Tempting Fate: Using a Card Game to Teach Students about the Black Death

Matt Wranovix (The University of New Haven)

In the last decade or so people like me who grew up with Commodore 64s and Atari 2600s have for better or worse begun to acquire positions of responsibility. Given the amazingly addictive qualities of games like Galaxian, Asteroids, or, my favorite, Joust, it is perhaps unsurprising that some of us have started trying to make as much of the world around us as possible look and feel like a game. The well-known popularity of traditional video games and the amazing success of online social games like Farmville have led to efforts to ‘gamify’ everything from online communities, to marketing, to developing solutions to social problems, and, of course, to education.

Websites hoping to attract and keep the attention of eyeballs have started offering their users rewards for engaging with the site or contributing to the online community. For example, Foursquare (https://foursquare.com/) offers users points, badges, and titles for checking in at locations and leaving tips or recommendations. Perhaps most bizarrely, Jarrett Brachman and Alix Levine noted in an article in Foreign Policy magazine that websites promoting international Jihad have begun offering their users points, badges, and titles in an effort to increase participation.[2]

Most so-called gamification efforts, however, go well beyond simply offering users points. Modern videogames like World of Warcraft are noted for the ways in which they inspire players to think creatively, collaborate with others, and develop innovative solutions to problems. Jane McGonigal of the Institute of the Future and author of the book Reality is Brokenargues that the same kinds of game structures that motivate individuals to spend hundreds and thousands of hours honing their skills in games like World of Warcraft can be used to foster the kinds of motivation and collaboration needed to solve real world problems.[1] Last summer the US Navy partnered with the Institute for the Future to run an online game designed to help develop solutions for Somali piracy. Players from all over the world were presented with a series of hypothetical scenarios and were asked to brainstorm solutions.[3]

Games have come to the classroom as well. The disengagement of students in traditional classrooms has become proverbial, and thus educators have begun to reason that we need to move away from an educational model in which the teacher transmits knowledge to students and toward one in which students learn by playing and exploring.[4]

Some experimental schools at the K-12 level are trying out new approaches. Quest To Learn, for example, is a public charter school in New York for grades 6-12, whose curriculum was developed by Katie Salen, a veteran of the game industry. Course work includes secret missions, quests, breaking secret codes, leveling up, and beating ‘bosses,’ all concepts borrowed from video games and role-playing games.

These ideas are coming to higher education as well. Roger Travis, a professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut and contributor to the blog PlaythePast (http://www.playthepast.org/) has developed courses in introductory Latin that have students take on roles in Ancient Rome and complete quests that not only immerse students in a fully-developed narrative, but also require them to master the rudiments of Latin and Roman culture.

Perhaps the best-known pedagogical attempt to adapt game mechanics to the college classroom is Reacting to the Past (http://reacting.barnard.edu/), a method developed at Barnard College. This pedagogy situates students in an elaborate role-playing game in which students are given historical roles at particular points in history and expected to use primary sources to help them act in character and debate important issues.

I myself have used the Reacting to the Past pedagogy and am interested in the potential for games both to enliven our classrooms and to help students learn. In the 2010-2011 academic year I designed a card game to help the students in my introductory Western Civilization survey course understand the psychological and economic effects of the Black Death. The game worked well and would be appropriate to use at the high school level as well as in introductory college courses.

Lesson Plan

1) Preparation of reading and game materials
I assign two primary source readings to prepare students to learn about the Black Death, both available on the Internet – Boccaccio’s famous description of the plague in Florence [5] and the plague ordinances from the city of Pistoia [6]. Students should complete these readings before coming to class.

Instructors will also need to collect together the game materials. For a class of 30 students you will need: a) a game deck that consists of four decks of standard playing cards plus 2 Jokers for a total of 210 cards; and b) 30 index cards. Write ‘peasant’ on 10 of the index cards, ‘merchant’ on 10 more of the index cards, and ‘noble’ on the final 10 index cards; these 30 index cards are the role deck and each card is called a role card. For classes of different size you will need to modify the game deck and role deck appropriately; simply keep the number of peasant, merchant, and noble cards roughly equal and be sure the game deck has enough cards so that each student will be able to receive a hand of seven cards.

2) Explain the rules to the game (c. 10 minutes)

3) Play the game (15 minutes)

4) Final scoring and determination of the winners (10 minutes)

5) Post-mortem discussion of the game and analysis of the primary sources (variable, but roughly 20 minutes)

6) Brief lecture on the Black Death (20 minutes)

Rules for the game ‘Plague!’

Shuffle the game deck and role deck separately. Each player receives one role card and 7 playing cards.

Playing cards
Jokers – represent fleas infected with the Black Death.

Hearts – represent the happiness and well-being derived from meeting with and
talking with others. All players can benefit from hearts.

Spades – represent honor and status. Nobles are especially interested in
increasing their honor and status.

Diamonds – represent wealth. Merchants are especially interested in increasing their wealth.

Clubs – represent food. Peasants are especially interested in increasing their supply of food.

Peasant – Peasant farmers always have to worry about the next meal. Players who are peasants should focus on collecting food (clubs) in order to establish a stable food supply.

Merchant – Merchants engage in trade for profit. Players who are merchants should focus on collecting money (diamonds).

Nobles – Noblemen and noblewomen constantly try to increase their status and honor. Players who are noble should focus on collecting prestige (spades).

The suit associated with a player’s role is called the player’s role suit. Example: clubs are the role suit for a player playing a peasant.

