Candy or Swag: A game for teaching open source principles to kids

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Open education and MIT OpenCourseWare

Some swag: check

A couple of big bags of candy: check

Middle school students: check

This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but as it turns out, these were the ingredients for a wonderful lesson on two of the principles of open source: collaboration and transparency.

Recently, I was asked to talk about my career and open source by Christina Councill, a teacher at Envision Science Academy, a STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts & Mathematics) Charter School in Raleigh, NC. I wasn't worried at all about talking about my career, and because my role at Red Hat involves building interest in open source at the university level, I am used to explaining the principles of open source to college students. However, having once been a teacher myself, I know that teaching middle school (ages 10-13) is a whole different ball game. Show, don't tell. Granted that's not a bad plan for any age, but it's especially important when you're talking about students whose hormones are working just as hard as their brains!

I did some research1 and devised a variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma focused on reward (as opposed to punishment) that the entire class could "play" together to demonstrate the value of collaboration and open exchange. Candy and swag couldn't hurt either, right?


  • "Low value" prizes like individually wrapped pieces of candy (my choice), pennies, or stickers. To estimate quantity, figure that every student can win a piece of swag every "round" and that you will run at least eight rounds.
  • Enough "high value" prizes that every student can have one, plus a few to spare. For my classes, I used Red Hat "swag" that we usually give away at conferences.
  • A pair of index cards for each student. On one index card, write the name of the "low value" prize (like "CANDY") and on the other write the "high value" prize (for example, "SWAG").
  • A white board or instruction sheets to distribute with the payoff matrix.
  • Signs (handwritten is fine) saying "30 seconds" and "20 seconds".


Place a pair of choice cards face down each student's desk. Either distribute copies of the payoff matrix or draw it on the whiteboard.

Start by saying the game is called "Candy or Swag" and there are only a few rules, but they are very important! Tell them that after you explain the rules, you'll show them "the swag", which is just another word for "the prize".

The "payout matrix" below is based on a class of 15 students. With 10 students, I used one as the "tipping point" and with 25 or more students, I'd use three. Generally you're aiming for a tipping point of about 10% of the students.

The rules

1. No talking from this point forward. Anyone who talks gets neither Candy nor Swag.

2. When I say so, choose CANDY or SWAG, pick up that card, and hold it up to your chest so no one else can see your choice.

3. I'll come around and tally your choices.

4. Here's how the payout works—pay close attention2

payout matrix

5. After explaining the payout matrix and taking questions: You're ready to play!


Stage 1: Silent

1. Ask the students to choose CANDY or SWAG by raising the appropriate card to their chest, and leaving the other card face down on their desk. 2. Tally the students' choices (we walked around and counted SWAG's, asking each student to place the card they chose back on the desk after being counted). 3. Tell them how many people chose SWAG (but not who) and explain what the class won (if anything) using the payout matrix above. 4. Run a few rounds (at least three) like this, then ask for some reflection about what the students are noticing.

My observations of Stage 1: If your class runs anything like all of mine, during these rounds you will always have >2 people who choose SWAG, and therefore no one will get anything. In my classes, the number of SWAG's ranged from four to eight, but was never two or fewer during any Stage 1 round. When asked to reflect on what they were seeing, the students identified a few issues: "a lot of people are greedy" (/want swag); "there's no way to tell who is asking for what"; and "there were a lot of people who were trying to do the right thing so everyone could get candy at least."

Stage 2: Collaborate

By now the students were getting a little frustrated (which is ok), so I explained that we were going to try playing the game a little differently -- in a way that's more "open source." I quickly reviewed the principles of open source with them and asked if they thought it might help if they were allowed to collaborate a little before making the decision for CANDY or SWAG. (There was usually some form of jubilation at this point.)

New rules

1. You will have one minute from when I say "go" to collaborate before you choose CANDY or SWAG. I'll hold up signs telling you when you have 30 seconds left, then 20 seconds left, then count down the last ten.

