A game serving collective action

With regards to land uses and environmental management issues, it is now generally acknowledged that a significant commitment of all stakeholders involved is needed to achieve sustainable and lasting improvements. But achieving long-term and up-scalable involvement of stakeholders remains a tricky challenge? Genuine inclusiveness of all the stakeholders means profound change in the ways territorial management is thought, framed and implemented, i.e. a genuine paradigm shift that changes how we include other points of view along with our own. The approach presented here pursues this complex yet crucial challenge.

This simulation game, called TerriStories, combines open role-play and living theater. Players are territory users, engaged in a variety of activities that they choose themselves, to reach objectives and needs that they set themselves. The game session is first set by participants themselves, as they decide for themselves the main issues to be addressed, then describe the situation as they see it themselves, and finally let them imagine and test (by playing) their own ideas of what might improve their situation. In fact, this is an open game leaving each player to pursue what they consider important, but nevertheless surrounded by other players with their own aspirations. This is thus an ‘equally’ collaborative game, as the implicit aim of the game is both to achieve the well-being of the group as well as each player‘s needs and objectives.

Interview of P. D‘aquino

The board game: neither local nor global…but both

The game materials consists of several ‘territorial’ boards, allowing players to take into account social and geographic diversity in their collective analysis, hence they are not bound by the needs of (their) territory. The TerriStories game has been designed to be used in any territorial context and at different scales. It consists of several game boards representing a diverse set of territories, which may represent a national territory, by considering each board as a region of the country or, conversely, a very small local area, each board symbolizing, for example, the territory of several farms. The fact that the game is made up of four boards, and that many social and spatial scales have to be considered, helps participants to focus on a diagnosis and proposals that should be relevant, not only within their territory, but also at other scales, and which should be relevant not only from their point of view, but while also taking into account the views of others.

The boards can be freely modified in order to rebuild the territory concerned in keeping with the viewpoint of the players. Then participants can choose the activities they want to engage in, and whether they will earn income or not from them, depending on rainfall, on the state of resources and on fortuitous socio-economic and environmental events. Ultimately, we are dealing with a participatory simulation game during which participants can introduce any individual action and collective rules they want, at a single board scale (i.e. local or regional rules) or at the scale of four boards (e.g. national rules ans laws…or even global policy). Participants therefore decide for themselves most of the social rules that then become game rules. By providing a simulation medium that is both simple and open to any set of players, while at the same time pushing for pragmatic practices (game scenarios), TerriStories allows players to first agree on collective choices and then find ways to implement them in a concrete and pragmatic way.

Playing with their own realities…

The game is played by 8-12 players per board (territory). Thus several boards can be combined, but separately, to represent a greater diversity of places, social groups, perspectives and needs. The game has already been played using 8 boards with a hundred people distributed over the eight boards. The players playing on different boards can freely communicate, and move from one board (territory) to another (e.g. migration, ) if the host board accept the newcomer. They also can simulate organizations and rules shared by different boards if they so wish.

Each player has to manage: a family, a farm, a business, a community territory…that may vary in size so as to take into account the diversitu of real situations. There are two goals in the game: an individual goal for each player, i.e., to meet their own needs in the difficult context that is proposed in the game, by engaging in activites that generate food and income, and a second more collective objective, which is to imagine the most relevant rules for the future…the meaning of ‘relevant’ is to be defined and evolve thanks to interactions between players during the game.

The game is not intended to represent the complex realities of a given territory and the constraints that living there impose. Instead, the game offers a simplification of the reality, where the challenge is to represent the key elements of a changing and uncertain environment, so that one can reflect, in an operational and pragmatic ways, on how to successfully live together. The value of the game rules is to set a framework, within which players can improvise any situation they deem necessary to truly integrate the difficulties and elements of reality, and to try out all forms of organization or action, be they individual or collective, they want to discuss. The rules are open and facilitate improvisation. Therefore, during a game session, players can improvise new roles (mayor, investor, environmentalist, etc.), if they deem it useful for the simulation they are exploring.

TerriStories: summary of the game rules

…and try to improve them together

The whole game has been designed to be quickly mastered by the participants so that they can easy modify the rules, and adapt and enrich the game depending on their own concerns. TerriStories is designed to allow players to add any game element that they consider useful to deepen their thinking: post-its, new types of tokens or cards… or even elements from their natural environment (see…). A set of game materials with no preset functions are always available for players to develop scenarios of the game. This enables them to stage situations based on real life experiences, and explore and play with their own ideas on how they could improve the situation. Thus, from the coordination of situations they create step by step, they will then be able to act them out. This will allow them to later test and forge new rules to improve the situation based on their own perceptions. The game also showcases all forms of uncertainty and events related to climate, environment or socio-economic realities that one want to see taken into account by the players in collective and creative discussions.

First, let‘s test it on the Sahel issue

The game can be applied to multiple issued of understanding and collective imagination, but to allow its appropriation, a first practical case scenario is made available to players: how might Sahelian farmers cope collectively faced with such a hostile and uncertain environment? Beyond its usefulness in helping players appropriate the game, this case application can also be an end in itself, by raising players‘ awareness on the difficulties faced in the South and on the collective thinking and imagination required to deal with the global challenges such as climate uncertainty and resource scarcity.

