The Agrarian Society Card Game

I sometimes model life in a poor agrarian society with a deck of cards. I divide students into “peasant households” – one, two, or more students, but each household functions as a single decision-making unit. Each household receives the same number of playing cards, which are dealt face down.

I then explain the structure of the game and write the rules on the board. Each household begins with two adults and three hectares of land. Each hectare can produce two bags of rice each year, but it requires the labor of either one adult or two children. An adult can farm only one hectare per year while a child can only farm half a hectare. Each adult in the household must consume two bags of rice per year to survive; a child must consume half a bag of rice each year. If an adult or child does not get enough rice for the year, that individual dies and no longer supplies labor to the household. Uneaten rice can be saved for consumption in a future year or distributed to other households.

Each household is free to engage in any transaction with another household as long as it falls within the parameters set by the instructor. Typically households will rent out surplus land and labor or sell land in exchange for rice.

At the beginning of each year, all households flip over a card. An ace through a five indicates that nothing happens. A five through ten means that a child is born (for the purposes of the game, that child can immediately be put to work). A jack or a queen indicates a child has died. A king means an adult in the household has died. Households then calculate how best to use their resources.

Due to the cost-benefit relationships in the game, households have to devise strategies for survival. Some households merrily sell excess rice and acquire land, which they then rent out to other households that fall into debt and despair. Occasionally households pool their resources. More often than not a household asks “if we eat a child, how many bags of rice is that?”

The game can be used to demonstrate a wide variety of concepts, such moral economy, rational choice, locus of control, and path dependence. Sometimes I alter a rule (for example, each household begins with two adults and two children) and have the class play a second time, and then we discuss how the change affected the play and outcome of the game.

Doing nothing

One of the simplest games to organise (if not play) is one taught to me by David Jaques, a man of great experience (and greater nerves).  It just involves clearing the teaching room – pushing chairs and tables to one side – then sitting yourself in a corner and waiting for the students to arrive. And then… well, that’s pretty much it.  Once the students arrive, you do not talk, move or engage with them at all. You just leave them to their own devices: whatever happens, happens.

Why would you want to do this? The game is an excellent opportunity to drive reflection on the role of power in its various forms.  Typically, the students don’t know what’s going on: they look for purpose and structure and generate it (arguably akin to Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos).  I find it a very useful corrective to the usual problematisation of power that we find in political science and IR – too often we focus on what happens when there is too much power, rather than talking about the necessity of at least some.

This shouldn’t distract you from the difficulty of playing this: it took me three years to dare to try it, for the simple reason that it is so unbounded.  Indeed, the first time, I felt it necessary to pre-warn the students it would last for 30 minutes, for fear that they would just head to the nearest bar.  They didn’t, but instead set out the tables and chairs again, then tried to get me to engage with them and riffled through my paperwork.  They also started to have discussions about why they might be doing this and what they could learn from it.

In the end, this is a game that leads where it leads and everyone explore a very novel environment. So try doing nothing sometime.