Games Help Humans Enable Change

New research highlights how games can improve decision-making around complex, multi-stakeholder climate and environmental issues.

Environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate change are affecting billions of people worldwide. Scientists document these trends, explain their causes and warn of the consequences ahead. Through modelling and scenarios they propose actions to reverse the trends. Even so, humans are proving to be unwilling, unprepared or unable to change. As governments around the world struggle to reach critical environmental targets, a new paper in the journal Nature Sustainability identifies why human behavior gets in the way of change and what to do about it. The authors of “Strategy games to improve environmental policymaking” find that role-playing and strategy games can break the impasse: “We will change the choices we make when we change the way we make choices.”

Integrating human behavior instead of modeling it

Currently, key environmental and social goals are developed around models of human behaviour that fail to account for human agency. In other words, people do not behave the way models assume.

“We need new tools to better understand each other and the choices we make,” explained lead author Dr. Claude Garcia, from the University of Applied Sciences in Berne and ETH Zurich. “Other models are not aligned with how people act. With games, real humans make real decisions in a context where emotions are important and stakes can be high.”

Strategy 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 all the stakeholders’ needs and motivations, which promotes dialogue and leads to the discovery of new solutions.

Choosing the right players

These types of games have successfully been used to connect science in policy in sectors such as health or defense. They are used for education and team building. But they have yet to be used to shape international environmental policy. The study proposes these games have potential to drive large-scale change when played by powerful players, like managers, opinion leaders or government officials. By navigating a system defined by the game rules, players receive insights that translate into transparent and effective collective decision-making around complex issues. Played by the right people, strategy games break free from established norms and support more transparent democratic dialogues, responding to the human and social limitations of current policy-making.

Read the research here:
Learn more about the Group of Forest Management and Development at ETH Zürich
Learn more about the Chair of Ecosystem Management at ETH Zürich
For interviews: Dr. Claude Garcia