULATING INEQUALITY WITH STAR POWER 35
Preserving Power and Thwarting Rebellion that includes many students who participate
The Squares may offer some concession to with less inhibition than usual.
appease the Circles and Triangles to fore- During the debriefing of the exercise, it
stall their possible rebellion, even if the seems best for instructors to serve as facili-
Squares are not entirely conscious of the tators by posing questions rather than stat-
payoff from their “generosity.” These con- ing points to be learned. Shirts’s manual
cessions often make Squares feel justified in includes questions to stimulate discussion.
their unfair rules, leaving them frustrated The optimal means to debrief, however,
and befuddled if the lower groups fail to seems to be to allow students to make the
appreciate their gesture and cooperate. For points themselves, so that the instructor
example, during one simulation, the Circles introduces questions only to ensure that
and Triangles were still uncooperative even students do not overlook the key points. We
after the Squares allowed them to keep usually begin debriefing with a question like
some of the valued chips. As punishment “What does Star Power show us?” At this
for this obstinacy, the Squares withdrew the point, nearly every student wishes to con-
benefit they initially offered and made even vey the import of his or her experience. We
stricter guidelines. As one Square said to also receive an enthusiastic reception to our
justify the increasingly oppressive rules, question regarding the actions of those who
“Reason didn’t work.” were promoted (e.g., “After you helped
The Squares may also implement a [student] move up, what happened?”).
“divide and conquer” technique by giving a Instructors should have a list of points
nominal advantage only to the middle group they wish to discuss, either from our list of
(the Circles) to distance them from the low- upcoming suggestions, Shirts’s manual, or
est group. The Circles usually welcome an their own ideas of what is most important to
opportunity to gain an advantage Delivered by Ingenta
that also raise toto :help students analyze their experi-
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distinguishes them from the lowest group, ence. De Barcelona
Whatever the discussion points are,
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
the Triangles. Then, with two groups sup- we have found it crucial for instructors to
porting the abusive power structure, the forestall student criticisms of the simulation
Triangles feel more isolated and powerless. by providing as many examples as possible
of how the phenomena at work in Star
THE DEBRIEFING PROCESS Power simulate reality.

For a class session of only one hour, once LESSONS FROM STAR POWER
the simulation ends (with non-Squares either
sitting passively or openly flouting the new With its broad applicability, Star Power can
rules), the instructor must then move be used appropriately at many different
quickly into the debriefing phase of the ex- junctures in a course. For example, the
ercise. In fact, unless the instructor is able simulation can be used to augment lessons
to conduct the simulation at a brisk pace, on social stratification (whether it be class,
the post-simulation discussion will be race, or gender), groups and organizations,
rushed. In longer classes (e.g., of 90 min- economics and politics, and social interac-
utes), debriefing can be at a more optimal, tion.
leisurely pace. For classes that last less than
one hour, debriefing would need to take Making the Connection
place during the next class session. Al- In the post-simulation discussion, clearly
though debriefing can occur in a class after students are able to see in the context of the
the simulation, it is best if students can im- exercise how those in power maintain their
mediately share their insights while they are position by structuring the system to their
fresh. In addition, the energy level created advantage. They can also understand how
by the simulation contributes to a discussion the structure of this system makes advance-
36 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY
ment for others difficult and that member- Privilege Versus Merit
ship in the rule-making group is based, at As noted above, many students are unable
least in part, on luck. Initially it seems like to see how their social advancement could
the goal has been achieved; the students be due to anything other than their merit.
understand, to some degree, how inequality The following are examples of advantages
can be structured and maintained. Yet our that students commonly overlook in their
experience with the simulation has revealed assessment of the differential impact of luck
that while the students understand these and hard work:
concepts as they apply to the game, they 1. Well-funded public or private schools
have difficulty seeing how these principles (before college).
operate in the real world and in their own 2. Many students subscribe to the appar-
lives. ent wisdom in the phrase “If you
Students are reluctant to admit that there work hard enough, you’ll succeed, no
may be rules structured to give them an matter what the learning or social
unearned advantage in life. For example, conditions.” Yet if the key to success
although in the simulation some Squares is indeed effort, independent of envi-
may feel that they have earned their posi- ronment, the question can be raised
tion (through their superior trading skills), why some parents spend tens of thou-
most of the class (i.e., those in the lower sands of dollars on private schools
groups) attributes the Squares’ position instead of saving this sum by simply
more to luck. Yet outside of the simulation, telling their children to work hard.
it is very difficult for students to recognize 3. Parents, teachers, and/or mentors
the impact of their own family’s social posi- who were able to help them with
tion, which they tend to overlook in favor their homework in an environment
of their personal effort and merit. Delivered by Ingenta to :
conducive to studying.
