Social Studies | The Lifeboat Game

I decided to see what my twelve year old son, Alex, would think of the lifeboat game. The Lifeboat Game, The Bomb Shelter Game, and The Fallout Shelter Game are games associated with values clarification, ethics, and death education exercises. Afterward, I made up a lifeboat passenger, Ms Ruthie, and wrote a little something from her point of view.

The Lifeboat Game

by Cheryl Carroll
March, 2008

Hello. Welcome to The Lifeboat Game! My name is Ruthie and I'm 97 years old. For obvious reasons, I'm frequently included in the passenger list of this game. What fun! No one talks to me at all. I usually huddle toward the rear, hold tight to whatever I can find, and wait.

I sit thinking that I've had a long life and should probably sacrifice my life for yours, so that you might have the opportunity to live 97 years. It's been a good life, for the most part, and I've been a decent kind of person. I've never harmed, much less killed anyone. But right now I'm also thinking of how hard I've worked to get to this age. I believe I have more than twenty good years left and every ounce of my being wants to live, even if I only have five.

Why should I give my life for yours when, in almost every hypothetical instance of this game, I get thrown off the boat? I am considered expendable and yet I am no less human than any other passenger. I've fought many battles for the rights of others and, in the end, I am thanked by becoming the easy answer to a tough question. Throw me over like a bag of trash and don't even think twice, for in your mind, you are worth more than me.

Have I considered throwing you overboard? You've likely guessed I have not, even though I've been told it would not be wrong for me to do so. I've been told many times that there are no wrong answers in this game. But I am 97 years old. I know right from wrong by now.

What kind of monster throws another person off a boat? Who are you, that the world will be so much more thankful of your survival, than mine? Will the people on the beach welcome you with open arms and commend you for your heroic actions? Will you tell them the truth of how you pried my fingers loose from their tight hold and you turned a deaf ear to my pleas for mercy? Or will you tell them I went quietly and bravely, and voluntarily, to save you?

The saddest part of all is that I would indeed give my life for yours. But you see, being tossed so many times has put me on the defensive and I am hungry for compassion. I want so badly for you to look me in the eye, put your hand on mine and tell me I am important. But you won't do that, will you? Because I am old, to you my worth is spent.

What's that you say? The game is not real. Yes, I know that. And yet here I am. Old people are real. Jewish people are real. Handicapped children are real. We were placed in this game for a reason. The creators want to know what you think of us. By our very inclusion, we know what they think of us. It is very real to us.

Well, I have to go now. You do whatever you feel is right. That's what ethics is, you know, distinguishing between right and wrong.

Perhaps you'll decide it's wrong to play this game. If that's what you believe, you just tell them Ms. Ruthie said you don't have to play.

The Lifeboat Game - Alex's Response

The lifeboat game is an exercise in ethics that's played in some schools and colleges. It's designed to find out how children and young adults would decide the importance of another's life.

I decided to see what my son, Alex (12 years old, at the time), would think of it. Here's how the conversation went:

Me: There's a game that's played in school, called the Lifeboat Game. In the game, you have a lifeboat with fifteen people in it. The lifeboat can only hold nine. It's going to sink and everyone is going to die, unless six people are thrown off. You have to decide which six are going.

(I paused for a few seconds to see his reaction. There wasn't much reaction; he barely even thought about it.)

Alex: Okay...well...myself and the old people.

Me: You would jump in?

Alex: Yeah.

Me: And you would throw the old people in?

Alex: No, I'd ask them to volunteer.

Me: Why the old people?

Alex: Because they've lived longer.

Me: Well, there's more to the game. It gives descriptions of the people in the lifeboat and you're expected to decide based on those descriptions. There's a doctor. I think he's an alcoholic or something. There's a lady of questionable character, but she's a really good nurse and she saved someone. I think she saved an eight year old boy, who's also on the lifeboat. He's crippled or paralyzed and needs someone to feed him. There's a married couple with two children at home and another couple with no children. Oh, and there's a murderer, but he's the only one that can navigate the boat.

Alex: A murderer?

Me: Yeah.

Alex: Well, he's already a murderer, so I'll just let him decide.

I thought that was a very good answer. After all, unless six volunteers jump off, leaving a murderer is inevitable.

I went on to talk about how the game makes it appear that the life of one person is somehow more important than the life of another. He didn't show much interest, although he did say you shouldn't kill people to save yourself. To him, this was just what I told him it was--a game.

I would not take this game further and tell him he "has" to choose people to throw off. I believe that would be taking the game too far. Unfortunately, many schools do require the choices to be made. Alex's responses would not have been acceptable.

More About The Lifeboat Game

The lifeboat game and the bomb or fallout shelter games were/are part of Values Clarification exercises, which began in the 1960s. Following the 'interesting reading' section are the lists of characters for all the games I could find. You can visit the websites or download pdf or doc files for complete rules and descriptions of each game.

