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Voted Off The Island At Berkeley Haas

John Morgan in front of this semester's Game Theory course at Berkeley-Haas. Photo courtesy of Berkeley-Haas

John Morgan in front of this semester’s Game Theory course at Berkeley-Haas. Photo courtesy of Berkeley-Haas

A John Coltrane ditty bounces out of a classroom in Cheit Hall at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business. Scattered across the room are a bunch of 20-somethings dressed for the occasion of semester-ending finals. John Morgan paces the front of the room as stragglers filter through the doors.

“Real money being played for,” Morgan reminds the classroom of MBA candidates. Thin and middle-aged, his stature doesn’t even begin to match the passion and excitement pouring out with his words. He flips through crisp $100 bills as he re-introduces the class to the three final teams to compete for “Sole Survivor: Game Theory,” Morgan’s new spin on his traditional Game Theory course, which he’s been teaching for more than a decade. The final three teams are competing for cold, hard cash in addition to classroom bragging rights.

In the fall of 2014, at the advice of his 11-year-old son, Morgan experimented with a “Survivor” version of the course, based on the highly popular CBS reality show. This semester, he’s perfected it. And the students love it. The course works like a game within a game. Some 65 students were broken into 14 teams and divided into two “houses.” Each week the teams competed in some sort of game and the winning team’s house was immune from the vote to banish a team from the house. The other house, however, met at a “tribal council” meeting later in the week to vote out one team.


Among other strategy lessons, Morgan uses the Survivor format to drive home the importance of being able to apply empathy in business. “The No. 1 way I want your behavior to change is empathy,” Morgan said toward the end of the class. “It is the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes. Thinking about it from the other side. Listening and relating to the other person.”

The goal, Morgan said, was to develop students’ “outward thinking” – knowing others and then trying to predict their moves, which leads to innovation. “People will say, ‘My God, how is this person a genius?’ But it’s just that you’re seeing the world through outward thinking and able to see the innovation,” he explained, adding that “empathy means finding values from others besides the bottom line.”

And to empathize, Morgan says, you have to learn by doing.

“You don’t really learn how to empathize by having some professor tell you about the need to empathize,” Morgan said in an article about the course published on the Haas website. “It’s like a reading a self-help book. It doesn’t work. You actually have to do it.”


Of course using games as a way to develop certain skills in a business classroom is nothing new. Jay Forrester fathered system dynamics in 1956 at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, ushering in the use of simulations in a classroom. The concept has extended past B-school walls into companies, government, and other areas of education. The first model built by Forrester was a model of the General Electric supply chain, creating supply chain management. Later that decade, they converted the simulation into a board game, dubbing it the “Beer Distribution Game,” which is still played widely around the world.