REAF5 - Games in class, seriously?

This week's post comes from my own book; it's the opening vignette of the chapter on repairing ecologies. In it, I describe my observation of a group of students playing a serious game to experientially learn about climate-change related uncertainty in a course on Disaster, Environment and Development, taught by my colleague Dom Kniveton at Sussex. I have been rereading this chapter in preparation for my own Sussex Development Lecture - Sussex' flagship development seminar series co-organized and hosted by the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) - on March 10. Titled 'Reimagining Development Education in Uncertain Times,' in the talk I will argue that in order for students to better understand the challenges of ecological crisis and uncertainty, the dominance of sustainable development needs to replaced with teaching students about alternative approaches such as eco-centrism, degrowth or indigenous well-being notions. I will also talk about the importance of students, and educators, gaining a basic understanding of basic complex systems thinking - and show how serious games are a creative way to do that. Interested? You can sign up for the talk, which will also be lifestreamed on IDS' YouTube channel, here.


A group of development practitioners playing a serious game. Photocredit: https://www.climatecentre.org/priority_areas/innovation/innovation_tools/

I have joined a group of final year undergraduate students taking a module about climate change and development, waiting expectantly to play an educational game about disaster risk reduction designed by some of their classmates. Called SENDAI, the game is inspired by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction that the students have studied in class. [1] When the game starts, students split into three groups representing Japan, Mexico or Myanmar.


Their first task is to answer a series of questions about their respective countries. The Japan team has the least amount of questions, reflecting the country’s better-resourced and disaster-prepared state, and therefore finishes way ahead of the other groups. In the next task, the students use chairs to move across the room without touching the floor. Laughter and shouts fill the classroom as they lift, pull and push each other, in an experiential approximation of collaboration to strengthen disaster risk governance, which is a central pillar of the Sendai Framework. Once again, Japan has the advantage by being able to use four chairs between the five players, while the Myanmar team has only two. This makes getting to the other side of the room impossible, and so the players have to ask Japan for help; it gives them two chairs but only in return for one of the resource cards each group was given at the beginning of the game. This shows Japan’s heavy involvement in development aid, especially for other Asian countries, but also the fact that aid always comes with strings attached.


The third task focuses on another Sendai pillar, investments in disaster risk reduction. Each group picks an investment card out of a hat, which tells Myanmar to prepare for a tsunami. After briefly consulting the Sendai Framework, the players decide that with the limited resources they have been given, they can invest in high sea walls and education, which earns them almost full points as it covers many of the Sendai targets. It also allows them to take ten blocks for their final task, which is to build a tsunami structure to manifest their disaster preparedness. They only have two minutes for their build and loud heavy metal music now fills the air, heightening an already tense atmosphere. As the tsunami arrives, their structure gets drenched with water from a bottle and barely survives. The other groups are not fairing much better, the Mexico team experiencing an earthquake that violent shakes the table and topples their block structure, while the Japan team has to contend with a tornado in the form of a hairdryer furiously blowing air unto theirs. The structure holds up, and, not surprisingly, the Japan team wins by point count, reinforcing its already advantageous condition.


There is more laughter, but also sighs of relief as the groups come together to reflect on their experiences of playing the game and what they learned from it: the persistent inequality among countries, the uncertainty and chance that came with picking random cards, the pressure under which the students operated and how that affected their actions and the way they were forced to collaborate in their teams. They also agreed that it was a different and fun, if at times stressful, way to learn experientially about an otherwise abstract and remote policy framework.

[1] For more information about the Sendai Framework, see https://www.undrr.org/publication/sendai-framework-disaster-risk-reduction-2015-2030.