Updating a Classic

Every time Disney Imagineers update a classic attraction they get a ton of blowback from fans. When they added Disney film characters to the cast of doll children on It's a Small World for example, some fans called it a betrayal of Walt Disney's original vision. Some Imagineers reportedly even received death threats. Of course, when they saw it, fans loved it. Spotting those Disney characters in the attraction is now the most enjoyable part of the ride for most guests. They don't stand out. They blend right in with the ride and improve the experience.

You also have attractions like Snow White's Enchanted Wish which was previously Snow White's Scary Adventure, or more accurately Snow White and the Worst Ride in Disneyland, which are completely overhauled. Even as bad as that ride was (and it was really bad), some fans protested the announced updates. The Haunted Mansion, when first turned into Haunted Mansion Holiday, was a joke to most. At the time, The Nightmare Before Christmas (the theme of the overhaul) was a little-known film from deep in the Disney catalogue. Now, the holiday overhaul of the ride leads to nearly double the wait times for the ride as guests crowd in to see the changes. 

I can't imagine Space Mountain without it's rocking soundtrack (though it existed for it's first 15 years without it) or Pirates of the Caribbean without Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow (30+ years without him!) Both were obviously great, true classics, before the updates, but now are just more classic. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, but we shouldn't let it stop us from making things better, even if they are classics.

So, with that in mind, today I decided to update a classic. Perhaps the most classic lesson in economics is A Market in Wheat. I remember doing it when I was in high school 25+ years ago. It is a simulation of a market where students draw buy and sell cards then negotiate to attempt to earn the most profit. It allows students to experience the somewhat counter-intuitive idea that buyers and sellers work together to determine prices. It's fun and it's deep. It's a classic for a reason!\

A Market In Wheat

Buy and Sell Cards     I      Score Sheet

When I started teaching econ a few years ago, I knew I had to do it. I made some updates to it right then by adding a technology component. I created a spreadsheet to expedite the profit calculations students do throughout the game. (Adding new technology is the most common "plussing" Imagineers do as well, such as when they updated Star Tours to 4k resolution.) I really didn't change much else. I shortened the experience a bit to fit my period length, but otherwise I left the classic mostly untouched.

Today, on my 6th round of running the lesson (times 5 periods, so 30 total plays of the game!) I made a couple of additions. I didn't alert anyone ahead of time so there were no protests or death threats, but it still felt a big sacrilegious! The first change was simple. I played John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" during the market sessions. Shockingly, there really aren't any songs out there about wheat, so farming would have to do. It added a fun, silly energy to that segment. 

The next change was more significant. I noticed in one of my periods that the sellers were getting outplayed by the buyers. The whole point of this lesson is that this shouldn't happen in a free market. It can because of a lack of understanding by the students and, more importantly, by the small number of buyers and sellers in the game. So, as they were repeatedly selling for prices that were too low, I had an idea. I called all the sellers over to my desk and said, "Okay, the buyers are kinda destroying you right now. I have an idea. Let's make a pact that none of you will accept less than $10 for your product." $10 is the maximum value in the game, so, if they all agreed to that, the idea is that they'd maximize their profits overall. They loved the idea. Whether or not they had wheat that they had purchased for $2 or $7, they felt by sticking to $10 they'd "win" over the buyers.

So, they headed back to the market and demanded their $10. Immediately, not surprisingly of course, the market ground to a halt. No trades were completed. (Buyers cannot earn a profit at $10 in the game.) This lasted about 60 seconds before I heard a seller, very quietly, offer to sell to a buyer for $9. Then another for $7. When they first came up to report their sale I said to him, "You broke the pact!" He said, "Yeah... but I still made a profit!"

I repeated the addition with the next class and the exact same thing happened.

Bingo! It worked!

This little addition to the classic helped students really see that price-setting just doesn't happen (or work) in a competitive market. Someone is going to break. Some seller is going to realize that some profit at a low sale price is better than no profit at a high sale price. 

I feel like this small change to a classic made a big difference. This doesn't mean the classic was bad in any way. It was great! That doesn't mean it can't be better. I feel my students came out of the lesson with a much stronger grasp of the basic principles I wanted them to carry out of the game.

What classic lesson have you settled on as perfect that could use a minor update?