Promoting extreme event learning through serious fun

Promoting extreme event learning through serious fun

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Date: 24th May 2012
Author: Mairi Dupar
Type: Event
Tags: disaster risk management, disaster risk reduction

CDKN is supporting the development of games to stimulate decision-makers’ thinking on climate-related risk. Mairi Dupar of CDKN joined colleagues from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre to play some high-stakes games and find out more.

Pablo Suarez of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre made a surprising introduction to a group of researchers, journalists and decisionmakers who gathered to talk about climate change policy in London today: he promised to play with our minds.

That’s not how you expect a policy gathering to begin. But this wasn’t any policy gathering. It was a promise of “Extreme Event Learning Through Serious Fun”– a completely new way of engaging with the risks of climate change impacts and how we manage them.

At the Overseas Development Institute-hosted event, Pablo instructed participants to gather around tables in small groups. He gave each person ten beans to symbolise their budget. Every participant represented a government ministry. Every small cluster of people represented a national government.

Pablo wasn’t just going to talk to us about the importance of preparing for climate-related disaster risks. He was going to make us feel the pain of tough decision-making.

Engage the mind
Pablo has developed a range of climate change games after many frustrating years of writing papers and reports that just didn’t seem to catalyse policy action. “Text is a uni-directional form – it does not make our brains wake up,” Pablo said. “Now with games, I get brainpower engaged.”

Pablo had also tried the tested formula of delivering presentations, but with limited success: “as a presenter, my brain is somewhat active as I talk, but your brain as listeners is passive,” he told us.

“The difference with games is that your brains are active. You have to think about trade offs, thresholds and delays. You have to think about what happens if you do, if you don’t take action.”

He warned us that, as decision-makers in charge of our ministerial and national ‘budgets’ we’d be subject to various rules as the game went on. Each rule would make sense but the package of rules would confound us. We braced ourselves for confusion.

Decision-making on a roller coaster
The next 45 minutes of play put us all in the hot seat.

Pablo, the rule-maker, asked every country and every individual, respectively, to roll a die at the beginning of each round. If the combined scores totalled more than ten points, it symbolised disastrous flooding. Before every round, each of us had the opportunity to surrender one of our beans and buy flood protection for that year in our fictional world. If we scored more than ten points and flooded, we were safe because our gamble had worked out. But if we didn’t pay a bean for annual protection and got flooded, we had to pay a heavy penalty of four beans. We could see: it wouldn’t take many such gambles to be struck out of the game altogether.

Pablo invited every country group to bid up-front for long term forecasting and  protection against extreme weather events. Each group could bid for the right to regional weather-forecasting – akin to early warning systems - or some form of disaster risk reduction, such as coastal defences. Surrendering beans early to purchase these services seemed like an expensive precaution, but would show dividends later.

It started good-humouredly enough. My country group cast its beans, and won a bid to learn the regional weather forecast in every round. That was a great move. It gave us better odds of knowing whether we were going to experience catastophic flooding in a given year.

Then, the rolling of the dice began. I swung from bemusement to tortured indecision as I had to calculate the odds of being flooded. With each round, my counterparts and I had the option to pay one bean and buy flood-preparedness measures that would protect us. But our total number of beans was not enough to buy protection every time. We had ten rounds to endure, and only a limited stock of beans.

Changing the rules in mid-game
At round seven, suddenly the rules of the game changed. Pablo’s assistant replaced our regular six-sided dice with eight-sided dice, which increased the odds of flooding. The parallel with decision-making in a changing climate was evident. The IPCC’s Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, published in March 2012, alerts us that extreme weather events will become more frequent as the century goes on. In decision-making terms, that’s like shortened odds of experiencing a climate-related disaster.

After ten rounds, representing ten years of uncertain rainfall, passed by, a handful of colleagues were out of the game completely: their beans were exhausted. I had received a painful penalty of four beans for being caught unprepared for one disastrous flood. I had only squeaked through to safety with one bean at the game’s end.

One colleague had a sharp wake-up call when the change of rules caused a flutter in the room, the noise of other participants distracted him, and he failed to take the disaster preparedness actions he intended. This shock wasn’t so far from real life: how easy it is for a minister to be distracted by other current events, and to overlook the wisdom of disaster risk reduction in the midst of her other tasks!

The power of games
My country group fared well overall. We and another winning group of participants had each invested up-front in some measure of forecast or disaster risk reduction.

But some groups were just unlucky: even when they understood the probabilities and wanted to invest beans in protection, their beans just didn’t go far enough. Their dice kept coming up with high numbers, which represented catastrophic floods.

The conclusion one could draw, Pablo said, was the disaster risk reduction measures and forecasting “can be a good investment if you are lucky and you know what you are doing under the rules!”

The person who retained the most beans said she managed to do so because her small team had carefully analysed the probabilities of a flood each time and had acted accordingly.  Such careful analysis, based on the scientific information at hand, is exactly what the humanitarian sector is not doing at present, Pablo said.

Participants reflected on the emotional roller coaster ride they had experienced. Although the game was what Pablo called a crude ‘caricature’ of reality, it had put us on edge. It had demonstrated  the complexity of disaster-related decision making, the tensions between long- and short-term trade-offs, the elements of second-guessing other people’s behaviours.

We asked ourselves:
• Should we have hedged our bets differently in the early rounds of the game, given the overall uncertainty – we thought the ‘rules of the game’ might change, but we didn’t know how? How should one act in a context of uncertainty?
• How should we have balanced our short term versus our long term security?
• What would have happened if different members of our team had had different levels of vulnerability to weather shocks?

Although the game certainly hadn’t led us down the path of distinct policy solutions for particular contexts, it had awakened our appetites for appropriate knowledge and decision-making tools. The game showed the power of these methods to raise awareness, and how such climate games could be usefully embedded in a larger programme of engagement, training and technical assistance.

Natasha Grist, Head of Research for CDKN said: “We need robust decision making to deal with today’s climatic uncertainties. These games bring players into reality, albeit simplified, of planning for the fast and slow onset disasters that the world increasingly faces, because of climate change. We can’t afford to bury our heads in the sand any more. These simulations show what better information and preparedness can and can’t do for us, in planning for difficult times ahead.  And importantly, games show us that when people are involved, human error, distraction, other priorities, scientific unpredictability, and cool headedness all play their part, as they do in real life."

"Pablo taps into simple human psychological traits exposed in  playing, winning, beating and cooperating with others. Emotions get involved, and learning happens. Games are a useful tool to have in the toolkit  that is needed to get people to plan better for climate-related extreme and slow onset events."

CDKN is supporting the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre to develop and trial different forms of the climate game. CDKN is funding these simulations to be tested in Africa, and it’s been taken worldwide by the Climate Centre in pilots at all levels of society from Senegalese villages to Asia, to private sector and to  the World Bank. Visit the CDKN project website or the main Climate Centre website for more information.

In a related set of activities, Pablo’s also bringing together a diverse group including games experts, humanitarian, climate change and development professionals to understand and show how simulations and games can help make bigger changes in the wider world of decision making and actions –here.

Read a recently published paper by Pablo Suarez and associates: Serious fun: scaling up community-based adaptation through experiential learning.


Image courtesy Matsuyuki,

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