Games for a New Climate: It’s time to take games more seriously!

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By Tracey Li

This month saw the release of INESAD’s SimPachamama game. This is an educational simulation game, designed to teach the user about the deforestation and human wellbeing challenges associated with rural development in Bolivian forest communities. Being freely available online, it can be accessed and played by a large number of people.

However, more traditional ‘low-tech’, face-to-face games can also have a powerful reach: in recent years, many large non-government organizations (NGOs) such as the Red Cross have co-designed multiple participatory games. Facilitators from these organizations then take the games to several countries over the world, where they are used as educational and/or training tools in workshops.

One example is a game called “Humans versus Mosquitoes”, designed for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre by a team from Yale University and Parsons The New School for Design. The game is designed to raise awareness about the increasing spread of dengue fever, due to rising global temperatures, and therefore encourage the players to take preventative action. The players are divided into two teams, one of which is made up of humans and the other mosquitoes. Each team has its own territory at either end of the playing field, and in the middle are the mosquito breeding grounds. During a turn, each mosquito decides to either bite a human and make them sick by “tagging” them (leading to the human missing out on the next turn), or to lay an egg in the breeding grounds. Meanwhile, the humans choose either to clean up the breeding grounds by grabbing an egg (whilst trying not to be bitten), or to do nothing except protect themselves from being bitten. The message of the game is that cleaning up mosquito breeding grounds is more effective than using insecticides.

The changing distribution of dengue fever is just one example of the consequences of climate change. Other effects include unpredictable crop growth and food supplies, and an increase of extreme weather events such as hurricanes. “Climate risk management” is the term given to the process of managing these risks in order to minimize the negative impact on society. Those responsible for climate risk management must often make decisions based purely on theoretical information, rather than prior experience. However, as anyone who has ever had to deal with a management crisis will know, the most effective solutions arise from trial and error through experience. It is for this reason that the “Games for a New Climate” task force from the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future of Boston University set out “to explore the potential of participatory, game-based processes for accelerating learning, fostering dialogue and promoting action […] particularly involving climate risk management.” The task force was made up of 12 specialists from academic institutions and NGOs, with expertise in a diverse range of fields including capacity building, game design, and climate change. The findings are documented in their 2012 report entitled “Games for a New Climate: Experiencing the Complexity of Future Risks.”

The report reveals that games for assessing climate risk have many advantages. A game can convey the existence of randomness within a system. For example, a die is thrown in a game called “Upstream, Downstream” to determine whether the “upstream farmers” or “downstream farmers” suffer from drought or flooding. The game has been used to encourage communities, such as those in the Nicaraguan village of Moropoto, to explore for themselves how to best manage these risks and for upstream and downstream farmers to help one another. Since the players “inhabit” the game, they experience real apprehension before each throw, and real feelings of joy, relief, disappointment, and maybe even panic, depending on the outcome. In other words, the game provokes emotions and reactions that are similar to those that would be experienced in the real situation. After several rounds of playing the game, the user begins to gain an intuitive feel for the complexity of the situation, learning the positive and negative consequences of his or her decisions through trial and error, as well as the way that he or she instinctively reacts to the situation.

The games also challenge and correct any assumptions that players may have had in their minds beforehand: most people will have some preconception of the relationships between actions and consequences, assuming that one particular action will lead to a certain outcome. However, these models can be flawed and, as the task force points out,

“No pilot would dare to fly a commercial airliner without significant training in a flight simulator… yet decision makers are expected to make critical decisions relying on ‘theory’, ‘experience’, ‘intuition’, ‘gut feeling’, or less.”

Even the most talented pilot will undoubtedly make mistakes during the first few practice simulations simply because the flight process is too complex to be imagined and constructed as a purely mental model without any physical experience. Like pilots, decision makers of humanitarian and development organizations also stand to carry out actions which will affect the lives and wellbeing of a large number of people; therefore they too should practice with simulations, i.e. games, in order to refine their skills.

Of course, for a game to be beneficial, it has to be well designed. But besides the rules of the game itself, there are other factors that are also important. Health and safety is one issue: one anecdote recounts the case of an excited player on the “human” team of “Humans versus Mosquitoes” dislocating his ankle when he tripped over a defending “mosquito” whilst enthusiastically trying to grab an egg. The incident occurred during the 2012 “Come Out and Play” festival in New York.

Another vital aspect is the presence of a skilled facilitator, whose role it is to encourage emotional engagement and critical thinking during the game in order to achieve the desired learning objectives, and to prompt discussion between players both during and after the game by asking pertinent questions such as: “What did you choose to do when information was not available to you? What resulted from your decision?”

A further important aspect is ensuring that the game is appropriate for the players. In other words, cultural knowledge and sensitivity must be taken into account. For example, in “Humans versus Mosquitoes” the rules specify that players can signify self-protection by crossing their arms, which is a standard symbol of protection in many western cultures. However, when played in Uganda, the organizers noticed that the local players seemed to be taking unnecessary risks and not protecting themselves. It was revealed that they were uneasy with crossing their arms because the posture signifies death in their culture. Once this rule was modified, they continued to play the game successfully.

If all these factors are considered during the design and implementation of the game, or appropriate cultural and other adaptations are made according to the specific settings in which the game is being played, then the game will enable climate risk managers to gain a better understanding of the complexity of the decisions that they face, in a way that is both serious and fun. And the changing “climate” which is referred to in these games extends beyond the environmental definition of the word – the games also encompass the changing political, social, and economic climates in which policymakers have to work.

The task force concludes that games are currently under-utilized in climate risk management, although they are very well suited to the task: games can help to accomplish goals more efficiently than other approaches; learning and discussion can become more profound during the participatory gaming process; and games can inspire and motivate creative thinking to produce innovative, out-of-the-box solutions to serious problems. And although the authors focused only on face-to-face games requiring no electricity or other equipment, they acknowledge that digital games also have a lot of potential, not only in terms of the size of the audience that they can reach, but because interactive simulation models, such as SimPachamama, can process data and perform calculations beyond the scope of face-to-face games.

In summary, even the most influential policy-makers and those responsible for making some of the most important global decisions can benefit and learn from playing well-designed games. It’s time to take games seriously.

Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Associate at INESAD.

For your reference:

Pardee Center Task Force Report November 2012. Games for a New Climate: Experiencing the Complexity of Future Risks. Boston University, The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.


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