Playing with Complexity: Games and Systems Thinking

Colleen Macklin, Director of PETLab, is enthusastic about using games to solve real-world problems. At the WWF Fuller Symposium, she discussed the serious potential games have for conservation and offered examples of games that have been developed as serious tools to engage communities to solve challenges.

Date published: 2016/01/13

When we talk about games, the first thing that comes to your mind may be a computer game like Call of Duty or a mobile app like Angry Birds. Yet games are one of the oldest technologies in the world. Sumerian dice as old as 5,000 years have been discovered, representing some of the first early games. 

Games give us a safe, inconsequential space in which we can try and make sense of a world that operates in unpredictable ways. 
Colleen Macklin

People have been using games for thousands of years for a reason. Games are essential systems: interactive, simplified models of the real world. However, games are not able to model the world perfectly. Colleen offers a neat anology, 'I would say that games are like the domesticated kittens of the real world. They are how we domesticate real world systems and how we make sense of them'. Think of a kittens compared to a tiger, there is quite a difference! 

Unlike passive storytelling, the interactive element of games is crutial as it allows people the chance to be actively engaged with a system, to participate and grapple with the consequences of choices they make. Games give us a safe, inconsequential space in which we can try and make sense of a world that operates in unpredictable ways. Only by experimenting with inconsequential things can we fully explore the potential of what we can do with real consequences.

Through her work with Petlab, Colleen Macklin builds on this idea of giving people a space to interact with a simplified model of the real work. With her team, she creates games like Budgetball and Games for a New Climate for education and social change. 

As the name suggests, Budgetball was created to teach college students about the USA federal debt and how the federal budget works. It's played ever year on the National Mall in Washington D.C.. In essence, to win you must have a balanced budget and the most points while paying off the debt your team has accumulated buying new players and the special plays that are helpful in winning the game. Of course, Budgetball doesn't capture the complexities of balancing a federal budget and surveys showed that students did not learn specifics about the federal debt. However, what it does show was that students who hadn't previously thought about the federal debt began thinking and talking about it, and they gained an understanding about why it is might be good (and quite easy) to go into debt in order to win overall. This suggests that Budgetball successfully captured the core behaviours of the system. 

Games for a New Climate is a project Petlab developed in partnership with the Red Cross to get participants to think about react to complex issues around climate change: floods, drought and starvation. These games are playful, often non-digital activities that actively engage participants in experiential learning, through the simulation of complex decisions with consequences. In other words: fun capacity building. 

The audience for these games includes Red Cross staff and volunteers, climate scientists, politicians, and people around the world facing the increasingly catastrophic effects of climate change-related disasters. Both games can be played in "lo-fi" settings such as beaches and villages around the world where these disasters often cause extensive casualties and hardship. The goals for each game are to raise awareness about climate-related disasters, model and address possible actions and their outcomes, and ultimately lead to better decision–making in crisis situations.

Colleen concludes her talk by identifying some major opportunities for collaboration between conservation and the gaming industry. Partnerships with large, multiplayer, online games like Minecraft, which has 10 million registered users, offer unique access to a part of the population who may not otherwise engage or think about conservation. This thought is echoed by United for Wildlife, who has partnered with Minecraft to launch We are the Rangers, an initative that was recently discussed in a WILDLABS.NET case study by Peter Jacobs. 

Ultimately, the message to take away from Colleen's presentation is that while games are not able to model the world perfectly, what they offer is a safe, inconsequential place to explore and try to understand a complex, unpredictable world.  

Colleen Macklin, Director of PETLab discusses how we can use games to solve real-world problems, and how they can be developed to do so. She discusses the potential impact of games and provides examples of games that have been developed as serious tools to involve the community and to solve challenges.

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