State of Nature

This is a simple game to illustrate a theoretical concept. Thanks to Victor Asal (Rockefeller College, University at Albany).



This demonstrates the concept of a state of nature, humans’ tendency towards competitive behaviour and the value of cooperative action. However, given the nature of the exercise, do not reveal the objective until after you have played it.


How to Play

The game can be played with any number of students.

Each student is given a playing card and told to stand up. They should be able to move around.

Students are given the following instructions verbatim:

“The aim of this game is to survive. Now you are going to play rock-paper-scissors [explain rules if necessary]: the winner gets all the loser’s cards, the loser sits down and cannot play any more: a draw must be replayed. You do not have to challenge someone to play rock-paper-scissors, but you must accept a challenge to play.”

Students then play. You should wait until a stable outcome is reached, before feeding back.


Feedback Points

Typically, most students will pay rock-paper-scissors, despite the objective being to survive. The key question here is why anyone would play at all. Asking students for feedback on why opens up space for a discussion on human nature and competition. If you are lucky enough to have some students who don’t play, then ask them to explain why.



  • A particularly enjoyable variant is to play once again, after the feedback session. Often someone will still want to play rock-paper-scissors: talk to them about it.
  • In the basic game, the playing cards have no function other than to indicate who is still in the game, but their face values could be used to modulate the rock-paper-scissors interaction (e.g. you have to win twice to beat an opponent with a higher face value)