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Why serious problems call for serious play

Updated: Jun 22

Belief in the power of human agency has always been at the heart of the Partner Forest Program. Our everyday work involves fostering collaborations across cultures and borders to halt tropical deforestation and build cities for forests. We go about it armed with ample data and research to convey why radical strategies are needed, and yet experience confirms the old adage that the facts are not enough. Communication failures regularly return us to the question: How can cities get closer to understanding their impacts on forests and their agency in it, in order to take decisive and innovative action?


A recent publication in Nature Sustainability suggests one possible answer: games. In “Strategy games to improve environmental policymaking,” Claude A. Garcia and co-authors, including Scott Francisco and Sarah J. Wilson, respond to the failure of policies to prevent global biodiversity loss with the proposal that the problem is in how policies get made. Policymakers go wrong when they rely on complex, data-constrained models such as Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) that are misleadingly regarded as objective tools while they fail to account for human agency.

A strategy game that represents reality can help stakeholders see and enact solutions for conservation. Photo: Claude A. Garcia


This is where a game could help. Specifically, realistic, situation-specific games can open up real dialogues among stakeholders to biodiversity-related conflicts (e.g. over land use or forest management). They can help all players/stakeholders understand how each other’s actions and motivations are shaped and constrained by the rules of the game. This isn’t a new idea. To take a familiar example, Monopoly was originally designed to help players understand the difference between monopolist and non-monopolist systems. What Garcia et al. point out is that strategy games have been underused in the field of environmental policymaking. And they could have a big impact, if played by the right people who act on their experience and findings.

So what is the relevance for the Partner Forest Program? In fact games — or more broadly the idea of play — have been a central feature of Pilot Projects Collaborative’s methods of design and program development for a very long time. In 2006, Scott developed the Sandbox, a hands-on, participatory tool for solving problems of workplace design. Deployed with organizations large and small seeking to overcome challenges around the use of interior office space, the Sandbox got stakeholders working together and building consensus for decisions. Its strength lies in helping players clearly see the problem and converse about it at the same time. They confront what is (not) possible within a system of rules and negotiate solutions that respond to competing claims on limited resources.

The Future of Forest Work engaged youth in serious play to develop solutions for community-forest management and conservation.


The co-creation principles of the Sandbox permeate through the work of the Partner Forest Program, The Future of Forest Work youth engagement initiative, and the design and implementation of the tropical Forest Footprint and complementary Action Plan. But can we up the game for tropical forest conservation, using serious play to create solutions that would not otherwise be possible? The publication of “Strategy games” reminds us that we have to.

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