Monday, April 15, 2013

Neolithic Survivor: Role-Playing Globalization, Culture, and Technology

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Note: What follows is an experiment.  I had a very productive class session last semester using this activity to teach about cultural globalization, and decided to write it up for publication in a pedagogy journal.  I just finished a rough draft, and decided, what the hell, might as well make it available for teachers now rather than waiting for publication. And while I'm at it, I might as well solicit some last-minute editing tips, right?  In particular, I'm a bit concerned that this somewhat complicated game is not really clear.  So, if you enjoy this and find it useful, you might repay me by offering any pointers in the next couple of days before I submit.  Thanks!

“Neolithic Survivor” is a single-class activity exploring concepts of cultural formation, intercultural communication, and technological change.  The activity is appropriate for courses on intercultural communication, cultural globalization, and communication and technology, and is intended to help students think expansively about the role of technology in shaping cultural values and ethnic identity.
A Neolithic Survivor game in progress.
Note the three different colors of figures,
representing three different teams.

Theoretical Grounding:

The spread of communication technology has combined with more open post-Cold War trade regimes and social liberation movements to increase the flow of information, goods, and people across cultural and political boundaries.  This condition of the current world system is commonly referred to as “globalization” (Beck, 2000; Castells, 1996; Pieterse, 2009).  Globalization involves a distinct heightening of the frequency and intensity of the interaction of nations and groups from different cultural, economic, and historical positions.  The mixing of these different cultures includes not just the sharing of cultural texts (music, movies, television), but also the increasing uniformity of the global technological infrastructure.

There are long-running arguments about what impact communication and other advanced technologies have on the structures and practices of disparate cultures, particularly including traditional cultures or those still in the process of modernizing.  Some have argued that the spread of communication technology is sufficient to transform traditional societies into modern ones, and that this process should be celebrated and promoted (Lerner, 1958; Schramm, 1964). Others, particularly after the failure of early ‘modernization’ efforts globally, have argued that the implementation of new ICT (information and communication technologies) can conflict with basic cultural values, either rendering the technologies less impactful or altering the culture’s underlying values (Kyem, 1999, 2012).  Finally, more and more scholars have pointed out ways that both technologies and messages are re-articulated to local needs, resulting in significant differences in how similar communication tools are used across cultures (cf. Appadurai, 1996).

This debate builds on ideas about the relationship between technology and culture explored by Harold Innis and Marshall Macluhan, who argued that the formal properties of communication technology have a more profound impact on societies than the content of the messages those technologies transmitted.  For instance, Innis argued that certain forms of communication emphasized extensions of a culture’s power through space to construct empires, while others provided superior duration of cultural influence through time (Innis, 2008; McLuhan & Lapham, 1994).  To fit the curriculum of my courses, my version of “Neolithic Survivor” emphasized and specifically rewarded students for engaging with these concepts of ‘time-binding’ and ‘space-binding’ media.  Technology cards and other elements of the game can be easily modified to emphasize different key course concepts.

It can be difficult for students to get a big-picture view of how the dispersion and adaptation of technology can restructure something as subtle as culture.  As with most communication courses, the first task in teaching about globalization is often to get students to look at themselves and their own surroundings as ‘unfamiliar,’ as having origins and differences , as something other than a completely natural and taken-for-granted norm.  The goal of the “Neolithic Survivor” activity is to take students out of their familiar settings and push them to think of culture as a ‘blank slate’ that is formed in a complex interaction between cultural practices, ideas, and interactions between groups.


Technology Cards:  Use the attached file to print and then cut several dozen cards representing a randomized selection of ‘technologies’ that will be handed out to teams.  These are the most important element of gameplay.  We define ‘technology’ quite loosely here, with a few examples of things teams can ‘discover’ being: stonecarving, navigation by stars, pottery, money, bronze, large stone structures, numbers, writing, the wheel, agriculture, musical instruments, religion, stone inscription, fire, stone tools, smoke signals, and the bow and arrow.

