Democracy vs. Autocracy: The Resource Distribution Game

SalehyanToday we have a guest post from Idean Salehyan, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas. He can be reached at idean (at) utdallas (dot) edu.

When teaching about democratic and autocratic regimes, I like to emphasize two basic points.  First, democratic governments are held accountable by (typically) a majority of citizens, while autocrats must focus on a narrower constituency.  Second, unpopular democratic governments can be removed by the vote, while removing autocrats often involves violence. This classroom simulation is intended to demonstrate these differences.

Materials needed:  A deck of playing cards and a “resource” to be distributed.  Candy works well, but tokens may also be used.  A total of 200 units are needed.

The simulation works best with a class of 30-50 students, although it may be modified to suit your needs.  I run the simulation twice (once under each set of rules), but with two decks of cards you could split a larger class in two. It takes about 30-40 minutes to complete the simulation and a debriefing.

Dictatorship version

Assigning roles: Distribute playing cards to the students, making sure to deal all of the face cards (kings, queens, and jacks).  Tell the students that the king, queen, and jack of spades are the rulers (the top decision-makers); all other royal cards are the elites (nine in total; this could represent the military, a ruling party, or a royal family). All numbered cards, including aces, are the citizens.

Game play:

  1. Have the three rulers divide up 100 units of a “resource” (e.g. candy) between the three groups: rulers, elites, and citizens. They only choose across these broad categories; within each category, resources are distributed as equally as possible.  For this step they may leave the classroom to confer with each other.
  2. Once the distribution of resources is announced, the elites can decide to accept or reject the offer by majority vote. If they reject, the rulers are deposed in a coup; the rulers all die and get nothing.  Those who voted to reject the offer can decide a new distribution of resources between elites and citizens.  However, since a coup disrupts the economy, 25 of the resources have been destroyed leaving 75 to divvy up.
  3. The citizens can accept the distribution, or reject it by revolting. Since the rulers and elites control the guns, citizens need a supermajority (2/3 or 3/4) to revolt.  If they revolt, the rulers and elites all die, and one suit among the citizens picked at random will die.  Moreover, since war destroys the economy, all survivors receive only 1 unit of the resource.

Democracy version

Assigning roles: Distribute playing cards to the students, making sure to deal all of the face cards.  Tell the students that the king, queen, and jack of spades are the executives (this represents the top decision-makers); all other royal cards are the legislature (9 in total); all numbered cards, including aces, are the citizens.

Game play:

  1. Have the three executives divide up 100 units of a “resource” between the three groups: executives, legislature, and citizens. They only choose across these broad categories; within each category, resources are distributed as equally as possible.  For this step they may leave the classroom to confer with each other.
  2. Once the distribution of resources is announced, the legislature can decide to accept or reject the offer by majority vote. If they reject, the executives are deposed (impeachment, vote of no confidence) and receive nothing.  Those who voted to reject the offer can decide a new distribution of resources between the legislature and citizens.  As this is a constitutional procedure, no resources are lost.
  3. The citizens can accept the distribution, or reject it through a majority vote. If they reject the distribution, the executive and legislature are deposed, receiving zero resources; each citizen receives 2 resources.

Debriefing

Ask the rulers or executives how they came up with their initial “offer” and who they felt accountable to. (When I ran this game the first time, the rulers in the authoritarian scenario decided to be “fair” and distribute the resources evenly, but this caused them to suffer a coup.  That lead to a nice discussion about incentives to be “good” or not.)

Ask the legislature in the democratic scenario why they voted the way they did; do the same of the citizens.  What offer would have kept them happy? What offer would have caused a “no” vote?

Discussion questions:

  • To whom are leaders accountable in democratic and autocratic settings?
  • What are the advantages of voting versus violence to remove leaders?
  • Which set of rules led to more “just” outcomes?

 

4 thoughts on “Democracy vs. Autocracy: The Resource Distribution Game

  1. What a fun game! I think it would be easy enough to adapt to a small class. I have a class of 11 that this would work well for, and if you make it 2 royals, 3 elites, and 6 citizens it should work just fine. I’ll try it in a few weeks and let you know how it goes. Would you recommend playing it through as autocracy and then democracy, or v. v.?

  2. This is a fantastic idea – I am going to do it in July with some students who are going to begin their Politics course in September. Do you tell the students the potential outcomes of decisions or do you let it play through and reveal the consequences depending upon the choices?

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