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FEATURE: Can beans & dice changes lives? The potential of serious, fun games

This article first appeared on IIED

The power of games to get people thinking about their climate vulnerability was revealed this weekend at Development & Climate Days, an event run by the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and IIED on the sidelines of the UN climate talks in Warsaw.


Games are normally associated with frivolity and entertainment; but these games trade on group dynamics for a very serious purpose. They are designed to bolster people’s awareness of their climate risk and how they could manage those risks better.

Using such simple materials as dice, beans, pencils and paper, the games can be played with everyone from national government policy-makers to villagers at the grassroots level. Here in Warsaw, around sixty COP19 participants from countries as diverse as Uganda, the Philippines and Poland immersed themselves in the interactive experience.

Dr Pablo Suarez, Associate Director for Research and Innovation at the Climate Centre, came up with the idea for ‘serious fun’ climate games when he realised that his scientific research papers and Powerpoint presentations weren’t changing his audience’s minds, or behaviours. By contrast, submerging people in a game where they have to think and respond, often within seconds or minutes, “engages their brainpower,” he said. “You get more intensity, more connection, more interaction – just what we need to meet the challenges being addressed at this COP.”

Ready, set, go!

At Development & Climate Days, I found myself ushered into one of two small groups by the facilitator, and placed in a role-play. We were to act as residents of ground-floor apartments in Warsaw who suddenly received a surprising phone call: “The Vistula river is going to flood the city in one hour – do something, quick!” The facilitator gave us one minute to come up with a list of as many urgent actions as could be achieved in one hour.

The players were strangers to each other, but the shared task and the short deadline quickly broke the ice. We scribbled feverishly on scraps of paper and threw them into the centre of the table: ideas for calling the city government, calling TV and radio stations, moving vulnerable people and assets higher up, mobilising community organisations to help, activating an evacuation plan and many more were piled into the middle of our table. Then, just as swiftly, the facilitator told us to sort through the actions in one minute – assigning priority rankings and difficulty levels to each one, and writing them on cards.

Now, we kept our good humour but became harried as we realised how poorly we had coordinated in the last round, and had ended up with duplicate or overlapping items on our action list. Trying to resolve that was bad enough, then we broke a sweat as the facilitator began counting down and we tried to decide whether mobilising the army was more difficult than mobilising the local rescue services, and whether calling local radio stations was more important than calling community volunteer groups – all the while, politely disagreeing with each other.

The next stage of the game brought us to our feet: the facilitators hid the cards describing our urgent actions (and associated difficulty levels) in the next room. We had another minute to dash, in teams, to find the cards. If we had assigned an action a difficulty of ‘1 out of 4’, then we would find one die hidden beside its card, and we had to roll the die until it read ‘1’. If we had assigned an action a difficulty of ‘4 out of 4’ then we would find four dice there, and we had to roll them until they read ‘4’.

The two teams were competing against each other to complete as many actions as possible and dash back to their tables before the time was up. We had a further minute beforehand to devise our team strategies. Entering the spirit of the pretend emergency, and determined to put aside our disagreements over the previous conversation, my team hatched a plan for finding the cards, and signalling team members for help when needed.

After frantic dashing, dice rolling, calling out, and most importantly coordinating among each other, we threw ourselves back at home base as the final whistle blew. My group didn’t gather as many points as the other group – I’d call that the luck of the dice! However, we agreed it had been a memorable experience and that if the game were played among ‘real’ residents or decision-makers of a place, it would be a great way to start discussions about the strength and effectiveness of their emergency preparedness plans.

Games can mirror reality

When we talked about how we felt during the game, many players felt it had levelled the playing field among group members – and has the potential to subvert some of the power dynamics that exist in real life. The short time frame for the tasks doesn’t give players a chance to dominate each other. Everyone throws out ideas, everyone’s efforts are needed to search for cards and roll dice. This could have profound implications in situations where players are a mix of traditionally dominant and subservient community members (or government officials).

Players saw how certain aspects of the game reflected a microcosm of real life – bringing real life problems starkly into view. “Our group showed our panic when we were constrained by time, because we duplicated efforts,” said Rachel James of Oxford University. Shaban Mawanda, a programme coordinator for the Ugandan Red Cross added, “This reflects what we face in real life in the disaster risk reduction community, because often we have organisations duplicating efforts. The game shows the value of planning, it really helps if you can think more strategically about it.”

Sirak Temesgen of the Netherlands Red Cross said that the national Red Cross chapters in Kenya and Uganda have used this game with communities to make meaningful changes in the way they prepare for emergencies. For example, now communities have created contingency plans and set aside funds to implement them. “Before, if there was a disaster, communities diverted money from their main development fund for relief and recovery efforts,” he said. “But now, there are dedicated contingency funds exactly for such emergencies” which put communities, and especially the poorest households, on a more sustainable footing.

Another player, Dr Mey Cooper, a USAID Fellow on Population, Health and the Environment in Uganda, said “I can see the applicability in my own sector, of health. It would be a good way to generate conversations about priorities within communities.”

By the time we concluded the game and discussion, I was convinced that seemingly simple games like Ready! not only have the potential to change lives, but they could very likely lead to actions that save lives.

‘Exploding’’ demand for serious fun games

In concluding the Development & Climate Days, Carina Bachofen, and technical advisor to the Climate Centre, noted the “exploding” workload of her team as governments and humanitarian and development organisations request training and facilitation of games, as well as the design of new, tailored games for their circumstances.

“Since arriving in Warsaw, we have received at least ten different expressions of interest, coming from party delegates, development agencies, a private-sector umbrella group, community based organisations, and action research organisations,” she said.

Image courtesy of Flickr / James Bowe

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