Obviously these do not represent any ‘logical’ progression, and sequences of discoveries that might seem strange do arise – but as we’ll see, this is part of the game’s learning potential.
I would encourage instructors to use their own creativity to add technologies to the stack that are either relevant to specific lessons, or that they just think would be fun to work with and talk about.

Playing Pieces:
You’ll need about a dozen markers or figures about the size of nickels to represent players’ tribes.  They should be four different colors, or otherwise marked to be distinguishable by team. If you happen to be a board game fan, you can probably find something appropriate around the house – I was able to use various figures from a Dungeons and Dragons board game.

Playing Board:
You’ll need a playing surface divided into roughly even-sized squares that fit your figures.  The attached file representing the Fertile Crescent may be used, or if appropriate for your class you may use a different regional map and turn it into a play surface.  Scale is not really important to gameplay.
Depending on your technology circumstances, you may want to print your map out on a transparency.  The ideal possibility would be if your classroom is equipped with an overhead projection camera, allowing the image of the board to be magnified for the whole class, in which case you can just print on plain paper.  Otherwise, you may need to project the board as a transparency, or in a worst-case scenario you can place the playing board in the center of the room and allow students to look at it more closely as needed.

The Activity:
Neolithic Survivor is a turn-based game that simulates cultural change and hybridization over time as a group of small tribes in a nonspecific prehistoric period move, grow, and adopt new technologies.  While it is played in part on a game board, the largest portion of its gameplay consists of collaborative storytelling, in which the players make decisions whose outcomes the instructor determines.

This kind of gameplay is based largely on the creative and collaborative model of tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons[1].  While such games often involve complex statistical systems to simulate probability and outcomes (most often in combat), their more deeply distinctive feature is the way players make choices and a gamemaster improvises the consequences of those decisions in a way that constructs a larger narrative.  Neolithic Survivor focuses almost exclusively on the storytelling element of such games, with the instructor serving as gamemaster-for-the-day.  As we’ll see, this means that the game calls on an instructor’s ability to be creative on the fly.

A game of Neolithic Survivor tells the story of three or four primitive tribes and their transformation, over the course of hundreds orthousands of years, into sophisticated communities with distinct identities and mutual relationships.  The emergent story is a parable, and is not meant to reflect any real instance of similar development.  Instead, it is intended to capture a sense of what it means for a culture to make decisions about technological usage and interactions with others, and to develop in particular ways as a result of those decisions.

At the beginning of the game, read this script:

As the game starts, you are playing as the leaders of a tribe of very early humans, living a very rudimentary nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the Tigris/Euphrates river, far back in human prehistory.

Each receives one technology card per turn, for every five population.  After receiving your card, you have three to five minutes to work as a group to write one or two sentences about how you will use your new knowledge.  How will you use it increase your power?  How can you use it to influence your population?  The population of another tribe?  Can you use it to claim territory?  Be creative!  Try to come up with actions that will either improve your tribe’s monopolization of space or your monopolization of time. You may use a computer/smartphone/tablet to research ideas for how you will act each turn.

But you can only use your new technology in ONE way, so be thoughtful!  For example, if you discover fire, you can use it to construct a system of communication by smoke signals or to cook food, but not both.  Your communication enhancement might give you greater ability to move or more prowess in battle, but more healthy food would increase your population.  Also note, some technologies can interact with previous discoveries!  For instance, if you have already discovered bows and arrows, you can use fire to make flaming arrows.
After all groups submit their actions for the turn, I will determine the outcome of the turn.  I will award “population points” based on the creativity and effectiveness of your planned actions each turn (or I may take points away!). Everyone starts with five population points.  Each additional five population points earns you an extra population marker, which grants you an extra population figure, which allows you to control an extra territory and gain an extra card each turn.