Universidad
When asked how privilege versus merit Autonoma De Barcelona
4. Exposure to cultural activities that
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
affects their ability to go to college, with provided the “right” kind of learning
very few exceptions our students unwaver- experience.
ingly attribute their current educational po- 5. The ability to pay for college ex-
sition almost solely to their hard work. Stu- penses and/or provide spending
dents are often unable to recognize the im- money during a period in which stu-
pact of advantages they have enjoyed. Stu- dents have limited ability to earn
dents with fewer advantages may ignore the money themselves.
value of having food, warm clothes and 6. Parental and peer expectations of and
shelter, or the benefits of having a teacher encouragement for obtaining a col-
or parent guide them through the college lege degree.
admissions process. Those who come from 7. The knowledge that they will “fit in”
privileged backgrounds may largely dis- to the college’s social environment.
count the effect of growing up in a well- 8. Realistic future aspirations for which
endowed family. They adhere to the notion a college degree is required.
that their position is deserved, without an 9. A pattern of family members graduat-
element of luck. ing from college (which indicates that
To help students connect the outcomes of such an education is simply part of
the simulation exercise to an understanding the educational process, rather than a
of these dynamics in their own lives, it is perhaps untenable goal).
important to provide them with real-world 10. The expectation that a college degree
examples that illustrate the results of the will lead to a fruitful career.
game. The following examples can be used 11. Knowledge about the process re-
to aid this discussion. quired for college entry, especially
without able guidance counselors.
SIMULATING INEQUALITY WITH STAR POWER 37
Without a discussion of these advantages, 1990). Yet if the purpose of such a
students may not understand the importance change is to make doctors better able
of such factors that are not related to their to do their job, recertification should
merit but rather to luck of the draw based have applied to all doctors, especially
on the families they are born into. By dis- the older ones furthest removed from
cussing elected officials with family name modern advances often presented
recognition, students may see the effect of during initial training (Wasserman,
factors other than merit. For example, Kimball, and Duffy 2000).
while President George W. Bush and New 2. Another example of the privileged
York Senator Hillary Clinton may indeed be maintaining their position is redis-
worthy of their political offices, would two tricting, also known as gerrymander-
persons with equal intelligence, drive, tal- ing. Although the practice of drawing
ent, and effort have the same rewards (i.e., district boundaries to ensure the con-
election to office) independent of previously tinued dominance of the party in
existing name recognition and/or wealth? power may be subject to legal chal-
As Star Power indicates, the point is not lenge, it still occurs and shows how
that the underprivileged are incapable of people in power use their influence to
such achievements but rather that equal ef- maintain their control.
fort does not yield an equal payoff. 3. An additional political example in-
volves the exclusion from the presi-
Arbitrary Rule-making: Abuse of Power dential debates of third-party candi-
for Self-Interest dates. The Commission on Presiden-
Although a key advantage of Star Power is tial Debates (CPD), run by Democ-
its demonstration of the unfair manner in ratic and Republican leaders, controls
which power is sometimes wielded, Delivered by Ingenta tothe
the pri- : rules for debate eligibility and
Universidad
mary student complaint is that the simula- Autonoma De Barcelona
debate logistics (Nader 2002). A
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
tion does not reflect reality. A typical re- demonstration of the self-protective
mark is “You can’t really just make up value of seizing control of the com-
whatever rules you want like that.” In fact, mission occurred after Ross Perot
there are numerous real-life examples of was included in the 1992 presidential
arbitrary rules made by those in power to debates because each party thought
benefit themselves at the expense of others. he was going to take votes away from
We include a wide breadth of examples to the other party. Because Perot’s in-
illustrate the broad applicability of the simu- fluence proved to be too much of an
lation’s lessons: unpredictable force, he was excluded
from the debates in 1996, under the
1. From the medical field, we can ex- rule that the candidate must be able to
amine the recent requirement that get 15 percent of the vote (based on
medical doctors retake their rigorous polls). The major parties are allowed
medical boards every 10 years to to operate in this manner, even
ensure that they stay current in their though exclusion of third-party candi-
rapidly changing field. In 1986, after dates in the debates (which provide
nearly 50 years of one-time certifica- candidates with invaluable exposure)
tions, the directors of the American runs counter to what most polled vot-
Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) ers desire and deviates from the Fed-
voted to limit the validity of all future eral Election Commission’s require-
certifications to 10 years. These vot- ment that candidates be able to get
ing board members excluded them- only 5 percent of the vote (not 15%)
selves from this requirement (by ex- to get federal campaign money
empting all those certified before (Nader 2002).
