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When college students reinvent the world

Kansas State University professor Michael Wesch’s ‘World Sim’ course – aka Anthropology 204 – helps students create new ‘cultures’ to get beyond the multiple choices to understanding the ‘why’ of global affairs.

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Nowhere is it clearer how personally some people take the game than when the “genocided” Bagheera and Phanat Nikhom have to spread out to remote parts of the arena to represent the death of their cultures. The video shows in slow motion the looks of shock and despair on their faces.

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“They genuinely felt mad, depressed, and sad.... It wasn’t acting anymore,” says Frankie Morales, the teaching assistant for Phanat Nikhom. Later, he says, they discussed how the experience prompted them to care more deeply about real genocide than a Holocaust movie ever could.

“When you learn by doing – like in the World Sim – you can come across these profound discoveries that you just couldn’t get in a lecture,” says Nick Timmons, another teaching assistant.

The Evanaves planned to be peaceful colonizers, but they killed someone who refused to work for them. “When it was declared that we killed someone, we were just laughing,” says Vishrut Patel a student who arrived in the US from India in the fall. “It gives you a sense of how the colonizers feel,” he says of his group’s cavalier attitude.
A number of his Midwestern classmates say the course has given them an understanding of cultural differences and globalization – insights they expect to carry into career fields such as healthcare, engineering, and social work.

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Wesch caught the spirit of anthropology before he knew the word. As a kid in Nebraska, he heard a news piece about a dangerous neighborhood, and a relative commented, “Why would anybody live there?” “I had this revelation that everywhere there’s joy and sadness,” Wesch recalls, “and from that moment I had this desire to go experience the richness of life in all its different forms.”

A scholarship slung him to Los Angeles, where he studied for two years at the University of Southern California and, in his free time, rollerbladed “into the middle of places you’re not supposed to go” to listen to people’s stories. He boomeranged back in 1995 to finish at Kansas State, intending to become a high school teacher – until his first day in a course on anthropology (a word he looked up in the dictionary just before class).
Wesch became a teaching assistant for Harald Prins, now coordinator of the anthropology program. “He was really unusual, unorthodox, and very, very good,” Professor Prins says. Wesch would bring in samples of music from all over the world and take a few minutes to teach a ritual dance.

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