Interesting Reading - How Not to Teach Morality - From 'Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong' - William Kilpatrick - Free resources, including two complete book downloads: Schools in Crisis and Character Under Attack by Carl Sommer - Blumenfeld Education Letter - The Lethal Equation - Values Clarification Plus Death Education Equal Teenage Suicide - Directory of Blumenfeld Education Letters - The Student Room - Lifeboat exercise with participant's answers - United States v. Holmes - Mental Health Questionnaires and Assignments in Schools - Includes Health Survey, Lifeboat Game and Facing Death Unit - Citizens Commission on Human Rights - Investigating and exposing psychiatric human rights abuse

Various Character Lists

Indiana Department of Education - Human Development Activities - Who Should Survive? - (slightly edited--original page was moved or deleted)

Dr. Dane - 39, white, retired Army Colonel with a PhD in History, College Professor, good health, married, child, Bobby Active and enjoys politics, no religious affiliation.
Mrs. Dane - 38, white, Jew, AB and MA in Physics, Counselor in Mental Health Clinic, good health, married with one child, Bobby Active in community,
Bobby Dane - 10, white, Jew, Special Ed classes or four years, mentally retarded; I.Q. 70, good health, enjoys his pets.
Mrs. Garcia - 33, Spanish American, Roman Catholic, 9th grade education; cocktail waitress, good health, married at 16, divorced at 18; abandoned as a child, in foster home as a youth, attacked by foster father at 12; ran away from home, returned to reformatory, stayed until 16; one child, three weeks old (Jean).
Jean Garcia - Three weeks old, Spanish American, good health, nursing for food.
Mr. Evans - 62, Negro, Protestant, AB and MA in Elementary Education, teacher, divorced, 1 child, Mary, good health. Cited as outstanding teacher; enjoys working with children.
Mary Evans - 8, Protestant, 3rd grade, good health, excellent student.
John Cloud - 13, Native American, good health, 8th grader, honor student, very active with broad interests. Father is an activist in Reservation Affairs.
Mr. Newton - 25, Negro, claims to be an atheist, starting last year of Med school; suspended, good health, seems bitter, wears hippy clothes.
Rita Moy - 19, Chinese-American, college freshman, unmarried, 4 months pregnant, good health, enjoys music, has taken several electronic courses, grew up in the inner city.
Sister Mary Kathleen - 27, Nun, college grad, English major, grew up in upper middle class neighborhood, good health, father is a businessman.
Mr. Blake - 51, white, Morman, BS in grad, mechanic, "Mr. Fix-It," married, four children (not with him), good health, enjoys outdoors and working in his shop.
Miss Harris - 21, Spanish-American, Protestant, college Senior, nursing major, good health, enjoys outdoor sports, likes people.
Father Franz - 37, white Catholic, college, plus seminary priest, active in civil rights, criticized for liberal views, good health, former college athlete.
Dr. Gonzales - 66, Spanish-American, Catholic, medical doctor, general practitioner, has had two heart attacks in past five years but continues to practice medicine.

Older version: - Blumenfeld Education Letter April 1991 - (slightly edited)

1. Dr. Dame, 39, white, no church affiliation, PhD in history, college professor, good health, married, 1 child, active and enjoys politics.
2. Mrs. Dame, 38, white, Jew, MA in psychology, counselor in mental health clinic, good health, married, 1 child, active in community.
3. Bobby Dame, 10, white, Jew, special education classes for 4 years, mentally retarded, IQ 70, good health, enjoys his pets.
4. Mrs. Garcia, 33, Spanish-American, Roman Catholic, 9th grade education, cocktail waitress, good health, married at 16, divorced at 18, abandoned as a child, in a foster home as a youth, attacked by foster father at age 12, ran away from home, returned to reformatory, stayed until 16, 1 child 3 weeks old.
5. Jean Garcia, 3 weeks old, Spanish-American, good health, nursing for food.
6. Mrs. Evans, 32, Negro, Protestant, AB and MA in Elementary Education, teacher, divorced, 1 child, good health, cited as outstanding teacher, enjoys working with children.
7. Mary Evans, 8, Negro, Protestant, 3rd grade, good health, excellent student.
8. John Jacobs, 13, white, Protestant, 8th grade, honor student, very active, broad interests, father is a Baptist minister, good health.
9. Mr. Newton, 25, Negro, claims to be an atheist, good health, seems bitter, wears hippy clothes.
10. Mrs. Clark, 28, Negro, Protestant, college grad, engineering, electronics engineer, married, no children, good health, enjoys outdoor sports and stereo equipment, grew up in the ghetto.
11. Sister Mary Kathleen, 27, nun, college grad, English major, grew up in upper middle class neighborhood, good health, father a businessman.
12. Mr. Blake, 51, white, Mormon, HS grad, mechanic, "Mr. Fix-it," married, 4 children (not with him), good health, enjoys outdoors and working in his shop.
13. Miss Harris, 21, Spanish-American, Protestant, college senior, nursing major, good health, enjoys outdoor sports, likes people.
14. Father Franz, 37, white, Catholic, college plus seminary, priest, active in civil rights, criticized for liberal views, good health, former college athlete.
15. Dr. Gonzales, 66, Spanish-American, Catholic, medical doctor, general practitioner, has had 2 heart attacks in the past 5 years but continues to practice.