38 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY
4. A final political example involves mission regulation is applicable only
Congress’s restrictions on telemar- if the blackout period lasts more than
keters. Interestingly, Congress ex- three consecutive business days, suf-
empted from these restrictions tele- ficient time for a stock to plunge in
marketers engaged in political fund- value (Associated Press 2003). It is
raising (as well as those soliciting also noteworthy that Enron and its
funds for religious organizations) executives were key political donors
(Jacobs 2002). to both major political parties
5. In the area of crime and law, any (Kadlec 2002).
type of white-collar crime that gener- 8. In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe’s
ally results in comparatively non- fears of not being re-elected in March
punitive consequences can exemplify 2002 resulted in his giving polling
lessons of Star Power. If we consider officials power to reject registered
that two of the key features that make voters at will. He also decreed that
a crime heinous are the degree of the final vote tally would be con-
premeditation and the amount of ducted by government employees
harm inflicted, much white-collar rather than independent counters
crime meets such criteria but results (“MDC Challenges” 2002).
in relatively light sanctions (Simon 9. Any accountant can attest to the mul-
2001). titude of advantages the tax code of-
6. Interestingly, in Thailand it is legal to fers those with financial resources. In
own a house of prostitution but ille- fact, only the well-off can afford the
gal to be a prostitute! It is no accident accountants with the expertise neces-
that the owners of such establish- sary to navigate the morass of laws
ments “are sometimes high-level Delivered
gov- by Ingenta
thattocan
: be used to benefit the rich.
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ernment officials” (Slagter and Kerbo Autonoma De Barcelona
Companies have been known to avoid
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
2000:108). paying taxes, for example, by going
7. In the 2001 Enron debacle that in- to Bermuda to become “incor-
volved the collapse of a major com- porated,” which can lead to paying
pany and the biggest bankruptcy in no taxes (Skelton 2002).
U.S. history, the top executives were 10. Houston-based energy and construc-
able to sell their stock before the em- tion company Halliburton, whose
ployees, many of whom were heavily former CEO was current Vice-
invested in the company’s stock. President Dick Cheney, received a
During a three-week blackout period secretly-awarded, no-bid contract to
enjoining the sale of the stock, many handle damage to Iraq’s oil industry
employees lost most of their retire- after the war in Iraq in 2003. The
ment accounts while company execu- Center for Public Integrity decried
tives—who had caused the fiasco yet this trend characterizing the alloca-
were exempt from the blackout— tion of government contracts, yet the
made hundreds of millions of dollars center’s director, Charles Lewis,
(Yardley 2002). Restricting employ- conceded, “I’m not saying that it’s
ees, but not executives, from selling illegal. These guys wrote the laws.
their stock provides an apt illustration They set up the system for them-
of how the rich protect their interests selves” (“Halliburton” 2003).
at others’ expense. Although reforms
resulting from the Enron debacle now In the above situations, rules were made
also restrict executives from selling by those in power to benefit themselves
stock during blackout periods, the while putting others at a disadvantage. The
new Securities and Exchange Com- ability to create such arbitrary rules helps to
SIMULATING INEQUALITY WITH STAR POWER 39
maintain a system of inequality that pre- nant socioeconomic group” (p. 5). Here,
serves the status of the wealthy and power- instructors can raise questions about the
ful. development of false consciousness and the
purpose and implication of accepting a few
Maintaining the System members of the lower groups into the elite
Not only are rules made to primarily benefit group but still maintaining exclusivity.
