Gamified Geopolitics and the Fantasy Sports Model

How a social studies teacher made a fantasy come true – students engaging with current events and playing geopolitics as a fantasy sport! We take a look at the social learning game Fantasy Geopolitics.

Time and again, various surveys find widespread geographic illiteracy, especially in the United States, and getting even a flicker of interest in foreign policy and international events from teenage students is a daunting task for teachers. Meanwhile, video and mobile games are more popular than ever and the past decade has been marked by the explosion of Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) and their rapid ascension to a multi-billion dollar industry.

“Daily fantasy sports for cash” and “every fan should be sportsrich”*

A fantasy sport is essentially a game where participants assemble virtual teams of real players and earn points based on actual performance statistics over a chosen period of time.

It was the Internet that made it possible for the ‘fantasy’ to escalate into a mass ‘sport’, with millions of online players excited by the prospect of quick wins and thrills. DFS are opposed by many as an addictive form of illegal gambling, while the two major providers (FanDuel and DraftKings) insist the product is ‘all about entertainment value’ and ‘making sports more exciting’ (Frontline documentary, The Fantasy Sports Gamble).

Whether or not you agree that ‘Daily Fantasy Sports Industry Turns Fans Into Suckers’ (The New York Times Magazine, Jan 6, 2016), there is no denying that it has taken fan engagement to a whole new level, including a huge surge in sports news interest and painstaking analysis of loads of sports data and statistics by passionate DFS players. But long before the rise of DFS, sports fans enjoyed using and testing their knowledge and knew the pleasure of having one’s informed predictions confirmed.  What if at least some of the power of fantasy sports mechanics could be harnessed for education? GEOPOLITICS aka fantasy geopolitics YouTube


Turning students into fans of learning

This is exactly what a high-school social studies teacher from Minnesota set out to do back in 2009. Frustrated by his students’ lack of interest and himself passionate about Fantasy Football,  Eric Nelson decided to try a playful way of getting his ninth-graders’ attention.

In a semester-long contest, civics class students were invited to do research and pick countries likely to make the news. They scored points based on mentions in the New York Times. Nelson created a Hall of Fame and the winner got a T-shirt that read “Kickin’ Djibouti” as a joking reference to some of the more obscure countries students learned to pinpoint on a map.

“This sort of made my students the teachers. Once we kicked off the game and they got into it, they were sort of coming into my classroom saying, ‘Hey Nelson, have you heard about what’s happening in Syria?’ and telling their classmates about these things too. It became a different kind of experience, and I became a little obsolete by choice, which I loved.” (Teaching Geopolitics: Fantasy Football as a Learning Game)

Encouraged by students’ positive response, in 2014 Eric Nelson proceeded with a successful Kickstarter campaign and developed FanSchool with the mission to provide teachers with a social learning game platform that helps “turn students into fans of learning”. The website now offers an Election Challenge game in addition to FanGeopolitics.



How does it work?

FanSchool offers various pricing schemes, ranging from the free Rookie plan (for up to 5 players) to All-Star ($499/12 months) for up to 6 commissioners and unlimited number of players.

A teacher/commissioner signs up and creates a league, specifying start and end dates and number of countries per student. Players are invited by email or can be given a ‘league token’ used to join after login.

Teacher runs draft rounds using an interactive draft map – students just click a country on the map to select one for their team.  They can also trade countries in the course of the campaign.

The league dashboard includes a ranking of top 5 countries in the news for the past 7 days, player leaderboard, a message board, and a trading widget.

The website includes an extensive list of resources for research and preparation for the draft and for trading during the game.

Exemplary exercise in gamification design

The creation and evolution of the game is an exemplary exercise in gamification design, incorporating essential steps in building a meaningful gamified system:

  • Identify the behavior you want to change: poor knowledge of world geography, lack of interest in foreign policy and international news.
  • Choose the right game mechanics: the tried and tested fantasy sports model.
  • Implement feedback loops and transparent scoring system: the NYT open API provided the perfect tool to track mentions of countries and keep score.
  • Harness competition to foster the desired behavior change:

“Now, they playfully trash talk about their countries and become fans of those countries, which spurs them to want to learn more. It’s almost like they are trash talking each other into learning more.” (How a High School Teacher Is ‘Gamifying’ World News)

  • Sustain engagement by promoting a sense of ownership and be ready to implement user suggested modifications/improvements:

“My students started asking to do more with [the game]. They wanted to make trades, form alliances and so I just started listening,” says Nelson. “Whatever they wanted to do to control their own learning experience, I did it.” (How a High School Teacher Is ‘Gamifying’ World News)

Eric Nelson’s Fantasy Geopolitics game was developed from the ground up and grew with student interest and input. As it began to achieve positive results; it naturally evolved from a Google spreadsheet, through a successful Kickstarter campaign, to a gamified online platform with customizable functionalities and a growing portfolio of games.     

While it remains limited in scope to American teachers and students, and the design can no doubt be improved both visually and functionally, this project will likely inspire more game developers to explore new applications for the fantasy sports model  in eLearning. Thought leaders and scientists in various fields, or the next medical, technological or scientific breakthroughs – who knows what students may be ‘drafting’ next!..


*Slogans used by the two DFS market leaders: DraftKings and FanDuel

Featured image: Serio-Comic War Map For The Year 1877 by Fred W. Rose,

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