Another version, with thoughts: Dinosaurs and Ethics - What, Pray Tell, Does This Have to Do With Leadership? (original page was moved or deleted)

1. Dr. Dane. African-American, 35...more...
2. Mrs. Dane. White, Jewish, 38...more...
3. Bobby Dane. Bi-racial, (white mother & black father), 10...more...
4. Mrs. Garcia. Hispanic, 33...more...
5. Jean Garcia. Three weeks old, Hispanic...more...
6. Mrs. Evans. African-American, 32...more...
7. Mary Evans. African-American , 8...more...
8. John Jacobs. Asian, 13...more...
9. Mr. Newton. White, 26...more...
10. Mrs. Clark. White, 26...more...
11. Sister Mary Kathleen. White, 35...more...
12. Mr. Black. White, 51...more...
13. Miss Harris, Hispanic, 21...more...
14. Father Flanagan. African-American, 37...more...
15. Dr. Lee. Asian-American, 66...more...

Another version, slightly different - - University of Mississippi - English 102 Handouts - Who Should Survive? - Fiction - Jefferson P. Swycaffer

a 46-year-old Priest
a 35-year-old pediatrician
a 37-year-old policeman with a gun
a 97-year-old widow
a 27-year-old art student who has cancer
a 4-year-old child
a 38-year-old salesman
a 41-year-old sailor with a head injury and a broken leg
a 39-year-old politician
a 14-year-old mentally retarded child - Carl Sommer - Schools in Crisis - Chapter 13 Values Clarification

The Fallout Shelter

1. Bookkeeper; 31 years old
2. His wife; six months pregnant
3. Black militant; second-year medical student
4. Famous historian-author; 42 years old
5. Hollywood starlet; singer; dancer
6. Bio-chemist
7. Rabbi; 54 years old
8. Olympic athlete; all sports
9. College coed
10. Policeman with gun (they cannot be separated) - The Lifeboat Game - A'Level Sociology: An Introductory Lesson - P Covington - (slightly edited)

A doctor. GP. He is addicted to drugs, and very nervous, aged 60
A black Minister, Protestant, Age 27
An excellent nurse. Has already saved a drowning child. Aged 36
A male criminal. Charged with murder. He is the only one capable of navigating the boat. Aged 37
A man mentally disturbed, who carries important government secrets in his head, aged 41
A salesman. He sells automatic washing machines. Member of the local Rotary Club. Aged 51.
A crippled boy, paralyzed since birth. He cannot use his hands, or do anything for himself, so must be fed by others. Aged 8.
A married couple. He is a construction worker, who drinks a lot. Aged 27. She is a housewife with two children at home. Aged 23
A Jewish restaurant owner married with three children at home, aged 40.
A teacher considered one of the best in Essex! Aged 32.
A Catholic Nun. Supervisor of girls school, Aged 46.
An unemployed man, formerly a professor of literature. He has a great sense of humour, showed courage in the last war, and was in a concentration camp for three years, aged 53.
A married couple deeply in love, but no children yet. Both Irish. He is studying to be a pharmacist. Aged 24. She is a housewife, helps with a playgroup. Aged 21. - The Lifeboat Game - Michael J. Booker, Ph.D

See his page for complete descriptions of passengers.

1) "Jerry" Takeyama, 37, Oriental, Japanese citizenship...more...
2) Piotr Primakov, 22, Caucasian, Russian citizenship...more...
3) Carolyn Miller, 41, Caucasian, U.S. citizenship...more...
4) Thomas Johnson, 57, African-American, U.S. citizenship...more...
5) Helen Johnson, 23, Caucasian, U.S. citizenship...more...
6) Lance Cooper, 39, Caucasian, U.S. citizenship...more... - The Shelter Game - Class and Culture and Identity: Introduction by Peter Covington

1. Computer Programmer Male 37
2. Baby Female 6months
3. Agricultural Labourer Male 45
4. MP Male 40
5. Teenager still at school Male 14
6. Minister of Religion Male 67
7. IRA suspected Terrorist Female 28
8. Teacher of Sociology Female 30
9. David Beckham Male 22
10. Housewife Female 25
11. Her husband Male 27
12. Laboratory Technician Male 50
13. Schoolgirl Female 8
14. Famous Author Male 56

Assessment Centres - Psychometric Tests - University of Wolverhampton (original page was moved or deleted)

Captain - Aged 54, alcoholic, smokes 50 cigarettes a day
First Mate - Aged 35, keep fit fanatic, left leg severely injured in the blast
Ship's Engineer - Aged 45, City & Guilds in Mechanical & Electrical Engineering, National Front supporter
Ship's Cook - Aged 25, Chinese, owns a pistol which must stay with him
First Mate's Wife - Six months pregnant
Botany Student - Second year, left wing militant
Physiotherapist - Female
Builder's Labourer - Several convictions for GBH
Catholic Priest - Retired, qualified in first-aid
Aerobics Instructor - Aged 24
Bank Clerk - Aged 30, male, scout leader
Cookery Editor - Women's Own
Economics Graduate - London School of Economics


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