those who make them, but it is also impor- Closing ranks among the elite. Another
tant for those rules and the resulting ine- way that the system is maintained is through
quality to be supported and maintained by an esprit de corps that develops among
all who participate in the social system. members of the top group, partly in recog-
This can be accomplished by fostering soli- nition that those in the lower groups out-
darity among the elite as well as convincing number them; members usually look out for
those of the lower ranks that the system is each other. For example, during one simu-
fair. lation, a student in the lowest group asked
Forgetting one’s “roots.” During the Star (somewhat facetiously) if he would be al-
Power game, the thrill of fighting one’s way lowed to date a woman in the highest
to the top can quickly overcome any earlier group. The reaction from the Squares was
sense of outrage about unfairness. The swift and certain: No! This phenomenon is
newly promoted get caught up in the subcul- analogous to members of the upper class
ture of the powerful, where they are either using connections to secure employment or
quickly corrupted or unwilling to oppose holding exclusive social gatherings (e.g.
those who are. Those who were previously cotillions) to perpetuate associations as well
disadvantaged either make no attempt to as marriage within their own social class.
protect the interests of their former group Status symbols. Through the use of the
Delivered
members or allow their weak efforts by Ingenta
to fall to :Star Power also touches on the im-
badges,
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on deaf ears. This reveals the difficulty of portance of status symbols. Students who
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
countering in any way the modus operandi are demoted from the Square group and
of their new peers and changing the struc- must relinquish the accompanying badge
ture of the unequal system. sometimes feel humiliated. In addition, of-
This tendency to want to blend into an ten after the simulation, the Squares reluc-
improved social level seems to always occur tantly remove their badges while those in
during Star Power. In fact, we have never lower groups eagerly doff them. Students
seen a promoted person ever actively advo- who are Triangles seem disheartened by
cate on the former group’s behalf. During their lowly status and sometimes joke to
the debriefing period, the promoted students relieve the tension surrounding this embar-
who are least comfortable with the corrup- rassment. Discussion can include the way
tion of the ruling group that they have the hierarchy is maintained by those with
joined often defend their inaction by point- resources devising analogous “badges” of
ing out that they did not participate in mak- status such as designer clothes, luxury cars,
ing the unfair rules or had suggested moder- lion statues placed out in front of a house,
ating inequitable rules. Yet their efforts and expensive jewelry.
seem to be half-hearted and ineffectual. The impact of the badges can also be re-
This phenomenon is applicable to some up- lated to racial prejudice. In many ways,
wardly mobile groups who are seen as turn- students generally seem more open to les-
ing their back on their roots as they con- sons about social class inequality than race
form to the world of privilege. This aspect inequality, perhaps in part because most of
of Star Power is useful for illustrating Dom- our students are white students, at least
hoff’s (1967) notion of co-optation where some of whom can relate to economic diffi-
“individuals are assimilated and committed culty. It is interesting to note how after the
to the institutions and values of the domi- simulation students readily criticize the un-
40 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY
fair privilege of the ruling class while they the exercise especially thought provoking,
often refuse to concede the game’s applica- enlightening, mind broadening, and/or fun.
bility to race since such an analogy places They also commonly refer to it in various
them in the role of unwitting oppressor. It is class discussions and in multiple courses.
also difficult for them to acknowledge that In general, students seemed to have
they may benefit from the system them- gained an appreciation for structural limita-
selves (likely without doing anything to tions on mobility in the lower class. Below
deserve it). We see this phenomenon at are excerpts from the final examinations
work in discussion as soon as the undeserv- (May 2003) of six white students taking
ing group shifts from representing the cor- Introductory Sociology:
rupt upper class to whites in power. Even
worse, this point suggests that by passively [Male 1] People may initially try to work their
allowing such advantage to continue they way out of poverty, etc., but when they see
rules, laws and opportunities are biased and
share some of the blame for those who un-
made to keep them from being successful, they
fairly suffer in the bottom strata of society. may give up. Some people become frustrated
and feel that those in power want them to stay
The Possibility of Inequality Leading to in poverty. Some accept this and may turn to
Surrender or Rebellion drugs, crime, and alcoholism or may just
With the rules of the system so skewed to merely exist to cope with it.
