Aliens Teach University Economics Class

Saturday, October 21st, 2006

Aliens Teach University Economics Class, or rather, a video game featuring aliens who crash-land on a post-apocalyptic earth is being used to teach ECON 201 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro:

The Sarbonian aliens are named after economics professor Jeff Sarbaum.

“This is a game in which the students are literally immersed in a story. And they take on the role of a character,” he explains. “So all of the reading material, all of the content, all of the examinations and homework, if you will, are built inside the engine of the game.”

The Sarbonians come from an alien world that knows no scarcity. After they crash-land on Earth, the students have to grapple with economic challenges like how to make and distribute goods, and how to trade with another group of aliens.

Sarbaum says that professors often use simple classroom games to teach economic concepts. But the Sarbonians take that to a new level.

“I believe we are the first ones to fully emerge students in a narrative story and treat the whole course as a game,” Sarbaum says.

Creating the course was a two-year effort that involved dozens of people, from drama students to computer programmers.

Many popular computer games like Civilization and SimCity contain challenges that are economic in nature. But Sarbaum says it’s hard to use these games to teach economics, because they don’t explicitly explain economic theories to the players.

“What we need to do is explain to them exactly what it is they are experiencing,” Sarbaum says. “You know, ‘This is what you are experiencing, and this is how an economist would describe the situation.’”

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