The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

At major governance events, the present modes of interaction are far from optimal: as long as sequences of unidirectional statements followed by insufficient Q&A continue to prevail, can we expect any genuine change? Serious gameplay, uniquely conducive to systems thinking, could provide a precious alternative. Games have been harnessed in a range of development projects, and resulted in major breakthroughs. Games could reveal systemic shortcomings in current frameworks, they could deepen the role of citizens in day-to-day governance mechanisms, and even improve the workings of major UN bodies. They could trigger new ways of approaching unfamiliar problems, and harness the power of creative thinking to develop new solutions for the world’s greatest challenges.

Changes in governance happen at the speed of trust. Regrettably, our current ways of approaching governance change seem rather slow to engender trust. This is particularly true in the realm of climate risks: threats are rising faster than our collective ability to understand and address causes and consequences.

Part of the problem is the way we choose to interact during governance events. A large proportion of the interaction time is dominated by traditional meeting formats, such as the dreadful sequence of presentations followed by insufficient Q&A. Unidirectional statements dominate, establishing an atmosphere of ‘more of the same’, and rarely leading to genuine transformation in ideas and positions. To help participants meaningfully rethink the future and their role in it, a different approach is needed.

Games offer a promising option. They present playable system dynamic models that can help people and organizations inhabit the complexity of future risks. As digital technology spread to the mainstream in the last decades, video games have emerged as an increasingly popular cultural phenomenon. In turn, this has led to broad interest in game mechanics as a way to approach strategic challenges in a range of sectors, whether on digital platforms or face to face. Well-designed games, like well-designed governance systems, involve decisions with consequences: a set of simple rules engenders emergent complexity. Participants can explore new ways to address threats and opportunities, while bonding and building trust in ways that are both serious and fun. 

Games are uniquely conducive to systems thinking. They compress space and time, and offer an embodied experience of the tensions that dominate governance challenges –“now versus later”, “certainly versus probably”, “me versus us versus them”. Importantly, through gameplay, people combine the concentration of analytical rigor with the intuitive freedom of imaginative, artistic acts. As a result, game-enabled processes that capture the essence of real-world systems allow for safe and rich explorations of how those systems could be changed. In the words of SimCity creator Will Wright: “Games amplify our imagination, like cars amplify our legs, or houses amplify our skins.”

Games are uniquely conducive to systems thinking. They compress space and time, and offer an embodied experience of the tensions that dominate governance challenges.

In a range of projects that engaged the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, the World Bank, Oxfam, the UN World Food Programme, NASA and many other partners, breakthroughs in humanitarian and development work have emerged through gameplay. 

Illiterate Ethiopian farmers who don’t have a word for ‘insurance’ in their local language took part in a game with dice and beans designed to help them learn about parametric insurance bundled with credit. They tried to resolve obstacles by ‘hacking’ the system. In doing so, they proposed key innovations, such as paying premiums through labor, and measures to combine individual protection with resilience-building mechanisms at the community level. These evolved into the “R4 Rural Resilience” initiative currently providing microinsurance services to over 200,000 farmers in five developing countries. 

A game called “Paying for Predictions” brought together Red Cross volunteers with donors and hydro-meteorological experts in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It revealed that funding for disaster management materializes after a disaster, but that no mechanism was in place for shifting money to areas where science indicates unusual likelihood of an extreme event before a disaster strikes. Rapid funding triggered by early warnings could enable early action, drastically reducing the impact of extreme events. Thus “Forecast-based Financing” was born, and is currently being implemented in Bangladesh, Peru, Togo, Uganda and numerous other countries, where science and finance work in alliance to act faster, averting disaster.

There are currently no governance mechanisms regulating the research and potential deployment of ‘geoengineering’ – the technically feasible option to deliberately manipulate the global climate by spreading sulfur in the stratosphere in order to obstruct sunlight and reverse the effect of global warming. At a 2017 conference in Berlin, a game session explored potential governance mechanisms for geoengineering. Changing regional climates were embodied through foam dice, where 1 marked a drought and 6 a flood. The shape of the dice became more irregular over time, making extreme events more likely. After a few rounds, teams had the option to hack the climate. The geoengineering technology was represented by an electric knife that could chop off pieces of foam – hopefully bringing regional climates to more ‘normal’ behavior in the short-term, but with unclear implications for other regions. When one participant actually tried to alter the climate, a remarkable range of reactions emerged from other individuals and teams – from silent endorsement to self-sacrifice and even threat of nuclear war. The discussion that ensued had a level of emotional intensity that brought visceral realism to the intellectual examination of potential governance frameworks to prevent predatory geoengineering.  

Games supporting the development of better governance mechanisms have been played from fishing villages in Fiji to IPCC working groups of Nobel-prize winning scientists, and from the Ugandan Parliament to the White House. Platforms ranged from amphitheaters with 2500 participants to immersive solo experiences in virtual reality. The principles, methods and practices of serious gameplay could be further harnessed to develop global governance opportunities in three main areas. 

First, playable explorations of system dynamics can accelerate learning and dialogue about complex issues, improving stakeholder participation, revealing systemic shortcomings and prompting reflection on systemic improvement. Second, engagement games12 can be integrated to day-to-day governance mechanisms and deepen the role of citizens in global-to-local institutions, involving people in data collection and analysis, policy development or decentralized decision making. Third, well-designed games could improve the workings of UN bodies – including the security council – by enabling a more genuine, informal, out-of-the-box dialogue built on shared rules in pursuit of creative thinking and trust building. Games create a safe space that encourages players to switch roles, and experience the consequences of their decisions from numerous perspectives. They trigger new ways of imagining an issue, and new ways of addressing it.

Of course, games are no panacea: like all forms of designed interaction, things can go wrong. But a growing body of evidence and experience suggests that games can help nurture learning and dialogue processes, so that they become more anticipatory, more inclusive, and more imbued with trust. Notably, fun is functional to governance explorations. Games offer familiar structures designed to allow us to play with the unfamiliar, enabling us to reimagine the space of possibility latent in our shared futures.

Pablo Suarez

Pablo Suarez is associate director for research and innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, and a scholar at Boston University and University College London. He has consulted for the UN Development Programme, the World Food Programme, the World Bank, Oxfam, and twenty other humanitarian and development organizations, working in more than sixty countries. His current work ranges from financial instruments to machine learning to collaboration with artists to inspire thinking and action.