Following this introduction, the game proceeds as follows:

11.     Divide students into three to five teams.  Ideally, this is an activity in a class of no more than 30 students, so that each group is small enough to operate collaboratively.  Have each team, or tribe, pick a name.  The instructor then creates a visible scoreboard on a whiteboard or the like, with a column for each team.  Each team begins with five points.  In this game, ‘points’ represent the population of a tribe, and can grow or shrink on the basis of game outcomes.
22. Using an overhead projector, display the map.  Using any method to decide order of selection, have each team pick a starting location, with each team represented by some sort of figure or marker.  Council them that map features make a difference – encourage them think through what it might mean to plant their tribe on a river or coastline, for instance.
33. Distribute, at random, one technology card to each team.  Give teams three to five minutes to collaboratively write a one- or two-sentence description of how they will use their new technology on a slip of paper, with team name.
44. Game master (instructor) collects all technology decisions.  At this point, teams may also move their figure one space, if they wish.  During later turns, when they may have more than one game piece, they can move none, some, or all of their pieces.
55. Game master (instructor) evaluates all technology decisions, and assigns population points, generally in a range between one and three, depending on the creativity and effectiveness of the teams’ declared use of the technology.  Outcomes of decisions may depend on each tribe’s geographic location, or on the interaction of more than one decision.  For instance, land near rivers will provide better results for tribes that choose to invest in agriculture.  Also, in the event of a conflict between tribes (almost guaranteed sooner or later), the game master has to resolve the conflict, deciding how many population points each side lost or gained, and what territory each tribe controls at the end of the turn.  This determination is based on any number of factors including teams’ declared strategy and relative level of technological development.
66. Each turn is identical in structure, though they will get more complex.  Each turn will take at least ten minutes to resolve, so games will generally involve between four and seven turns in one class session. 
77. As the game continues, teams accumulate more population points, and one figure is added to the playing surface to represent every five points of population.  This allows teams to control multiple types of terrain.
88. Teams ALSO receive an additional Technology Card for every five population points they have on the board.   Teams need to describe how they will use each piece of technology.
9 9. As the game continues, teams accumulate more technologies, at random, and become more differentiated from one another, with different advantages and disadvantages.  If teams get a new technology card identical to one they have already received, they can use the same technology in a new way (remember, each new technology can only be used one way).
1 10.  Remind students that because this is a narrative game, decision making and planning are very open-ended.  Students can get very creative, and you may have to improvise, as I’ll show in the sample game described below.
111.  The game ends when time is up.  If you want to debrief in the same class session, allow at least ten minutes, but you may also want to devote a second class session or substantial chunk to discussion of the game.
112.. Count up population points to determine the winning team.  Students will be drawn into a game they think they can ‘win,’ but as with all educational games, who wins isn’t of as much interest as the process.

Gameplay Examples
The rules for Neolithic Survivor are relatively simple, but the real engagement and learning opportunities for the game come from students’ creativity and the game-master’s responses.  Each student decision about how a team will ‘use’ a technology or otherwise act or move produces unpredictable results as they interact with the decisions of other teams.  A few examples taken from games played in the authors’ classrooms will help show how this can work at the level of individual technology uses, on a turn-by-turn basis, and over the course of a game.  To help show the bigger picture of the game’s flow, these examples are drawn from a single real game.  These examples show that while the game emphasizes communication technology and practices, more material aspects of life and technology are also represented.

Example Technology Use 1: A team receives a card giving them the ability to draw durable images on stone.  Drawing on Harold Innis’ discussion of time-binding media, they specifically choose to inscribe religious imagery.  The game-master responds by declaring that they have successfully founded a new religion, increasing social order, and awards them two population points.

Example Technology Use 2: A team, who earlier in the game had learned agriculture and chosen to settle near a river basin on the map, are later given the card granting the ability to create pottery.  They choose to use this technology to store food.  The game-master declares that this drastically increases their durable food supply and grants them four Population Points.

Example Technology Use 3: A team who had earlier discovered the bow and arrow and established a military subsequently invent musical instruments.  They choose to use music as a form of military control.  The game-master awards them 2 population points to represent their increased ability to defend small threats, and informs them that their military is now particularly potent.

