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06. Game Pedagogy for Teaching Marx's Capital

As an undergraduate myself, I don’t often have the privilege of structuring a lesson plan, but on the few occasions that I am allowed to take creative control of a class (presentations, etc), I utilize that time to practice and refine my own pedagogical style. Recently, in my Topics on Marx seminar, I had one such opportunity to put my senior honors thesis on games as effective pedagogy for critical theory to the test.

For those familiar with the text, you’ll recall that Chapter 4 of Capital, Volume 1 is a mere ten pages in length, but densely packed with foundational information critical to understanding some of Marx’s later, more complex concepts. To this end, Marx himself was a bit of a pedagogue; he begins Chapter 1 of Capital by first analyzing the microcosm of the commodity and then expanding the scope of that analysis with each subsequent section. Thus, with that in mind, I felt it was important for students to be able to locate his discussion of capital in the framework and trajectory of his larger intellectual project.   

I began class with a small lecture, writing “what is capital?” on the board, prompting students to think about how Marx approaches his title subject differently than the dialectical analysis of the commodity and money-form addressed in Chapters 1-3. By getting down to the bare bones of “what’s different,” students identified “movement” as an essential component to capital, and contrasted it against the money-commodity that can be located in space in a way that capital cannot. Our working definition of capital for the class was thus that “capital is money in motion.” The question then, for me as teacher, was how do we as a class pinpoint the moment where money becomes capital? How do we illustrate the motion of money?

This is where the ludic framework comes into play. If the only way to examine a concept is when it’s in motion, then the clearest answer is to simulate the flow and movement of money in order to observe it. I thus designed a two-part game, with a “level” that mimicked the C-M-C form and one that mimicked the M-C-M’ form. The game is played in groups of five students.

The first rule of the C-M-C level is that “your goal is to get the commodity you need.” Therefore, in the realm of the game, what is valuable is the commodity. The commodity is how you “win”; without the commodity you need, you do not meet your goal or your need. All of the commodities available for exchange are means of subsistence: food, fire, water, clothes, and medicine. Each player is given one of the commodities and told that they need one of the commodities that another player has (e.g. player 1 has fire, but is told that they need to somehow acquire water.) Player 1 is additionally given money.

The second rule, “you cannot gift what you possess. Every transaction must be an exchange,” functions to enclose the system and force students to be aware that part of the value of the commodity is necessarily its exchange-value. If Player 1 says that “I need water,” and Player 4 says “here, have mine,” Player 4 has nothing left and can therefore not assure the acquisition of what they need from the player who has it. In these systems, the point was that you cannot assume that kindness or altruism will be reciprocated by the other players.

Two things can happen in the C-M-C simulation, and it all comes down to Player 1’s choices. Since Player 1 is only one given money, they can choose to introduce it into the exchange. If they ignore money, the system essentially becomes barter (C-C). Because of the second rule, one commodity then becomes a standin for the money commodity and gets traded around the circle as an assurance that the Player holding it will get whatever commodity they actually need because they know one player will need the one they have. However, as I stressed to the students, in a real system, that guarantee doesn’t always exist. Additionally, immediate temporality and proximity are required for barter.

If, however, Player 1 does introduce money into the system, suddenly things get a bit more interesting, and you have a replication of C-M-C. Say Player 1 buys water from Player 4, and with that money Player 4 can now buy whatever they need from whomever they want. At that precise moment, however, Player 4 has no commodity and is thus at risk of “losing.”

In the second part of the game, the mechanic (the acquisition of needs) is still the foundational component, but suddenly the goal of the game changes. No longer can you win by just acquiring the commodity you need from whomever has it; instead, the first rule of this system is for your net worth to be greater than the $1 you start out with. The purpose of this is to echo the “palpable difference” Marx talks about between the circulation of money and money and money as capital. In this level, we see capital appear because it is not the means to the commodity end, but rather an end in and of itself.

This level works by creating a hierarchy of information. Player 1, for example, knows that it takes one labor power and one insider information to open a business, while Players 2 and 3 known only that they need to sell their labor power, and Players 4 and 5 know only what some of the other players in the game need. Whereas in the previous circuit, it is the commodity which has the use-value and so money spent on it has been spent once and for all, here Player 1 might offer money to another player with information or labor power only so that he or she might gain more money. In this level, one or more players must lose, or fail to fulfill the overall goal of being worth more than $1 in order for any other player in the group to achieve it. Therefore, the exploitation of the individual for another individual’s gain is built into the structure of the system. In the eyes of Player 1, Player 2 and Player 3 fill the same function in terms of Player 1’s personal goal, and so it does not matter to Player 1 which one of them is selected, thus dehumanizing people into use-values. This is where we see capital emerge.

Overall, the game was successful and students felt it was a good simulation of the system. Some critiques were that it didn’t correctly mimic all aspects of Marx’s systems (for example, level 2 was actually an instance of unequal exchange more than it was the creation of surplus value), but those points were actually great teaching moments. No game can correspond to a theory or an idea 100%, and so the spaces in which they differ are key to interrogate.


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