Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

The Impact of Colonial Incorporation into the Global Capitalist System on Pre-Colonial Subsistence Agriculture (The Game)

Since arriving at McGill University in 1989, one of the courses I have taught each year has been POLI 227, a large (600 student) introductory course in the politics of developing areas. Obviously, in a course that size there are particular challenges in using games and simulations. I have, at times, assigned a few serious games as “readings” for the course (notably Inside the Haiti Earthquake and IN/ISDR’s Stop Disasters). I have also, on a couple of occasions, assigned a review of the computer game Tropico—a rather humorous, and very clever, portrayal of a stereotypical “banana republic” political system—as a sort of book review assignment, challenging students to identify the ways in which the game reflects, and diverges from, the political economy of a real developing country.


Every year, however, I do run one game in class: The Impact of Colonial Incorporation into the Global Capitalist System on Pre-Colonial Subsistence Agriculture. This is essentially a tongue-in-cheek game show using six student volunteers, conducted on the large stage at the front of the class in front of the large “studio audience” provided by the rest of the class, all during one 50 minute class period. In it, students assume the roles of peasants or an artisan in a small pre-colonial village in distant “Leacocklandia,” responding to the challenges and opportunities presented first by commercial contact with Europe, and later with the imposition of British colonial rule. The rules are simple, essentially revolving around agricultural production decisions. Key parts of the game are accompanied by musical clips from the TV game shows Jeopardy and The Price is Right.

Year One sees the operation of a stable, if very poor, subsistence village economy. The three small peasants are able to grow 6 grain on the land, of which they must eat 5 to survive. The middle peasant is able to grow 12 grain, and must eat at least 5 of these. The artisan produces household goods (pots), which s/he must then trade for surplus grain which they then consume. It is all very simple.

traderYear Two sees the arrival of a Portuguese trader (usually one of my teaching assistants). They offer the locals the possibility of selling or buying grain for $3, and buying European household goods (pots) for $2. At this point, most of peasants in the village start selling surplus grain and buying European manufactures, thus forcing the artisan into poverty. The artisan is then assumed to head off to the newly-expanded port city in search of employment, and is eliminated from the game.

Year Three sees the arrival of a British colonial explorer (another TA). They simply introduce themselves, then spend the next few minutes exploring the classroom. Moreover, the Portuguese trader introduces another economic opportunity, namely the cash crop of cotton, needed by the hungry textile mills of Europe. This sells for $4 per unit, slightly more than grain.

At this point, the richer medium peasant almost always shifts to cash crop production. One or two of the other peasants might dabble a little, while the rest usually stick with grain production.

britanniaAt the start of Year Four, the British colonial officers announces that—in order to save the classroom from “the French”— it will be made into a British colony. Some medical care and education is offered, at a cost. Farmers with enough money can invest in irrigation and mechanization, which improves crop yields—but in practice, only the middle peasant is rich enough to do so. A local magistrate (again, the middle peasant) is appointed as the representative of British authority, as was often the case with British indirect colonial rule. The locals are asked to register their land holdings. In keeping with Victorian attitudes towards gender roles, only men are recognized as farmers and landowners, and much hilarity ensues when I force the female peasants to go out into the classroom to find husbands. Finally, a small tax is introduced to finance the colonial administration.

The colonial officer also has the entire class of several hundred students stand, and—as the appropriate music plays—sing God Save the Queen as loud as they can.

Typically, at this point, peasants are finding it difficult to survive unless they shift into cash crop production—indeed, colonial policy (through the tax system) encourages them to do so. One or two may either find themselves in debt to the middle peasant, or even have their lands seized for non-payment of taxes by the magistrate (the middle peasant), and auctioned to the highest bidder (the middle peasant). Indeed, the middle peasant is doing quite well at this time, well on the way to becoming a large land owner.

Often a peasant will choose to access medical care to care for a sick family member. They survive, but result in one more mouth to feed—the beginning of a demographic transition, in which birth rates exceed death rates and lead to overall population expansion.

In Year 5, the price of cotton drops—it is, after all, a globalized commodity, and subject to price fluctuations. Several of the peasants are typically forced into debt, must sell some of their land, migrate to the growing port city, or die. The large land owner is doing quite well, however.

In Year 6, cotton prices boom. Surviving peasants do well. But overall, the rural village has transformed: instead of  relatively egalitarian subsistence economy, there is now a highly unequal allocation of wealth and power. Overall GDP for the village has almost doubled because of the shift to cotton, high prices, and the large landowner’s investment in irrigation and mechanization. However, usually most of the small peasants and the artisan are worse off—highlighting the extent to which the benefits of “development” may be very unevenly distributed.

At this point the game ends, and the class applauds the volunteers for their willingness to stand up in front of six hundred people. I also make the point that the game simplifies a great deal. The shift from subsistence to cash crop productions was not necessarily linked to colonial rule—in some places it (Egypt) it occurred prior, elsewhere (notably sub-Saharan Africa) it is still occurring. However, colonial policy did tend to favour the production of the sort of goods required by European industry. Not everywhere did the shift to cash crops hurt small peasants—much depends on agricultural conditions and markets, and in a great many cases (including some of the peasants in the game) they might have benefited from greater returns. However, the production of cash crops intended for a global market does leave producers more vulnerable to changes in commodity prices, and tends to favour larger producers who both have larger financial reserves and who can benefit from improvements and economies of scale. Finally, demographic transitions did not always start under colonial rule, and indeed were more common after.

In addition, the game allows me to examine:

  • The destruction of traditional handicrafts industries.
  • Rural-urban migration.
  • Concentration of land holdings.
  • Money-lending and rural indebtedness.
  • Indirect colonial rule.
  • The imposition of colonial gender attitudes.
  • The impact of declining death rates.
  • Colonial taxation policy.
  • Indirect colonial rule.
  • Rural anti-colonial grievances.

All of these, and a number of other themes, are then expanded upon in subsequent classes.

I haven’t posted the details of the game to PAXsims before, since I use it from year to year. However, I won’t be teaching POLI 227 for the next couple of years, so it seems safe to do it now.

This “game on a stage” is a technique that, I think, can be very effective in large classes. To work well, the game itself must be clear, so that the audience recognizes what is going on. Powerpoint can be helpful in walking everyone through the game rules and decisions as they unfold. Music, sound effects, and banter liven up the process. Careful debriefing is important, to make sure that students learn the right lessons from the game, and not the wrong ones. Finally, it breaks up the monotony of sage-on-the-stage type lectures, and can even be something of a bonding processes for the class.

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