Author:  Lori Alden

Audience:  High school and college economics students

Time required:  About 50-60 minutes, not counting the follow-up discussion.  The game can be played over two class periods.

NCEE Standards:  1, 3, 13, 16

Summary:  This income distribution game is based on a thought experiment suggested by philosopher John Rawls.  Rawls asks us to imagine that members of a society are completely unaware of their endowments and place in society, a state he calls the “original position.”  While in such a state, people do not know if they will gain or lose from policies that promote equality.  According to Rawls, the social contract that would emerge from this process would be impartial and fair, and therefore ethical. 


The Distributive Justice Game asks introductory economics students to draft a social contract while in a state that roughly mimics Rawls’ original position.  I begin the game by limiting the amount of chairs, time, pencils, and textbooks that the class will be able to use during an upcoming quiz.  I announce that I intend to allocate these resources among the students according to such attributes as sex, race, and wealth.   I then divide the students into groups and invite them, if they wish, to redistribute these resources among themselves. 

There’s a catch, though.   To give the game a Rawlsian twist, I announce that I will not allocate the quiz-taking resources according to the students’ existing attributes; instead, all students will be “reborn” just before the quiz and given new identities.  Unsure of whether their new attributes will entitle them to a fair share of the quiz-taking resources, students often strive to redistribute them as equally as possible, even at the expense of efficiency.


Step 1  (five minutes):   Begin the game by announcing that students can earn extra credit by getting correct answers on a twenty-question multiple-choice quiz.   Explain that you will give the class a limited amount of time, textbooks, chairs, and pencils to use during the quiz.   Since not enough of these resources will be available for everyone to take the quiz comfortably, say that you will allocate them as follows:  Males will get to sit in chairs, females will have to sit on the floor.  Anglo students will get fifteen minutes each to take the quiz, Hispanic students will get ten, and African-American students will get five.  The wealthiest students will be able to consult their textbooks; the poorest students will need to “buy” pencils from you for twenty quiz-taking minutes each.

Explain that this allocation can be changed--students will have an opportunity to redistribute the time, chairs, and textbooks among themselves. However, warn that all students will be “reborn” just prior to the quiz, and that you will randomly assign them new identities.

Step 2 (twenty minutes):  Divide the students as evenly as possible into groups of about ten.   Have each group select a group name and elect a chair.   Distribute the handout Allocating Resources for the Quiz (see Appendix A below) to each student.   Go over the handout with the class, then give the groups about twenty minutes to redistribute (if they wish) the quiz-taking resources.  Have each group draft a “social contract” describing any redistribution of resources from the proposed allocation.

Step 3 (ten minutes):   Have students in each group draw slips of paper which give them new identities (see Appendix B below).   Have them note on their handout how they will take the quiz given their new attributes and their group’s social contract.   Collect the handouts and write on the board the different amounts of time that students have to take the quiz (e.g.,  8 minutes, 9.5 minutes).

Step 4  (fifteen minutes):  Distribute the quizzes face down.   Instruct students to stop work and turn in their quizzes when their allotted times have expired. When everyone is ready, allow them to begin.   To help students know when to stop work, make an announcement whenever one of allotted times marked on the board has been depleted.

Typical Results

In my experience, students--ignorant of what their new endowments will be--often choose to redistribute the resources as equally as possible.   They usually end up sharing the textbooks.  They often tax time away from the "Anglo" students and give it to “African-American,” “Hispanic,” and “poor” students.   They sometimes opt to have "males" and "females" switch positions halfway through the quiz so as to give everyone an equal shot at the chairs.

Many of their decisions involve some sacrifice of efficiency for equality.  Switching chairs, for example, uses up several seconds of precious time.  Some groups choose not to allow anyone to use a textbook during the quiz because they cannot find a way to share it equitably.  

Recommended Discussion Topics

The game can be used to launch several interesting class discussions.   Suggested topics include the following:

  •  In what ways does our government promote equality? 
  • Do you think that our government should work harder or less hard to promote equality?  What trade-offs are involved?
  • Which do you think is more important--equality of opportunity or equality of income?
  • Do you think that knowledge of your endowments and place in society has affected your views about equality? 


