Teaching Startups With A Game

By Ethan Mollick, Edward B. and Shirley R. Shils Assistant Professor of Management at The Wharton School

I think that games have tremendous power in the business world –both for teaching and for thinking about how to motivate people (I even wrote a book about this). As someone who studies and teaches about startups, I decided to put these beliefs into action and figure out how to use a game to teach entrepreneurship.

Startup Game screen - FB

Creating a game is different than creating a simulation.  Simulations are great teaching tools, but simulations often have the “right” answer built into their models.  As a result, whether consciously or unconsciously, people experiencing the simulations often learn more about how to exploit the model than about the underlying situation.  Also, games are fun! Fun is usually secondary in teaching simulations, resulting in what is sometimes called “chocolate covered broccoli” – teaching simulations that are essentially boring, but which are given the veneer of fun by adding contests, competition, or other elements as afterthoughts. I wanted this to be chocolate, hold the broccoli.

So, I wanted to create something fun and educational, and also something that included the latest research on how entrepreneurs succeed.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this turned out to be rather hard, even with the help of the game designers at Stone Blade and the Wharton Learning Lab.  It involved creating something that was fun to play in groups ranging from 20 to 84 people, and in which every player had their own goals and chance to win.

What we ultimately developed was The Startup Game, which we have run with over 2,000 students at Wharton and which is now being used all over the world.  In it, we focus on the very earliest days of the life of a startup.  The initial choices startups make have long-term consequences, often affecting a company for the rest of its existence. Unfortunately for most startups, the early days of its existence are also the most confused and difficult, making it hard to plan strategically when a new company is just trying to survive.  For students to experience this for themselves, we created a game where each player is given the role of a founder, a funder, or a key employee. The goal of each is to be a part of a successful business by acquiring the right set of funding and talent.

While I can’t give away the details here (spoilers can apply to games as well as movies!), the nature of the complicated choices that players make can have unforeseen consequences in the long run. The Startup Game incorporates a number of the key factors that affect the early days of startups, and examines them from the perspectives of each of the players’ roles.

The feedback so far has suggested that we have managed to keep our broccoli and chocolate separate, creating something fun to play but also educational.  More importantly, the Startup Game is just one part of how Wharton in general, and Wharton’s Entrepreneurship Group in particular, is thinking about how to ensure that our classes evolve even as entrepreneurship does!

Mollick photoBio: Ethan Mollick is the Edward B. and Shirley R. Shils Assistant Professor of Management at The Wharton School. He studies innovation and entrepreneurship, and the ways in which an individual’s actions can affect firms and industries. His research includes early-stage entrepreneurship and crowdfunding; the way in which communities of users come together to innovate; and the factors that drive the performance of entrepreneurial companies. He has published papers in leading academic journals, and he was among the 100 most downloaded authors (out of over 230,000) on the Social Science Research Network and was named one of the “40 Most Outstanding Business School Professors Under 40.”

2 comments on “Teaching Startups With A Game

  1. It would be good to somehow collect information on the participants and how they fared as against the average start-up that did not first play the game before setting up shop. (Would certainly require a lot of funding, but worthwhile seeing the majority of start-ups fold within the first two to five years.) And if then there could be a feed-back loop whereby actual entrepreneurs could supply data and experiences on various real-life scenarios they encountered this could eventually double up as a kind of “expert system” on founding new enterprises.

  2. This sounds like a great idea. I love the “chocolate covered broccoli” phrase too! I think anything that makes people feel more involved and like they are having fun whilst learning will benefit them greatly, and make it a much more enjoyable experience. I believe that making things interactive, like this, makes things easier to learn and remember, without realising you are doing so. I’d love to hear more feedback about how this is working and what people think.

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