Interactive Africa; fairtrade goes foul?; CIA vaccinations; GAVI wonk wars; Zambia and Ghana graduate; IMF on taxing capital inflows: links I liked

July 19, 2011

Why do we know so little about how poor people 'do' development?

July 19, 2011

Playing games with the climate – a great way to explore difficult choices in complex systems

July 19, 2011
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By pure coincidence, the day after linking to Jane McGonigall’s impassioned plea that gamers can save the world, I ended up playing a climate change gamerather more low-tech climate change game with a load of DFID staff. We were farmers, taking decisions on risks and returns for different crops in accordance with the unpredictable weather patterns (represented by the roll of a dice), in a series of rounds that corresponded to successive harvests.

If you guessed right (e.g. planting high yield crops banking on good weather), you got rewards in the shape of (literally) beans, if you guessed wrong (drought or flood hits your high yield crop) you had beans taken away. Donors were present and able to hand out a limited number of tokens which led to increased harvest, provided the farmer guessed right on the weather.

To liven it up, we split into two villages and competed, with chocolate for the winners.

In my group, we opted for immediate collectivization, pooling our beans so that anyone who chose the wrong option would be bailed out (DFID are all softies at heart) and agreeing how many would take the high risk/high return option, and how many would hedge by planting lower yield crops suitable for drought or flood. We also persuaded the donor to frontload their support so we could build up a stock of beans that would act as insurance against any climate shock for those who chose wrong. And yay, we won the chocolate.

What did I learn? Firstly, games really are an amazing educational tool. The room was energised, the people engaged, the debates were real and entered far deeper into the memory than even the fanciest powerpoint. The gamemaster, Pablo Suarez (right), wants to shift from doing Pablo Suarezlots of worthy disaster risk reduction work for Red Cross/Red Crescent to being a game designer. He sees games as ‘tools to inhabit complex systems’ :

“We are often faced with the challenge of helping key stakeholders understand and address the complexity of coupled natural-social systems where innovation can make a difference. Conventional, linear methods of conveying info (docs, ppt, videos, etc) rarely help non-experts in fully grasping the feedbacks, thresholds, delays, and especially tradeoffs between different available choices for system management (in part because they become bored after the third page/slide…). Games offer a remarkable way for people to ‘inhabit’ the complex system, and learn about its complexity through a playful activity where decisions have consequences, combining collaboration and competition.”

Secondly, some interesting behavioural points: people fight the last war – if the roll of the dice produces good weather for a couple of rounds, people start taking more risks. My colleague Cat Pettengell also took part. She’s an adaptation policy wonk and was rather alarmed at how quickly she abandoned her understanding of the ‘best’ approach and started to see risk reduction as a future luxury:

“When you literally had only one bean and anything could wipe that out, you wanted to concentrate on making more beans and telling yourself that once you have ‘enough’, you’d switch to a strategy of protecting yourself …. I didn’t personally invest in disaster risk reduction unless the donor covered my investment.”

Third, as Cat suggests, donor interventions massively skew the decisions being made – you go where the money is. In our case, we convinced the donor to frontload their spending, so we could build up our savings and resilience, but as Pablo pointed out, is it really likely that farmers could persuade DFID or any other humanitarian donor to spend all their money before a disaster occurs?

Pablo has designed and facilitated about a dozen game-based activities, targeting everyone from illiterate farmers to UNFCCC negotiators. See this short paper for synthesis of key ideas) and a Reuters profile here.

Finally, here’s a 4 minute video of a game for enabling dialogue between scientists, humanitarian workers, and villagers in Senegal to link early warnings with early action (I have to say, our game looks like more fun!). Interestingly, it also uses an evolutionary model of change – the game accelerates the creation of new ideas, and then consultation selects the good ones for amplification.

Pablo is supporting Oxfam America’s Private Sector Team with a participatory game about a microinsurance pilot in Ethiopia, but at the very least, I think we need to get him in for some climate gaming too.

7 comments

  1. And I ended up playing a game where you have to catapult birds at pigs that are hiding in structures made of glass, wood or stone blocks.

    I’m not sure what the moral of it all was!

  2. Interesting! EWB Canada has done quite a bit with this as well, although largely on our donor/member education side, so it’s interesting to see orgs that are using it in development work. EWB’s School Outreach and Youth Engagement sector uses workshops and games with youth (getting them to roleplay as different countries trying to construct water filters in order to look at global water systems was always the most popular game… I think we did it with ~30 000 youth this year? Crazy) to get them thinking more actively about what the consequences of living in an impoverished country or community might look and feel like. Facilitating the games was always so much fun for me, especially when you see the kids start to understand a lot of the game’s metaphors and consequences. I would definitely recommend checking those workshops out, we have quite a few of them that we use for Youth Engagement.

    (And there’s the classic CLTS board game used at EWB’s national conference as well – Sh***yland, always popular. It’s really good at demonstrating a lot of the one-step-forward-two-steps-back progress made in development. Good old CLTS…)

    Thanks for the great post! Reminded me how much I love KM :)

  3. Hi Pete,

    It’s common for people to associate the term ‘game’ with frivolity and inconsequential experience. But that is not what was going on here.

    If, instead, we term the session as a ‘pervasive, experiential kinaesthetic learning session’ we might be more accurate in describing the objective behind the practice. In either case, the outcome, if the session is conducted correctly, is consolidating knowledge and raising awareness of complex issues and their inter-relation and fostering genuine engagement.

    There are several pedagogic advantages to this method but two I would highlight is that a) one can lucidly present reams of information very succinctly and, b) more importantly (for me) the experience is a catalyst for very quickly engendering empathy. In my experience, greater empathy can facilitate more useful and consequential decision-making.

    You should try it. It is not at all trivial.

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