2. All the rest of the rules are the same. Remember to choose the card for the prize you want, then hold it up to your chest so no one can see it.

3. Tell them "Go".

4. At 30 seconds, I hold up the "30 second" card, then at 20 seconds I hold up the 20 second card. At 10 seconds, I begin a silent countdown using my hands held high above my head. (Note: I wasn't incredibly strict with the timing -- if there was clear progress, I let the time run long, for example. It's mainly a way to ensure that students know there's not room for endless debate.)

5. As above, tally the SWAG's and explain the "payout".

6. If at any time a student asked how many more rounds there would be, I said I didn't know.

7. Run at least three rounds his way.

My observations of Stage 2: In all but one of my classes, the students immediately figured out that if they collaborated they could all get candy every round, and they could take turns getting swag. (More about that one class in a minute). Watching the discussions evolve was fascinating: even though I'd just met these students, I could tell who the leaders were. In addition, each class came up with its own variant of "sharing protocol." In one class they chose one person from each table in the first round, then the next person from each table during the next round, while in another class they just moved around the room clockwise. Another class had a student with behavioral disorder, and it was wonderful to watch the students ensure that he got his swag first.

Again, after a few rounds I asked for reflection about what the students had observed. Almost without fail, the students observed that when they collaborated, everyone did better.

It's also worth noting that Ms. Councill, the students' regular teacher, said that this was the best she'd ever seen the students getting along and cooperating (winning!).

Stage 3: Open Exchange

I had more time in one of my classes, so we played one more variant, around open exchange (also called transparency).

I asked if anyone could think of a change that would make the process even more open. With a little guided discussion, one student came up with the idea of showing their choice, by leaving the cards face up on the table and placing their hand on the CANDY or SWAG card to indicate their choice, rather than holding them up with their choices hidden.

For Stage 3 the rules are the same as for Stage 2, except have the students make their choice in an "open" or transparent way. This variant is especially helpful if you have classes that are unable to figure out how to effectively manage Stage 2.

An unexpected lesson

So, what was the deal with that one class, anyway? Apparently there'd been some interpersonal drama earlier in the week and tensions in the class were high. When they first played Stage 2: Collaboration, they came up with a plan, but someone "cheated"3 (i.e. didn't stick to the agreed upon plan) and ended up causing the SWAG count to be three.

So we tried it again, and the same thing happened. And again. By this point, the class had figured out who the rogue was (and he'd accumulated two pieces of swag while others had none) and were beginning to be quite upset with him. To my utter surprise, on the next round the cheater didn't cheat. I had to laugh, though, when Ms. Councill pointed out that one of the other students had taken away his SWAG card!

The cheater was understandably frustrated, but I used this as an opportunity to talk about what happens in open source communities when people show they are not trustworthy or that they don't have the community's best interests at heart. As I explained to the class, in open source if someone is consistently causing a community problems, the community will attempt to work it out with that person... but if that doesn't work, the community will often have no choice but to remove that person from the community.


This was a lot of fun—for both me and the students. Better yet, it worked! Ms. Councill wrote me afterwards, commenting, "[The students] had a blast and have been talking about it since! [...] The kids were surprisingly excited about Open Source after your visit and have asked for more information from me so I'm working on making a package of Open Source educational software for them to download at home over the summer." I couldn't have hoped for a better outcome that that!

1Adapted from "Teaching the Prisoner's Dilemma More Effectively: Engaging the Students," by Michael A. McPherson and Michael L. Nieswiadomy

2I started with only the outline of the payoff matrix drawn on the whiteboard and filled it in as I was explaining the rules.

3I have "cheated" in quotes because in one sense he was following the best possible plan, if you were to discount altruism as a means to obtain future good.

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Gina Likins | University Outreach, Open Source & Standards Team at Red Hat I have been working in internet strategy for more than 20 years, participating in online communities for nearly 25, and working in open source for more than four.  I'm passionate about finding ways to help our open source communities thrive and be more welcoming for everyone.

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