Game Play
Each round lasts 2-3 minutes, during which players move around the room and trade cards with other players in order to increase the value of their hands. Players can trade cards with any other player/players and can engage in as many trades per round as they wish. A trade is any mutually agreed upon exchange of cards. After a trade is agreed upon, the players must exchange the agreed upon cards (no funny business!). EXCEPTION: a player can ALWAYS add in an infected flea (Joker) to a trade without the consent of the other player. It is forbidden to reveal that you have just traded away or received an infected flea (Joker) – keep a straight face!

After two-three minutes, the round ends (the instructor will decide the timing of each round). Any player holding a Joker when the round ends is bitten, dies from the plague, and is out of the game! That player discards his or her hearts to the instructor (these cards are out of the game), shuffles the remaining cards (including the Joker!), and deals them out, one card per player, to the closest living players in the vicinity.

Example: If Susie dies with two hearts, a spade, three diamonds, and a Joker, she will discard the hearts out of the game and distribute the spade, three diamonds and the Joker randomly to the 5 living players closest to her.

Play continues for 5 rounds. At the end of round 5, players count their points.

Hearts (happiness) are always worth the face value of the card (ace worth 1, face cards 10).

The cards in a player’s role suit score their face value plus bonus points:

  • Pair: 20 points
  • Three-of-a-kind: 30 points
  • Four of a kind: 60 points
  • 3 card straight: 10 points
  • 4 card straight: 20 points
  • 5 card straight: 30 points

6 card straight: 40 points

All cards that are neither hearts nor in a player’s role suit are worth only 1 point each. (Hint: This means that it is in a player’s best interest to trade off the cards in these suits in exchange for hearts or, even better, cards in the player’s role suit).

Note that a single card can only count towards one bonus. For example, a card could not contribute both towards the bonus for a pair and the bonus for a 3-card straight.

You win by surviving. However, the highest scoring peasant, highest scoring merchant, and highest scoring nobleman/woman will emerge to dominate their social class after the Black Death has passed!

Final Comments

The game has the following expected outcomes:

  • Over 5 rounds, 10 students will die. In a class of 30 students that will equal 1/3 of the population or roughly the percentage of the population that perished during the Black Death. For smaller or larger classes, you may need to remove or add jokers to keep the percentages in line.
  • Trading will slow as the game progresses because the chances of contracting the plague increase.
  • Yet the individual wealth of the survivors will increase as players die off.
  • General suspicion toward others and outright accusations that individuals were a source of the plague.

Diverse psychological reactions. Some students will make a couple of quick trades and then hide in the corner to avoid infection. Others will throw caution to the wind and attempt to amass as great a fortune as possible.

All of these outcomes are historical. Economic activity did in fact slow down during the height of the plague, but many individuals who inherited property and wealth from deceased family members did well financially. During the plague suspicion was directed towards outsiders, and minorities, especially Jews, were frequently blamed for causing the disease. Individual psychological reactions to the plague varied; some urban dwellers sought isolation and fled to the countryside to avoid infection, while others lived hedonistically and made no effort to save themselves.

Students can be led to make many of these observations on their own during the discussion, which can also be used to link results of the game to the assigned primary sources. Boccaccio describes the varied psychological reactions to the disease, while the plague ordinances help explain the immediate effects of the plague on trade and social interaction. One theme of both primary sources is the way fear of contagion destroyed traditional funeral and burial practices. While there are of course no burials during the game, it is interesting to watch how students react to ‘deaths’ at the end of each round. Most students will scatter away from the plague victims in order to avoid infection, behavior that mirrors in a small way that described in the primary sources.

After the discussion of the game and the primary sources, I lecture briefly on the Black Death to highlight aspects of the historical episode that the game cannot capture such as religious responses, medical theories, and the effects of the plague on art.

My classes are 75 minutes so I created the lesson with that length in mind; for shorter classes instructors could either stretch the lesson over two class periods or focus on the game alone without the lecture.

I have now run the game several times, and students have reacted positively to it. On exams, students have done well when asked to describe the psychological and economic effects of the Black Death. While games cannot give students the kind of detailed knowledge about a historical episode that lectures provide, they can serve to increase student engagement and give students an emotional attachment to topics that are otherwise quite distant in time and space.

[1] Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin, 2011).

[2] Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine, “The World of Holy Warcraft,” Foreign Policy, April 13, 2011 http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/13/the_world_of_holy_warcraft?page=0,1. [BACK] ↩

[3] Spencer Ackerman, “Navy Crowdsources Pirate Fight To Online Gamers,” Wired, May 11, 2011, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/05/navy-crowdsources-pirate-fight-to-online-gamers/. [BACK] ↩

[4] Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (CreateSpace, 2011). [BACK] ↩

[5] Online Medieval Sourcebook, “Boccaccio: Decameron – Introduction,” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/boccacio2.asp. [BACK] ↩

[6] Online Medieval Sourcebook, “Pistoia” (Plague Ordinances), http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/pistoia.asp. [BACK] ↩

Matt Wranovix received his BA in History from Rice University aMatt Wranovix received his BA in History from Rice University and his PhD from Yale. He specializes in medieval religion and the history of the book and is currently researching the circulation of manuscripts and printed books among the secular clergy in the fifteenth century. He is currently a Lecturer in the History Department and the Director of the Honors Program at the University of New Haven.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume XI, Issue 1, Spring 2013  http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/Spring2013BlackDeath.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies