Games are increasingly used in research and development projects, often bringing elements of play into real life in order to deliver insights into decision-making processes. Claude Garcia describes how real life can be taken into the world of games, facilitating players to take better decisions by themselves, and how doing so can support policy development, helping to draft policy that takes better account of field realities.

In recent years, the use of games has become increasingly popular in research and development projects. Game theory, experimental games, and gamification are eye-catching innovations which may deliver insights into the decision-making processes of their participants, and even serve as an effective tool to nudge behaviours. But there are games and then there are games.

Take gamification for example. It means bringing elements of play into real life in order to induce people into changing their behaviours. For example, walk 10,000 steps and your watch will sing a tune. What I describe in this post is the exact opposite. We take real life into the world of games, so players can take better decisions by themselves. It is not about forcing them, not about inducing or nudging them. This is about empowering them by helping them to see the bigger picture.

I am a scientist. I develop models that describe how things work in tropical landscapes. As part of a project I led a couple of years ago, my colleagues and I developed methods and models to explore the future of the forests of the Congo Basin. We created computer simulations predicting deforestation rates in the region for 2050. We designed theoretical models to understand the process of forest loss. And we also developed a third way to explore the future: process-based models to change how people make decisions. These models look like games. In fact, they are games. And pretty great games too. They show how people involved in the design – in our case, the stakeholders themselves – think things work in the region. As such, they can then be used to better understand each other’s points of view. How is this useful in a policy development process? Let me show you with one example.

The games represent all the stakeholders, resources, and interactions that create the landscapes people live in. We talk about landscapes rather than ecosystems because we include within the boundaries of our analysis the ecosystems and their processes, the stakeholders and their strategies, and the norms and institutions the people create to regulate access to the ecosystems. This is what we define as a landscape. Others would talk about social-ecological systems.

The games can be designed at any scale. For instance, the land surrounding a particular village. The forests and the fields. The neighbours and the logging company. The fruits and the wildlife. The road, the traders, and the markets. Or the entire Congo Basin, with cities, governments, forest dwellers, logging and mining companies, development banks, and the conservation NGOs. The design process involves as many different points of view as possible – within the boundaries of what can be done with limited time and resources. When you play these games, you impersonate one of the system’s active stakeholders. You take decisions that will change the landscape and have an impact on you and the other players. Play your cards right and you’ll thrive. But be outplayed and you will go bankrupt or your family will starve. It’s challenging, complex, and fun.

This is not something of use only in remote villages in Africa, or in the classroom with students. Play is part of the human experience. For some reason, it is now taboo for adults to learn through play. Yet that is how we have evolved and it remains something we are very good at. Participants in our workshops are often surprised by how powerful the immersion in the game is, and how inspirational the experience is.

But it is still just a game, unless the players are actually people making decisions in the real system. If decision-makers – not the interns, but the CEOs; not the students, but the policymakers – go through the experience and gain insights in the process, the decisions they will take will change too. When the stakes are real, the outcomes are real too. It never happens, though. Admittedly, it takes some nerve to call decision-makers to the table to discuss serious issues and invite them to play a game.

Well, it’s not exactly true to say that it never happens. Because this is precisely what the Forest Stewardship Council Program for the Congo Basin did last year. In summer 2017, in the capital city, Brazzaville, Mathieu Auger-Schwartzenberg, the director of the programme, called upon our models and methods to support its Regional Working Group on High Conservation Value Areas. Twelve negotiators – representing certified logging companies, governments, conservation NGOs, and representatives of local communities – had been struggling for more than two years to reach an agreement on how to define regional standards for the management of Intact Forest Landscape, the last pieces of forests without roads. Negotiations were gridlocked.

After three days, thanks to the support of MineSet, a game we had developed about logging and mining companies shaping entire landscapes over the span of decades, and with facilitation, the negotiators reached a consensus. It took another few months for the final agreement to be signed, which happened in April. In a written statement, participants paid tribute to the game and its significance in achieving this breakthrough. The game was seen as having served as a boundary object between all parties, allowing them to understand one another better and go on to build consensus.

Were we successful only because discussions had dragged on for more than two years previously? Maybe. There is no way of knowing. Can we replicate? No. This was a one shot and precisely because we were successful, the system has now changed, new rules have been defined. Can we gather data, run some statistics? Again, no. Or rather, we have but the data only shows what happened in a game. It does not really matter; it is what happens in the minds of the participants that matters.

Invariably, when we present our work, the same questions are raised. What do we mean by “games”? How are they developed? How realistic are they? How do we know the behaviour of the players is real? Who learns what? Can these games be transposed? We are starting to have answers to all these questions and, yes, there are limits and risks to this method, as with any other.

For the process to work, it needs a game that describes the world as the players see it. It needs a skilled facilitator or gamesmaster who will not manipulate the process. And it needs players who have power to take decisions and are ready to invest the time to think things through. Finally, it needs a convenor to be able to call the participants to the table and who is confident enough to take the risk to invite them to play.

The take-home message is that the world is complex and uncertain, and many of the problems we face – climate change, poverty, migration – are wicked. Anticipating the impacts of a decision is remarkably difficult, in part because the other players will respond and adapt their strategies. Games are powerful tools to understand how people make decisions, to explore alternative strategies and negotiate agreements. They can support policy development, helping to draft policy that takes better account of field realities. It is so much easier to develop a strategy with the chess board and pieces in front of us than to try to do so while wearing a blindfold.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Featured image credit: Jaciel Melnik, via Unsplash (licensed under a CC0 1.0 license).

About the author

Claude Garcia is a tropical ecologist working for CIRAD, the CIRAD, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, and he leads the Forest Management and Development team at ETH Zürich, Switzerland. He uses games to analyse the drivers and strategies involved in the decision-making processes of stakeholders in tropical landscapes and explore alternative futures. He recently created InSpire Strategy and Decision, a company helping its clients deal with complexity and develop better strategies in situations of high uncertainty through the use and development of games. He tweets @ClaudeAGarcia.

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