The games we play

July 10th, 2014

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of games, play and movement. Recently I attended a MASHLM Humanitarian Summer School in Lugana, Switzerland. It was three days exploring games for humanitarian and development work led by Pablo Saurez from the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and Eric Gordon from the Harvard University Engagement Game Lab. And a special callout to Paulo Gonçalves, Founder and Director of MASHLM, who made it possible for me to attend.

Imagine sitting around a table playing a game with your friends – preferably a fairly complicated game requiring you to make decisions without knowing the consequences. You take turns, maybe throw the dice, pick up cards, make choices, invest valuable resources aka beans. There’s time pressure – make a choice NOW! You have to stand, or stay seated, according to your choice. No going back. No changing your mind, no prevaricating. There’s winners, and losers, each round, and sometimes you get stuck with nowhere to go – you’re out of resources or out of options.

Now add a facilitator, a games master, who keeps the game moving, counts down the time left for your decisions, and occasionally offers options, that might, or might not be helpful, depending on your situation. Add a time limit for the whole game – say 10 rounds, representing 10 years. It’s not a race-to-the-end game (first past the post wins), this is a more subtle game, where there are still winners and losers at the end, some more so than others. There’s an element of chance, of luck, and there’s an element of understanding the consequences of our decisions. And it’s fun.

This type of game is known as a system dynamic modeling game that helps us to understand complexity. The game I described above is called Paying for Predictions and is a game about the cost, value and use of early warnings. It forces players to grapple with the shifting chances of disaster as they decide whether or not to invest in forecast-based flood preparedness.

Compare that to a powerpoint presentation on the same topic.

The important thing about this game, and many of the others developed by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre – dubbed participatory games for the ‘new normal’ – is that they are based on the underlying science. They are not just ‘made up’. They reflect what really happens in the world. Post-game discussions are inclusive and reach depths rarely seen in more traditional approaches to sharing complex scientific principles, not the least because the game provides participants with a shared experience and a shared language to talk about abstract concepts such as predictions, probability, preparedness, risk and resource allocation. It also levels the playing field between experts and practitioners, and I suspect, opens up pathways for more constructive dialogue. And it’s emotional. You feel, in a real, visceral way, what it’s like to make choices.

While this type of game can easily be lumped with all other games, especially by nay-sayers, it’s quite a different experience to playing games on-line (even multi-player games) or playing physical games that facilitate interactions and discovery.

Pablo Saurez explains why gameplay beats powerpoint: “There needs to be an obstacle. Games can plant a level of confusion (huh?) and provide a sequence of interesting choices that builds curiosity, leading to the joy in the brain of figuring it out (Ah-Ha!). Powerpoint gives you nothing to guess about – the work has been done by the presenter.”

I still have lots to learn, and I’m excited about the potential of these sorts of games, especially when there is a big power differential in groups, when there’s no one ‘right’ answer, and the concepts are wrapped in impenetrable language.

As part of the course in Lugano we developed our own games, and that too was an interesting experience. We quickly learned that what makes sense on paper, or in our heads, may not work in practice. We discovered that too many rules make it harder to play. We discovered that too much realism can get in the way. We were exploring an uncertainty/complexity game around climate change and had focused on farmers. We kept getting stuck in conversations about what farmers would/or would not do in reality. We were going around in circles seemingly getting nowhere (I actually suspect this is an important part of game design) until we decided to ditch the farmers and focus on squirrels! It was a throw-away idea that saved the day – a classic example of yes-anding. We still had investments in infrastructure, diversification of crops (in this case, nuts), we still had external influences, and making decisions with limited knowledge, as well as climate probability data, in the game. It’s just that it was about squirrels in the forest, collecting different types of nuts, building nests and being threatened by deforestation and climate variability.

Other teams developed games on sustainable fishing quotas, and coordination of humanitarian providers after a disaster.

Fun games about serious topics? You bet!

1 Comment so far

  1. Geoff Brown on July 10, 2014 4:17 pm

    Fun games in the context of serious-ness … absolutely. Very timely post Viv.

    I’ve been dipping deeply into Improv games of late and experimenting with new ways of engaging people in conversations and shared experiences. I’ve been practicing with my boys and we have been trying to co-create our own table games (using objects like dice) … and they always work better when the rules evolve from the doing and playing.

    Flowing from our work at the Game Changer event last year, the practitioners within the Preventative Health system would benefit from playing more when they come together. They understand complexity at a theoretical level and they are doing some amazing work in the field, but these types of games you describe are exactly what they need next.

    Once again you are a few steps ahead of the game … I’ll be digging into the resources you have linked here. Looking forward to catching up soon … kids back to school next week 🙂



Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.