ENABLING CHANGE

Three ways games can break sustainability deadlocks

Picture of a board game

Games allow the players to better understand interactions among stakeholders' beliefs and motivations. This promotes dialogue and can lead to the discovery of new solutions, a new paper argues. Photo: G. Crout/Unsplash

Played by the right people, strategy games can break free from established norms and support more transparent democratic dialogues

Story highlights

  • Strategic games let players understand how a system works by taking on the roles of different actors
  • For a game session to trigger transformation, three events must happen, sequentially, one enabling the others
  • To change policy games must be played by powerful actors

PLAYING GAMES WITH THE FUTURE: Despite numerous goals, pledges, strategies and agreements that exist to tackle the Earth’s parallel biodiversity and climate crises, we do not seem to be making progress.

The world’s countries have failed to achieve previous targets to stop biodiversity loss and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

So how can we move past these deadlocks and achieve sustainability targets?

Consider strategy games, argue a team of international researchers including centre researcher Garry Peterson in a new perspective published in Nature Sustainability.

Strategy games provide a space in which decision makers can reflect upon their situation, discover new policies, and identify new partners.

Garry Peterson, co-author

Human agency missing

Sustainability strategies stemming from decision making processes are generally explored using Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs). These integrate data from different sources, and are used to evaluate possible policy solutions to issues like deforestation or cliamte change.

But IAMs fall short in representing how humans behave and interact, limiting the range of options that are contemplated and paving the way for system stalling and unwelcome surprises during implementation.

“The question of how - how do you effectively conserve nature areas, how do you make policies to eat less meat, is not addressed. In these models they just happen. Human decision-making is largely missing from these models," the authors argue.

Dr. Claude Garcia from the University of Applied Sciences in Berne and ETH was the lead author of the paper.

Powerful actors must play

With games, real humans make real decisions in a context where emotions are important and stakes are high. Strategic games let players understand how a system works by taking on the roles of different actors involved in real-world socio-environmental scenarios.

The study finds that games allow the players to better understand interactions among stakeholders' beliefs and motivations that promotes dialogue and can lead to the discovery of new solutions.

So if games work, why are they not improving sustainability decision-making?

To change policy, the authors argue, games must be played by powerful actors.

“Having farmers play will not change farming subsidies. Students will not change laws, and interns will not change corporate strategies. Unless players have the power to shape norms and policies, the lessons drawn by participants will not translate into changes of the normative landscape and therefore will fail to register on the ground,” say the authors.

Three things needed

For a game session to trigger transformation, three events must happen, sequentially, one enabling the others:

1. The session must actually happen

2. The session must transform the mental models of the participants

3. The participants must act upon these learnings

In the study, the authors outline the specific conditions required for each of these steps to be successful.

“The lack of clarity on these conditions until now explains why the use of games is not widespread despite their effectiveness,” they say.

Played by the right people, strategy games can break free from established norms and support more transparent democratic dialogues, while engaging with the human, social, and ecological limitations of current policy-making.

“We will change the choices we make when we change the way we make choices,” the paper concludes.

Read Strategy games to improve environmental policymaking

Published: 2022-05-09