benefit those with privilege, those without it
[Male 2] In real life, many lower-class people
may respond by either rejecting the rules or
don’t seek to reach a higher economic status
giving up altogether. These two common because they feel that they are handicapped or
reactions are excellent vehicles for discuss- will have to work too hard to overcome the
ing causes of chronic unemployment and disadvantages. In our class, the higher class
crime. Some of those who stop looking Delivered
for by Ingenta
counteredto the
: lower class’s outrage by show-
Universidad
work may feel that the rules are so unfair Autonoma
ing De
thatBarcelona
two people from the lower class
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
“made it” and escaped the lower class. Also,
that they believe there is no chance for them
to ever truly succeed. Others are more the rich were given the best opportunity in the
beginning to gain more wealth, by having the
likely to react with rebellion than defeatism,
greatest potential of drawing out a “gold”
some feeling that because the rules are so token. A modern example is that the higher
unreasonable violating them is justified. class has more opportunities such as better
Discussion of this topic might include stu- educational programs to help them achieve a
dents’ likely reactions to someone who re- greater source of wealth as compared to lower
fuses to fight in a war, those who engage in classes.
underage drinking or marijuana use, and
[Female 1] Star Power illuminated the differ-
those whose prison sentences reflect the
ences between the upper and lower classes.
cocaine/crack disparity in sentencing. People in power make the rules. As evidenced
by the highest group, they made all the rules
STUDENT APPLICATION OF THE but were unwilling to hear suggestions from
LESSONS FROM STAR POWER anyone lower than them. They became greedy
with their power. Also, the lower classes can
In our experience, Star Power has been move up, but it is very difficult. The one
continuously cited in student evaluations lower-class member who did make it to the
higher group only did so because others chose
filled out well after the completion of the
to give him the resources to do so. It was
course in which the simulation is conducted. much harder for anyone else. Finally, those
Students are asked which topics they re- who are in power blame the lower classes’
member (without the provision of a list of inability to move up. They think that there is
areas covered) and then requested to com- no reason why they shouldn’t be able to ad-
ment on those topics they recall. About one vance: others have done it in the past, so
third of students volunteer that they found there’s no reason they can’t as well.
SIMULATING INEQUALITY WITH STAR POWER 41
[Female 2] Once you are in the lower class, it mobility was hard, inevitably gave up their
is very hard to move up. When the upper class fight to make it out. It seemed that the major-
had the right to make rules, they made rules to ity of these lower classes lacked the drive and
benefit themselves, overlooking the middle dedication to obtain a higher status (this was
and lower classes. I felt that since I was in the the case for myself). After a certain point, I
lower class, I would never get out and the felt that my attempts were helpless and there
upper class would keep getting richer, while I was nothing I could do to change this.
stayed the same.... Since the media depicts
many successful African Americans, we don’t A short, thought-provoking autobio-
see the real struggles of what they go through. graphical book that students enjoy and that
helps to reinforce the lessons of Star Power
[Female 3] How people get to the top of our
society is based (in most cases) on luck and
is Out of the Madness: From the Projects to
what one is born into. We could use a little a Life of Hope (Ladd 1994). This book was
strategy, but for the most part it was luck that recommended to one of the authors during a
got us into the groups. Once people find them- field trip to a maximum-security prison.
selves in the lower class, it is very difficult to During a student-inmate group discussion,
work their way out. In the game, all the mem- several inmates serving long sentences sug-
bers of the lower-class group had to make gested that the instructor use Ladd’s (1994)
sacrifices (not to take those bonus tokens) to book to effectively communicate the role of
help two of our members rise to the top. With-
structural inequality in shaping the obstacles
out all of our help, they would not have made
it out. We actually saw the gap between us and
they faced as lower-, rather than middle-
the other groups continue to widen. With their class African Americans. Students were
power, the upper class made different rules, so asked on the final exam (May 2003)
that they would stay on top and the lower whether or not the lessons from Star Power
classes had no way of working our way up. related to Ladd’s book. Below are some of
This is the point in the game whereDelivered by Ingenta to :
the lower
groups gave up!
