Most people have played some kind of game in their lifetime. Be it cards, monopoly, or Farmville, this unique form of entertainment allows us to escape reality and work on goals with little future consequence.
In rare instances, however, games can provide a platform from which a complex, real life issue can be explored with just the right amount of detachment to provide meaningful insights.
The game, produced by a project aiming to improve hydropower decision-making processes in the Mekong, simulates the development of a river basin. Each riverbank is controlled by one ‘player,’ who works to establish agriculture, industry, energy production, and recreational/conservation spaces. Both sides must work together to develop economically while continuing to ensure the environmental health of the basin and the happiness of their citizens.
At the workshop, the game was introduced in one of the first sessions. Participants, many of whom were high-level decision makers in Central Asia, were split into teams. These teams worked together to develop one bank of the virtual river while anther team developed the other bank on a turn-by-turn basis.
Not only was this a successful way to build trust and familiarity between participants, it provided a platform where people could talk openly about tricky subjects, such as democratic water governance, environmental impacts, and economic incentives in relation to sustainable livelihoods. All of the teams’ decisions were made under a time constraint imposed by the games turn based structure.
Ultimately, the game acted as a way to kick-start the discussions at the workshop by prompting participants to think about the interconnectivity of water resources, agriculture, and energy production in a casual context. While most of the participants had specific background experience in concrete sectors in their professional lives, giving these individuals the vantage point of an omniscient game player allowed them to consider the needs of other sectors and communities with which they might not regularly interact.
“What makes the game really unique is that, while you have all of the pertinent statistical information about the effects that a specific action will have, the grand total of these actions and decisions play out very differently over the short and long term,” said Dr. Nathanial Matthews of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, whose team worked to develop the concept for the game. “The Basin Challenge allows you to see what the cumulative effects of your decisions are when they are compounded with the decisions of another party, replicating in some ways the interactions between neighboring districts or governments.”
This game, and others like it in the past, can act as an effective tool to break down barriers between various sectors, which often operate in distinct silos. By leveling the playing field in a virtual setting, it is possible to create a sense of mutual understanding and set the scene for negotiating important issues.