Are ‘serious games’ a better way to prepare for climate change than scenario planning?

April 2, 2014 4 By Duncan Green

Had a nice little lightbulb moment last week, when I spoke at a meeting to launch yet another ODI paper. This one, ‘Planning for an Uncertain Future’ ACCRA logosummarized some work by ACCRA (the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance), of which Oxfam is a member.

The lightbulb in question was making a connection between two issues discussed in previous blog posts: my scepticism on scenario planning, and the ‘serious game’ that game master Pablo Suarez ran for Oxfam a couple of years back. ACCRA has adapted Pablo’s approach to ‘reflective gaming’ (playing the game, but periodically breaking off to consider the implications for real life work in adapting to climate change) and is using it in workshops with district level officials and others in Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique to see if it can help build capacity to adapt to the increasing variability of the climate.

Scenario planners claim it prepares you for the uncertain, unpredictable world of complex systems, epitomised by climate change. But judging by the report, and the video below, gaming seems a lot more likely to achieve that aim, across a wider range of people, being both more fun and more obviously connected to real life (‘experiential’).

The ODI found that even in fairly closed, rigid planning systems (eg Ethiopia), participants came to a better understanding of the ‘wiggle room’ available to officials seeking to improve adaptive capacity. However, the limits to wiggle room can be very narrow, unless there are ‘champions of change’ at higher levels. So a good power analysis is an essential starting point (and if it establishes that only 3 or 4 people make all the decisions, it may well be worth customising a game just for those people).

The researchers identified some other interesting outcomes from game-based reflection:

  • Imagining and considering possible (not just probable) futures over long timescales;
  • Appreciating that decisions taken in isolation are usually suboptimal;
  • Understanding that there is seldom a single ‘right’ answer;
  • Accept the inevitability of short-term shocks and long-term pressures;
  • Realising that Flexible and Forward-Looking Decision Making (FFDM) ways of working involve not only the district level but also collaboration across institutional, governance and sectoral boundaries;
  • Experiencing the benefits of doing more with less (discovering synergies);
  • Gaining confidence in exploring FFDM ways of working, that is, experimenting with different strategies over the course of the game and raising difficult issues in a safe space;
  • Appreciating that there are many ways in which success can be measured or judged.

I’d also be interested in the gender aspects of this – is women’s participation more or less compared to other kinds of capacity building? Anyway, here’s a nice 5m video showing how people react to the exercise.

Anyone else using this kind of approach?