Universidad Autonomatheir responses:
De Barcelona
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
[Female A] When trying to hold down a job,
[Male 3] Social mobility, or the ability to Jerrold realized that no matter how hard he
change class status, was harder than expected. worked people could fire him for their own
However, being in the lower group allowed personal reasons. They made the rules and
me to witness the idea of this mobility. Collec- controlled his life. The lower classes can move
tively, it was our goal to support at least one up, but it’s difficult. Jerrold’s white friend
person during the bonus round and propel him Alex tried to help him but shrugged it off
to the higher ranks, thinking that once there when prejudice held Jerrold back. He blamed
they would remember their “roots” and aid us Jerrold for not being cut out for the work,
also. However, this was not the case. The when the truth was quite the opposite.
individuals who propelled to the top forgot Jerrold’s story proves how the lessons of Star
their origins and instead worried about main- Power work in a disadvantaged person’s life.
taining their newly acquired status.
[Female B] There were many occasions when
The top group became corrupt when it came Jerrold landed a job, was working hard and
time to make rules of the game. They did not impressively, and then was fired as soon as
want to listen to suggestions from the lower there were signs of him gaining any kind of
two classes (except for ending the game) and confidence or power. The upper, white class
instead developed rules that would maintain had the power and would keep the power, to
their status and increase the gap between the not let anyone of the lower minority class up
social elite and the poor. It is hard to get your to their group to threaten their POWER!
voice heard if you do not have the means
(money, etc.) to do so. This is something that [Male A] Alex helped Jerrold get out of the
was observed in the game. projects because he was rich and had connec-
tions. In Star Power, the only way to move up
The lower groups, once they realized that was through the help of the upper class.
42 TEACHING SOCIOLOGY
We have found that students often refer to especially if the concept of interdependency
what they learned from this simulation dur- is discussed. Alternatively, to increase co-
ing the semester and often beyond (when a operation, instructors also could write sta-
student takes another class with us). The tistics on the board that show the wealth
simulation succeeds in promoting a deeper distribution in the United States and add the
understanding of structural inequality than distribution reached at different stages of
standard lectures. Yet instructors should be the simulation, providing students with a
aware that students may be skeptical about basis for comparison of inequality in the
the generalizability of the simulation, and game versus reality that in turn could possi-
others may be disheartened by what seems bly prompt them to consider how the distri-
to be the inevitability of the abuse of power. bution of wealth affects long-term societal
(and simulation) functioning.
CONCLUSION Instructors who wish to facilitate students
taking what they have learned from Star
Through the simulation game Star Power, Power to the real world could benefit from
students gain a sense of how those in the a classroom assessment technique delineated
bottom tiers of society can become frus- by Angelo and Cross (1993:38-9) that can
trated and angry by both the perception and be applied to Star Power. Students can con-
the reality that upward mobility is difficult duct interviews of individuals who may be-
for most. The simulation, along with effec- lieve that rules designed to maintain the
tive discussion, helps dispel the commonly power structure have personally affected
held notion that anyone can achieve the them. Students can also generate hypotheti-
American Dream by simply trying hard cal examples of how this phenomenon could
enough. By becoming more aware of struc- affect their own lives. Using a pre-post test,
tural inequalities, students realize Delivered
that for byinstructors
Ingenta to can: then assess the extent to
Universidad Autonoma De Barcelona
the lower classes to join the most powerful which students can connect classroom activ-
Tue, 27 Feb 2007 17:11:13
in society, they must triumph over a system ity to real life.
in which those in power make rules that Star Power serves as a valuable pedagogi-
protect their own interests, usually at some- cal tool for instructors who seek a memora-
one else’s expense. When at times some ble means to facilitate students’ discovery of
students call the chips “money,” they are the frustrations inherent in structural social
showing that they unconsciously realize that inequality and the corruptive nature of
the power of chips translates into what power. The value of the simulation in-
money can buy. Gender patterns also creases if instructors can elicit and contrib-
emerge in that men in all groups usually ute examples of how the phenomena in Star
take on the dominant roles of leadership, or Power exist in various realms in the real
rule making, in the Squares group. world. Students will gain an understanding
Instructors who use Star Power may wish of how social rather than personal factors
to explore why the simulation is so effective operate to make “the rich get richer and the
in eliciting corruption by experimenting poor get poorer.”
with variations that prompt greater fairness.
This would help promote understanding of REFERENCES
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