Understanding Human-Climate Complexities by Playing Interactive Games

By Andrew Zubiri, Climate-Eval Moderator, Global Environmental Facility

As London prepared for the Olympics a few weeks ago, a different type of games were held in the Washington DC office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Shaun Martin and colleagues from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center, Carina Bachofen and Erin Coughlan,  organized the ‘Adaptation Games’ aimed to educate people about climate change and its impacts. Seventy-something individuals from various environment, development and humanitarian organizations gathered to learn about climate-environment-human interaction complexities.

Games present a simplified view of reality while integrating fun and learning at the same time. The Adaptation Games was no place for convoluted panel discussions and PowerPoint presentations.

In the first game, ‘Before the Storm,’ we were given five beans each, and then divided into three groups of ten, each composing a ‘village’. The village with the most beans wins the game. Each village has to decide who and how many will run to one side of the room, or stay put. As the facilitator counts from ten to one, we strategize and run to our chosen investment which costs one bean for each player. At one end of the room is an umbrella which symbolizes flood-control, while at the other end is a bucket for drought mitigation. Once the time is up, the facilitator throws a die. The one and six sides of a die represented climate extremes- drought or excessive rain. The remaining faces (two to five) are favorable amounts of rainfall. Staying in the middle of the room- opting for ‘business-as-usual’ in climate change terms- costs nothing.

Until a disaster strikes. When the die lands on the one or six-dotted side (a drought or excessive rain episode) each player who invested nothing pays up to four beans, while those invested on the right adaptation measure gets two. The odds of a catastrophic event and cost of investment is relatively low compared with the post-disaster cost for doing nothing. Two to three villagers could invest for each of the catastrophic scenarios with lower probability (33%) while the rest who hope for moderate rainfall and choose to do business-as-usual seems to be a good strategy. However, as the game progresses, players should decide only between the two extreme temperatures. The die is replaced by Frisbee as a giant coin. The countdown hastens, and so does decision-making within each village, and confusion arises. To add another layer of uncertainty, the Frisbee is replaced by an Elizabethan collar (you read that right!). What are its odds that it will fall on its broader or narrower end, or even on its side? It is difficult to say, just like for climate change.

Erin Coughlan leads participants in playing Humans vs. Mosquitoes © WWF-US

Erin Coughlan leads participants in playing Humans vs. Mosquitoes © WWF-US

In real life, extreme weather poses danger. Institutions, lives and livelihoods are disrupted, or at times, even instantly destroyed. One game aptly called ‘Humans versus Mosquitoes’ is a modified version of ‘rock paper scissors’. It highlights how human response to vector-borne diseases is like putting out fire- we exterminate their spawning grounds. Do nothing and they attack and multiply.

We are not left without recourse. The title of the game ‘Investing in Information’ already says a lot. It emphasized the power of- you guessed that right- investing in information. At the start of the game, teams were given the chance to bid to view a seasonal forecast. The teams that won the bid had access to a weather forecast in every round, which was done by uncovering their die before they made an investment for an adaptation measure. If the forecast and the individual dice tallies to ten, then extreme weather event occurs. They are protected if they invested in an adaptation measure. Otherwise, the team loses four beans.

The dynamics of weather patterns, ecosystems and human behavior forms such intricacy that while scientific evidence of accelerating climate change is building up, deniers still question its existence. The great debate centers on the costs of action- and inaction- from political players on the international arena down to subsistence farmers in a small village. Mitigating climate change and responding to climate impacts incur costs, while inaction may lead to catastrophic disasters. These concepts are easily grasped by policymakers and scientists who have worked on this field, but many still lack the information to propel them into action.

The games could potentially help explain complex climate concepts. The games already available and still being developed vary in their learning objectives and requirements. They also range from simple ones with minimal resource requirements (for ‘Systems Thinking’), to complex ones requiring slides shows (Happy Village) or drawing boards, cards and several facilitators (Upstream, Downstream). In many of the games, a die or two introduced elements of complexity and uncertainty. Such conditions will prevail and should be considered as we derive solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Unlike in the games, the severity of the consequences of inaction won’t be as much fun or arbitrary, and will cost more than losing a bean counter or two. But, very much like in the games, our resolve to act and address climate change will define our immediate and long-term future.