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

July 19, 2011 7 By admin

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.