Can games contribute to academic research on land use and forestry?

Diana WeinholdBy Diana Weinhold

Academic research on land use and deforestation generally tries to uncover the underlying reasons for people’s and companies’ actions on the environment. For example, academics may investigate the impact of road building on agricultural expansion, how property rights change land clearing, or how agricultural labor supply affects cropping patterns.

Simulation exercises like SimPachamama (whether or not in a ‘game’ form), however, essentially work like thought experiments – if the world worked like this, what would happen if we did that.  As such, a simulation cannot answer fundamental questions of causality: what caused what. But what they can do is allow us to consider some possible outcomes of complex interactions between all the factors considered important (see Ben Groom’s piece for more information). In other words, given that academic research has found these causal relationships to be important, how would we expect the economy and environment to evolve over time under different policy choices? The outcomes from such an exercise should thus not be considered a scientific forecast, and presenting the simulation as a game is thus useful for framing the results as what they are – a hypothetical outcome from a hypothetical economy, albeit one based on current academic scholarship.

Thus this kind of game has many uses in translating academic research into more accessible forms and raising awareness of the direct and indirect effects of policies on the environment. However, one might justifiably wonder whether simulation games like SimPachamama could really be considered a contribution itself to the academic scholarship upon which it is based.

Perhaps one litmus test of this question is to ask whether we have learned anything new from the construction of SimPachamama, and I would suggest that indeed we have. In particular, the game has raised a number of useful hypotheses that can now be further investigated using more traditional methodological tools of research. For example, the game suggests that the decisions about cropping and land clearing by individual farmers has a much smaller impact on total deforestation than the people’s decisions migrate and move to and from cities. Thus policies that are designed to change the land use decision to protect forests may actually end up having a smaller, or even opposite, effect if they simultaneously alter household members’ calculus of whether to move away from their home altogether.

Repeated sessions of playing SimPachamama have also illustrated the importance of policy complementarities and sequencing. Most empirical academic research attempts to isolate the causal impact of changes in just one of these policies, be it land tenure reform, education spending, road building etc. on deforestation or economic growth. However these kinds of singular analyses can give us the wrong answers if the best regime would be a sequenced set of policies. SimPachamama suggests that we should examine policy bundles together, not independently, when seeking the best way to balance human wellbeing and the environment.

In sum, games like SimPachamama are useful not only for the public and policy makers, but also for academics. The construction of the game helps focus attention on critical linkages, and can reveal holes in academic knowledge. The results of simulations themselves can raise new hypotheses (or reinforce the importance of existing ones) that should influence the trajectory of future research.

Diana Weinhold s a reader of development economics in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics.

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  1. There’s certainly a lot to learn about this topic.
    I really like all the points you made.


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