Life is a Game of Cards, by Ed Mayo

Introducing values through a game on co-operation

With World Values Day approaching, I am thinking about how to have the conversation with those I work with around the Values Challenge – how do we live up to what we hold most dear.

Values are the compass guiding everything we do – our choices and our actions. When we forget that compass, we take the wrong turn. It is time to talk values.

So, here are instructions for one technique that I have used with colleagues in our business to introduce the value of co-operation in a simple and engaging way – with playing cards.

With a pack of cards and a pack of colleagues, divide people up into pairs and give every person two cards each, one red, one black. The value of the cards is unimportant. Each person is going to be asked to choose either the red card or the black card and to play it face down. There should be no speaking.

The rules are as follows. When the cards are revealed, the three possible combinations are scored like this:

Black card +3 | Black card +3

Red card +5 | Black card –2

Red card 0 | Red card 0

Give people ten seconds to choose which card to play, and then ask them to turn their cards over simultaneously.

If everyone keeps their score, then you can play this for a few rounds, to see if patterns of co-operation emerge. After each round, you can ask people why they played the cards they did – start off with the red–red combinations perhaps, then the red–black and then the black–black.

It can be fun. Some pairs are natural black card players from the start, some shift to black depending on what the person they are paired with plays, while others compete to get ahead by playing red. The discussion it prompts is where the value lies.

Playing the red card is probably best for short-term profit, minimising risk for one player. But the black card probably delivers better returns over time, whether for one or both players. And is more likely, no doubt, to build values of trust, respect and integrity.

My degree was in philosophy, my professional life in economics. But, much as I have loved those, I wouldn’t recommend them as a way in to talking about values. Better to let instinct, and play, kick in. As Jawaharlal Nehru is reputed to have said:

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”


About The Author

Ed Mayo is secretary general of Co-operatives UK, the national business association for co-operative and mutual enterprises. He is co-author of the book Consumer Kids, and is involved in a range of organisations and enterprises that promote a fairer and more sustainable economy.



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