Using Serious Games to Help Communities Make Progress on Serious Problems

Oct 24, 2016 | EDR Blog

By Danya Rumore for
Addressing environmental, natural resource, and public policy issues is serious business. Making progress on concerns such as water resources management and air quality often requires helping diverse stakeholders recognize their shared challenges, work through differing perspectives and interests, and accept tough trade-offs. The seriousness of such issues should not be undervalued or disregarded. However, we also should not disregard or undervalue the power of playfulness in helping communities and stakeholders make progress on tough issues. Indeed, the more serious the concern, the more need there may be for playfulness to help people see beyond their fear and worries and think creatively.

Recognizing the power of play, colleagues and I have been exploring the potential of a certain type of serious game – role-play simulations – as a way to help advance collaborative problem solving around complex environmental and public policy issues. The role-play simulations we use are face-to-face mock group decision-making exercises. Simulation participants are assigned individual roles and must work together to address a challenge in the context of a fabricated but realistic scenario. The simulations we use are fashioned after exercises the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School has been using for decades to train students and professionals in the skills of mutual gains negotiation, facilitation, mediation, and collaborative problem solving.

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The power of such simulations as a teaching tool has long been recognized in traditional academic settings. Having watched many students and professionals engage in role-plays, my colleagues and I became curious about the potential of such exercises as a way to (1) educate communities about critical environmental and public policy concerns, such as climate change adaptation, and (2) help community members work together to address these issues. We theorized that bringing diverse community members together in a safe, playful space and having them assume roles other than their real life roles could help communities engage in productive dialogue about tough, potentially divisive issues. As part of this, we hypothesized such exercises could foster greater empathy for different interests and perspectives, raise awareness about the need for collaboration in addressing community issues, and help people learn how to work together to address shared concerns.

To test this theory, we undertook the New England Climate Adaptation Project (NECAP). The project was a partnership of the MIT Science Impact Collaborative, the Consensus Building Institute, and four coastal New England communities. For more information about NECAP, see Carri Hulet’s 2014 EDR Blog post “Getting Past Politics on Climate Change” and our book Managing Climate Risks in Coastal Communities: Strategies for Engagement, Readiness, and Adaptation (Susskind, Rumore, Hulet, and Field. Anthem Press. 2015).

NECAP broadly aimed to help our partner communities make progress on climate change adaptation. Along the way, we wanted to rigorously test the effectiveness of role-play simulations as a community education and engagement tool. To do this, we engaged 100-150 diverse community members in each of our four partner towns through a series of workshops. During each workshop, we had participants play a role-play simulation focused on local climate change adaptation that was designed specifically for their town. We collected data on the effect of the workshops through before-and-after questionnaires and observation, as well as through interviews conducted with a subset of participants 4-6 weeks after each workshop. All in all, we engaged and collected questionnaire data from over 500 public officials and residents across our four partner towns.

What did we find? Our results are explained in depth (with data and statistics) in our recent Nature Climate Change article “Role-play simulations for climate change adaptation education and engagement.” The key take away, in summary, is that role-play simulations can:

  • Increase community concern and support for collective action: Participation in the NECAP simulations increased participant awareness of and concern about climate change risks. It also increased people’s support for and confidence in the prospects of community adaptation action.
  • Enhance community collaborative capacity: Participation in the NECAP simulations helped participants appreciate the interdependency of stakeholders and the need for collective adaptation action, increased empathy for different community members’ perspectives, and generated support for collaborative adaption decision-making.
  • Foster social learning: The NECAP simulations brought diverse stakeholders and community members together to learn with and from each other, thereby stimulating community conversations about difficult issues and creating important mutual understanding.
  • Catalyze community action: While the long-term effects of NECAP remain to be seen, all of the communities we worked with have taken meaningful steps forward in adapting to climate change. Their progress suggests that role-play simulations, when embedded in a broader education and engagement efforts, can play a valuable role in encouraging collective action to address environmental and public policy concerns.

Our research shows that role-play simulations can be valuable tools for engaging community members in civil, productive, and informed dialogue about tough environmental and public policy issues. They therefore have great promise for laying the groundwork for communities to collaboratively tackle complex collective problems, such as adapting to climate change.

In light of these findings, we are excited that the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program recently received a grant from the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation to develop a series of new role-play simulations that will teach about negotiation and collaborative decision-making in the context of oil and gas conflicts. We currently do not have plans to use these simulations for community education and engagement. However, we plan to integrate these role-plays into our Short Course on Effective Natural Resources Collaboration, and are glad to have empirical evidence showing the efficacy of such exercises as a tool for adult education and skill building.

dan-rum_250px_i8s0x2I increasingly believe that the more serious the challenge, the more creativity and playfulness required for communities and stakeholders to make progress. And the good news is we now have evidence that serious games such as role-play simulations are one playful approach that can help communities make progress on serious issues. 

Danya Lee Rumore is the Associate Director of the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution Program and a Research Assistant Professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. She holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Policy and Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).