THE WHARTON STARTUP GAME
At Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, assistant professor of management Ethan Mollick is beginning to create a buzz with his newly developed “Startup Game.” Open to 20 to 86 MBA candidates, the course is used as either an introduction or capstone to any entrepreneurship class at Wharton. Mollick, who has been designing simulations and games for the U.S. Department of Defense since the early 2000s, says he designed the course with the help of designers from trading card game Magic: The Gathering.
Students participate in various startup roles from founder to investor to potential early employees, and according to the class description, are scored on measures of startup success such as “the interaction between hiring and strategy, the trade-off between control and wealth, the skills needed to run a company, and the valuations that startups receive.”
EXPERIMENTING WITH ALTERNATE-REALITY TEACHING
This past semester, Mollick took things a step further and introduced a course based on Alternate Reality Games.”The idea is, how do we give somebody a real experience, rather than a simulation, that abstracts out what it’s like to be in a startup?” Mollick explains, adding he’s calling the idea Alternate Reality Teaching (ART).
To do this, Mollick and his team have built out an entire online fake world. Students remain anonymous to each other but interact in the alternate reality.
“They are on teams, but they never meet their teammates,” explains Mollick. “They don’t know who they are, and they can pick their own identity, which gives them a safe way to experiment with different leadership styles, which is another thing that’s tough to do in a class setting. They can try being forceful, they can try being passive.”
Mollick has created everything from fake Gmail accounts to fake chat systems and fake pile structures. “We’ve had elaborate technologies developed that we’ve made up for this simulation,” Mollick adds.
Students actually interact within and with other teams over multiple weeks, as they focus on running a startup that’s been around from about six months to two years. They are contacted by a set of five “game masters” that Mollick has enlisted and trained. The game masters drive the game and pose as lawyers, employees, and other key players, and interact through the alternate reality email interface. “The experiences they deal with in the game is what they deal with in actual startups,” Mollick says. “We actually have someone from the Mindy Project (TV show) acting as a character in the game.”
TAKING ENTREPRENEURIAL INSTRUCTING TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Mollick believes getting business students out of the comfort they’re used to is one of the most important aspects of ART.
“When you think about people who thrive in top MBA programs, they often have done very well in structured environments,” Mollick explains. “That’s not always true, but for a lot of them, they’ve succeeded in school and in work. Startups are all about unstructured environments with no clear direction. Part of what I really want to do is put people in situations where they have to navigate uncertainty and confusion and chaos and things like that.”
He also views it as a natural evolution teaching entrepreneurship.
“We’ve gotten really good at startup classes and teaching people how to come up with an idea and how to test it–so, the first two months of a startup process,” Mollick claims. “Part of the goal here was, how do we accelerate that so that we’re giving them the experience of living through months six through 18 of a startup, where it’s more likely to fall apart?”
THE SAFETY OF THE SIMULATION
The other value Mollick sees in an alternate reality and simulation games in general is similar to what Sterman identifies–the safety of learning from failure. “You can let people make one big mistake in a safe environment and learn from it, which is hard to do in the startup world,” explains Mollick.
In a similar – but not alternate-reality – game at Sloan, called CleanStart, participants can go all the way from bankrupting a venture in a year or so–burning through $1 million in VC funding along the way–or having enough success to ask for more VC dough or go public. The simulation, which was developed by Sloan doctoral student and founder of Clean Energy Venture Group, David Miller, encompasses seemingly every facet and decision of running an early-stage venture.
“It’s not intended to be predictive,” Sterman says. “Instead, it’s to help people get some experience and run experiments to try to think about what are good strategies to bootstrap this company.” A value of CleanStart, Sterman explains, is being able to run the business, sometimes as far as 10 years out, over and over.
“Games and simulations is one of the really interesting frontiers of education because there are a lot of simulations that are not that fun, so how do we use games to make things fun and engaging,” Mollick says. “And how do we get people more chances to experience things? Cases are one way to do that. But how do we create other frontiers for people to learn?”