Example Turn: A team that has developed both military power and a powerful religion moves to attack a team that has built a larger population by focusing on agriculture and social structure.  There are no rules in Neolithic Survivor for combat – the game-master simply has to make a decision based on what makes sense given the circumstances.  In this case, the game-master chooses to reduce the population of each team, which is much more damaging for the smaller, aggressive tribe.  As a result of this mistake, the smaller, religious, militiarized tribe decides in the next turn to pursue peace with the tribe they had attacked.  The game-master chooses to allow it, and the two teams negotiate a peace and then merge, along with their technology, to form a culture with strong agriculture as well as intense religious practices and military strength. 


This game simplifies culture to a Neolithic context, with a small population, limited geography, and only a few ‘moving parts’, and shows how it grows larger and more complex with innovation.  This model provides easily digestible insights into many fundamental ideas of communication, technology, and culture.  Though the game-master should always dictate outcomes that are sensible and proportionate (i.e. punishing teams that make unstrategic decisions and rewarding those that act carefully), there will ultimately be no neat, linear progression to the game, and the game can be actively engineered both before and during play to emphasize different concepts depending on the course context.

In a course focused on technology and communication, the game could illustrate the idea that communication is constitutive – that forms of communication do not simply ‘reflect’ the cultures that use them, but in fact shape those cultures in non-deterministic ways.  Observations of how fire can be used in different ways can build into discussions of how modern technologized communication has different impacts on the various societies that adopt it.

In a course about identity or globalization, the game could show how cultures and ethnicities are not pre-given, but emerge through a process of change over time.  For instance, in the gameplay example above, the struggling team that chose to ‘merge’ with a more successful team illustrates a fairly historically common process of melding or hybridity (cf. Kraidy, 2005). The game’s mix of randomness (in the discovery of new knowledge) and strategy (in teams use of technology) is particularly suited for illustrating the concept of contingency – the idea that any given cultural formation is the result, not of the logical unfolding of some inherent national or ethnic ‘essence,’ but of a series of historical events that are the product of the strange alchemy of purpose and luck.  The game may, then, serve as a powerful support for a course that advances a position of cultural anti-essentialism (see West, 1990).

The game’s main shortcoming is that it relies heavily on the improvisational skill of the instructor/gamemaster, and on a sense of cameraderie and exploration in the classroom.  The game’s structure is intentionally open-ended, and there are relatively few hard rules in place to deal with the vast number of possible actions undertaken by a team.  An instructor/gamemaster must be prepared to quite literally make things up as they go along.  Particularly in the awarding of points and declaration of a winner, this might lead to student unrest if the course as a whole is not already on a steady footing of collaborative exploration.

Works Cited:
Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1st ed.). Univ Of Minnesota Press.
Beck, U. (2000). What Is Globalization. Polity.
Castells, M. (1996). Rise of The Network Society (Information Age Series) (1st ed.). Wiley.
Innis, H. A. (2008). The Bias of Communication (2nd Edition.). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.
Kraidy, M. M. (2005). Hybridity: The Cultural Logic Of Globalization (1st ed.). Temple University Press.
Kyem, P. A. K. (1999). Examining the Discourse About the Transfer of GIS Technology to Traditionally Non-Western Societies. Social Science Computer Review, 17(1), 69–73. doi:10.1177/089443939901700107
Kyem, P. A. K. (2012). Is ICT the panacea to sub-Saharan Africa’s development problems? Rethinking Africa’s contentious engagement with the global information society. Progress in Development Studies, 12(2-3), 231–244. doi:10.1177/146499341101200309
Lerner, D. (1958). The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. Macmillan Pub Co.
McLuhan, M., & Lapham, L. H. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Reprint.). The MIT Press.
Pieterse, J. N. (2009). Globalization and Culture: Global Mélange (Second Edition.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Schramm, W. L. (1964). Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries. Stanford University Press.
West, C. (1990). The New Cultural Politics of Difference. In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture (pp. 38, 19). MIT Press. Retrieved from

[1] So as not to waken students’ skepticism, it might be best to omit the roots of the game they’re about to play . . .

1 comment:

mohammed benyahya said...

Globalization and culture :