Playing "Paying for Predictions": Learning climate change crisis management through games

Playing "Paying for Predictions": Learning climate change crisis management through games

Paying for Predictions game teaches crisis managers real world skills

The die landed on a six, meaning heavy local rain. Combined with the heavy upstream rain - a five on a previous roll - this meant flooding. The early warning system on which I had spent most of my resources had predicted a 40% chance of flooding, but having few remaining resources, I had chosen not to make preparations, that is, spending a bean to preposition supplies. Instead, I had to spend 3 beans on disaster response.

This, said Pablo Suarez, Associate Director for Research and Innovation for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, is very much the way it goes in the real world and is a key point of this "Paying for Predictions" game. Resources are spent on prediction and then, for a variety of reasons, crisis managers never see them, don't understand them or discount or ignore them. I escaped a crisis when, after another round of flooding, a disaster relief fund - a pile of beans - were left for the taking without any clear rules for allocation. They were in arm's reach so I took them, spending them for more disaster response. Perfectly valid, said Suarez, noting that disaster relief funds were often dispensed not by need, but by relative influence.

As the game played, Suarez changed the dice, making precipitation more likely, simulating climate change. He had players negotiate agreements for how we split up beans, but pressed the pace, noting that the rainy season doesn't wait for governments to finish negotiating.

Suarez is one of growing set of experts using games for policy purposes. This is not entirely new. Urban policy simulation games started in the 1960s and grew into the entertainment space with games like Sim City. The national security community uses war games as a technique to practice various scenarios. But Suarez is using games differently. First, he seeks not to bore his audience. "Games beat Powerpoint" reads one of his (Powerpoint) slides. Second, he is seeking a way to engage people in difficult, complex subjects without clashing with preconceived notions. His climate change game is not the sort of game you'd associate with MIT's Media Lab. Not only is there no virtual reality involved, there's not even a computer. The game seems crude, using dice, beans, red stones to mark a crisis, plastic cups as dice holders, and hand drawn pieces of paper for territories. But it is, instead, thoughtfully calibrated to, on the one hand, abstract itself from the human suffering it is simulating, but on the other, not let you forget that the goal is to not have people suffer. He removed all mention of death from the game, he relates, when a disaster manager playing the game broke down in tears. And the resources and probabilities involved are also calibrated to force clear choices on the participants.

This game is one 45 created by the Climate Change Center, with subjects ranging from food security to the gender differences in climate change vulnerability. The Red Cross/Red Crescent has facilitated the play of these games across five continents. The games, the Red Cross/Red Crescent believes, bring players into the reality of climate-risk management and test their own decision making skills in an a fun way. Suarez, brought to MIT's Center for Civic Media by Research Affiliate and facilitator Willow Brugh, seeking a wider audience for his games, find technologies that might enhance, rather than obscure, the games, and to talk with other game makers about the best ways to make games matter.

I lost the game, having one territory suffer two crises with no public welfare investment, the other having avoided crises and had a modest investment in the public good. This was bested by another players territory where they had managed to both avoid crises and invest much more into their country. This sparked, as it was meant to, what it means to win a game like this. Certainly the ruler of the winning country won a political victory with their people. But would the world be better off if we had all pooled resources and worked to minimize suffering across territories? But when the winner demurred that their win had little to do with strategy and more to do with luck, Suarez noted that luck can determine the outcome of real life disasters.


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