Can a Role-Playing Game Teach Millions of Farmers to Cope with Climate Change? (Video)

Distant as it may seem to the plugged-in, blog-reading crowd that you and I count ourselves among, there are still hundreds of millions of people around the world who depend on subsistence farming for survival. And hundreds of millions more make a living bringing their yield to the market. All told, billions of people directly rely on the success of small farmers.

And of course, these farmers are among the most vulnerable in the world to the increasingly extreme weather conditions brought forth by climate change. Unexpected floods can wash away their crops; droughts make them desiccate. These farmers are planting crops in a world that’s considerably more unpredictable than it was for previous generations, thanks to an unprecedented concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But how can these farmers -- most of whom lack much formal education, and who have never heard much about climate science -- become better acquainted with the vast array of threats that the changing climate lays before them? How can they begin to adapt to the changing circumstances, and prepare for more volatile times?

Dr. Pablo Suarez thinks they should play games. Suarez is a respected designer of “serious games” who believes that community participation and entertainment can be more powerful ways to transmit knowledge than lectures. Working with the Red Cross, Suarez has traveled throughout places like Africa and South America, teaching farming communities to play games that help farmers better understand the implications and potential impacts of climate change.

Suarez led a session at this year’s Poptech conference, where he demonstrated how the game was played, and let us try it out. Here’s Suarez giving a brief explanation of why he believes the game is so powerful:

And here’s how it works: Players are divided into two teams, and each ‘farmer’ gets two beans. A prize is promised both to the individual who ends the game with the most beans, as well as to the team that finishes with most.

Gameplay goes something like this: Every round forces the players to make a decision anticipating weather in the forthcoming ‘season’, which is determined at first by the roll of dice. 1 means drought, 2-5 mean weather as usual, and 6 means floods. Players can pay one bean to ‘protect’ against either a 1 or a 6 (investing in protecting their crops), or invest nothing. After the choices are made, the die is rolled. Unless there’s a drought or a flood that you didn’t protect against, you earn a yield of 2 beans. If you do get caught unprotected by either, you lose 4. Seems simple, right?

It is. It’s also fun. The group huddles together and discusses strategy -- deciding whether to spread out to cover for losses in case of a disaster, or to trust the odds and concentrate most people in the ‘middle’ without protection -- and debates and argues. You get a sense of simple climate politics as leaders emerge and mob rule sways outcomes.

The very first round we played, a flood hit. I happened to be one of three people on my team who ponied up the bean to invest in flood protection -- the rest of our village was wiped out. They were ‘out’, and had to head to the nearest big city to seek work and more likely than not end up in slum-like living conditions.

As the game progresses, the dice get replaced with different objects to reflect the unpredictability of our changing climate: A frisbee, one of those big protective collars that keep dogs from chewing themselves, etc. One round, without telling anyone, Suarez cued up a slide in the background that showed a La Nina forecast for that season. Some people noticed, and discussed it as if it were a potentially true rumor -- perhaps mimicking the transmission of information in places where internet connections and satellite TV are scarce.

In the end, the game did indeed seem like a fun, relatively effective proxy for addressing climate issues on the community level. Do you work together with your neighbors to increase the chances of better yields for everyone? Do you trust your own judgment and go it alone and hoard your resources for you and your family? Do you seek to ‘win’ and react with glee when misery befalls others--others who are potentially your competitors?

I have no idea how effective such a game would be in African farming communities, whether the lessons would translate from beyond the entertainment sphere. Perhaps if leaders from the community facilitated the game it could indeed foster meaningful discussion (otherwise, it may risk appearing condescending). But it does seem like it could be an effective tool for engaging folks with very real climate issues -- and no, I’m not just saying that because by accumulating nine beans by the end, I happened to win the game ...

Can a Role-Playing Game Teach Millions of Farmers to Cope with Climate Change? (Video)
Small farmers are among the most vulnerable people in the world to global warming. Can a simple game help them prepare for it?

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