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

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.

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Anyone else using this kind of approach?

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4 Responses to “Are ‘serious games’ a better way to prepare for climate change than scenario planning?”
  1. Ros Cornforth

    Over the last 6 months, we have developed a game with Pablo Suarez and the Red Crescent Climate Centre team to help unpick some of the complex issues around attribution as part of the ACE-Africa project (AfClix, University of Reading and the University of Oxford). The game was named ‘CAULDRON’ to highlight situations characterized by uncertainty, instability and strong emotions. Pablo Suarez (Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre) facilitated the game. Players were grouped into small teams and during the course of the game, assumed the roles of:

    a farmer forced to make planting decisions in a changing climate
    a scientist assessing the influence of greenhouse gas emissions on drought risk
    a UN negotiator establishing a mechanism to cope with loss and damage and deciding how to distribute resources with incomplete scientific information about the distribution of climate change impacts.

    Recent outings include game play with around 70 people at the Development and Climate Days (D&C Days) during COP19 in Poland. The two-day event focused on “Innovative approaches, incisive dialogue for climate-smart development.”

    After the game, participants reflected that although there may not have been ‘new information,’ there was power in the role-play. One participant stated that he walked away from the game with a clear message regarding the critical importance of preparation. Another participant noted that the game was effective in creating the experience of dealing with loss and damage without adequate means to implement responses. In concluding the session, Suarez noted that games engage emotions, making participants more likely to retain learning and go deeper with analysis. He said the current format of the UN climate negotiations, which begins with the statement of opposing positions, has been described as a ‘self-blocking process,’ and encouraged the use of new and creative ways to achieve progress.

    More about the game and a video of the play can be found on the AfClix portal by following this link:

    Full game instructions and materials are available on request.

  2. Gareth Price-Jones

    Yes, though in my view less because it captures the complexity of the environment and incentives, but because games bring in the human factor that almost all simulations and models fail to replicate – this means it has to be played against other humans, not computer AI (a tempting proposition for greater roll-out).

    But why does it need to be ‘serious’? Playing an exaggerated (and likely therefore more fun) version may provide benefits in highlighting trends that aren’t demonstrated when people are playing in a worthy and responsible way – in real life people are often irresponsible in pursuit of winning, but they are not likely to display this behaviour in a serious setting with peers.

  3. Mirjam

    It also reminds me of the pathway approach, developed by STEPS Center at IDS, where you take into account several ‘pathways to sustainability’, instead of coming to a single solution via scenario planning.

  4. Vasko Popovski

    Games are an extremely powerful tool to both educate and engage. In UNDP Europe and CIS they have been used to tackle some big issues like:
    – unemployment in Moldova
    – peace and security in Cyprus and Kosovo
    – game-changing approach to promoting sustainable farming around Prespa Lake

    Furthermore, UNDP Europe and CIS annually organizes research and development events exploring a novel approach or a method that tends to be trending globally and that may apply to development. The intention is to continually scan the horizon for the new methods of problem solving that may apply to and support UNDP and its national partners in responding more effectively to development priorities.

    This year’s topic is foresight and development and will include cases of foresight via games. More information on the topic and the event can be found on following link:

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