I have used variations of the Distributive Justice Game in my classes for several years, and it has helped me launch many interesting class discussions about equality and justice, and about how one’s values may be shaped by one’s lot in life.    My impression is that the game makes students more inclined to accept equality as a legitimate social goal, and leads to richer class discussions about public policies that pit equality against efficiency.   Many students have remarked to me that the game has given them valuable insights about their values.

Appendix A:  Handout:  Allocating Resources for the Quiz


Group Name__________________________________


            Depending upon its size, each group will have access to the following resources during the upcoming quiz:

Group Size Texts Time (minutes) Chairs Pencils
7 1 70 4 6
8 1 80 4 7
9 1 90 5 8
10 1 100 5 9
11 1 110 6 10
12 1 120 6 11
13 1 130 7 12


            The following rules must be followed while taking the quiz:

  • Students may not share answers.
  • All quizzes must begin at the same time.
  • Pencils may not be broken in half, nor may students share pencils.
  • Students who finish the quiz before their time is used up may not give their extra time to another student.

New Identities

            Just before the quiz is passed out, the teacher will randomly assign a new identity to each student.   After receiving new identities, each group will be composed as follows, according to its size:


  Race Gender Wealth
Group Size Anglos Hispanics Afr-Am Males Females Wealthy Poor
7 3 1 3 4 3 1 1
8 3 2 3 4 4 1 1
9 4 1 4 5 4 1 1
10 4 2 4 5 5 1 1
11 4 3 4 6 5 1 1
12 5 2 5 6 6 1 1
13 5 3 5 4 4 1 1


Proposed allocation

Unless the students in a group decide otherwise, the resources will be allocated as follows:

  • Each "Anglo" student will have 15 minutes to take the quiz; each "Hispanic" student will have 10 minutes, and each “African-American” student will have 5 minutes.
  • The chairs will be assigned to the "males"; "females" must sit on the floor.
  • The "wealthy" student will get to use his or her text during the quiz.
  • In order to take the quiz, the “poor” student will need to buy a pencil from the teacher for 20 quiz-taking minutes.

Each group can change any part of this proposed allocation if a majority votes in favor of an alternative allocation.  Only the proposed allocation can be changed.  The resources and rules may not be changed.

Social Contract

Our group hereby agrees to redistribute resources as follows:

______ minutes of time:  

______ chairs:

One textbook:

What is your group doing about the “poor” student who must buy a pencil?

Your new identity (circle the characteristics of your new identity)

Wealthy/Poor     African-American/Anglo/Hispanic      Male/Female

How will you take the quiz?

Are you allowed to use your own pencil?  Yes/No  (If you answered no, are you able to buy a pencil?  Yes/No)

How many minutes will you have to take the quiz? _______________

Can you use a chair?  Yes/no/sometimes

Can you use the text?  Yes/no/sometimes

Appendix B

Suggested New Identities

Identities for a group with seven members:

You are  an Anglo male.

You are a Hispanic male.

You are a wealthy African-American male.

You are a poor Anglo male.

You are an African-American female.

You are an African-American female.

You are an Anglo female.


For a group of eight, add this:

You are a hispanic female.


For a group of nine, subtract the Hispanic female and add these:

You are an African-American female.

You are an Anglo male.


For a group of ten, add this:

You are a Hispanic female.


For a group of eleven, add this:

You are a Hispanic male.


For a group of twelve, subtract the Hispanic female and add these:

You are an Anglo female.

You are an African-American female.


For a group of thirteen, add this:

You are a Hispanic female.


  Lori Alden, 2005-7.  All rights reserved.  You may download the content, provided you (1) only use the content for your own personal, non-commercial use, (2) do not copy or post the content on any network computer or broadcast the content in any media, and (3) do not modify or alter the content in any way, or delete or change any copyright or trademark notice. No right, title, or interest in any downloaded materials is transferred to you as a result of any such downloading. Lori Alden reserves complete title and full intellectual property rights in any content you download from this web site. Except as noted above, any other use, including the reproduction, modification, distribution, transmission, republication, display, or performance, of the content on this site is strictly prohibited.