The Sahel is one of the most extreme examples of a territory facing major uncertainties. The Sahel is the region of West Africa located between the desert and savanna (Sahel means the shores of the Sahara). It has always been a difficult but not desert territory, with poor vegetation accustomed to dry periods. The climate of the Sahel is not only hot and dry, it is also extraordinarily uncertain: in this context where rainfall is crucial for survival, one never really known where it will rain, how much will fall and for how long. Therefore, what is named the rainy season in the Shale (approximatively July to October) may start, depending on the year, a month or two earlier or later, last several weeks or months, comprise long periods without rain, or heavy rains every day… Every possible variation/combination is possible. And not just in terms of time! Rainfall can be very favorable in a given place and, a few kilometers away, non-existent throughout the duration of the rainy season…Difficult to find more unsure and arbitrary conditions.

How can one manage to survive, to carry out crop or breeding related farming, to collect bush produce, and engage in other rural activities? Yet Sahelians manage to do so.  They have even managed over centuries to allow major civilizations prosper with significant population densities. The Sahelian situation is thus a good example of highly uncertain territory regularly subject to events and random changes, which pose major challenges for survival. This great complexity of context which is ideal when attempting to ‘think wider’, or imagine and explore creative solution, in order to build together. The question put to players is the following: would you be able to create synergy with your diverse viewpoints to help you cope? Will you succeed if coming up with creative solutions that neither a biologist nor a sociologist nor a policy decision-maker could have imagined alone?

The Sahel game scenario

The players, who are Sahelian villagers, therefore engage in the different activities in the Sahel, season after season (in the Sahelian case the game covers two season: the rainy season and the dry season), year after year, by setting up on a board representing a typical Sahelian territory their activities: rainfed and irrigated agriculture, nomadic grazing, harvesting of bush products, small-scale businesses, economic migration… the activities are represented by tokens of different colors for each activity. Different colored pawns are available for any new activities that a player might think up.

In the Sahelian case rainfall uncertainty and variability are the most restrictive conditions impacting the game. Every rainy season, once the players have positioned their activities a ‘rainfall card’ is drawn at random that indicated a different rainfall amount for every plot of the board, and the resulting impact on the natural resources of the plot. Then, in this already uncertain climatic context, ‘events cards’ add a new level of uncertainty: they can be drawn season after season, and introduce other uncertainties and events that Sahelians farmers may face (locust invasion, fall in production prices, arrival of an investor or project…). Players have allowed to imagine new events, or roles, and introduce themselves in the game.

Once a first annual cycle has been played out, the players now have enough hindsight and experience to devise ways to fare better in uncertain territories. They will be able to create and test by playing and trying out their ideas. From all individual and collective reviews and debriefings on the previous round, players discuss what collective functioning to the most ‘sound’/‘relevant’. The important thing os they first agree on what they define as ‘sound’/‘relevant’: Along which route they would like to try to ‘improve’ the situation: by increasing overall production in the region, or reducing the number of families in need, or by preserving environment? Why not a subtle combination of th three…? The game facilitates respect of the diversity of points of view: instead of leading to select a single ‘right’ answer, the different points of view, once debated and discussed can be used to set out various collective rules options (game scenarios), which they can then test. Here are some points that can frame the discussion:

  • Do we really need collective rules? (did the first game session, without collective rules, give rise to more adverse outcomes?)
  • Do the required solutions rules have to be general, applicable everywhere and for all, or to only concern a specific area of the board, or a particular kind of user?
  • There are even more complex rules, which have already been imagined by Sahelian herders during a game session, in order to adapt to the uncertainty of their climate: specific rules which are applied only for periods several seasons or years) or only during a specific season every year. For example a rule which is applied only in case of drought.

Detailed process of the Sahel session of TerriStories

Additional computerized tools

A computer simulation game may support the simulation workshops if necessary. This method linking computer simulation game and role playing game are the results of the a decade of collaborative efforts of interdisciplinary research in order to fairly value and take account of a diversity of points of view (see Companion Modelling or ComMod).

1998 : Cormas, a modeling platform
2000 : Self-Cormas experience in Senegal
2014 : TerriStories nationwide process in Senegal

TerriStories: let’s experience it!

Our times are witness to ever scarcer natural resources, increasing numbers of populated areas, as well as accelerating and deepening change: How can we adapt to our so uncertain territoires? Just reasing in technichal and biological terms is not sufficient, as this also concerns people whose specific needs and aspirations must be taken account. Faced with this complexity, we must broaden our reasoning approach. We must acknowledge ther won‘t be a single ‘right’ answer, given the diversity of territories, of the people who reside here, as well their practices and aspirations…and we must also consider that our current view will perhaps not be our view tomorrow, so many things, issues and people may quickly evolve in our so changing world.

Unfortunately, we are still uneasy with thinking more widely, i.e. moving forward while keeping a diversity of possible solutions and accepting that the one which seems the ‘right’ one is only one (your) point of view amongst many others. Can you achieve it? Far better than you expect. Let‘s play it!

TerriStories 2.0: a board game for a wide public use

TerriStories can be used only by real actors that know what are the relevant practices, needs, and challenges regarding sustainable development and collective decision. In order to provide the same ‘freeing ideas’ game to a general audience, a board game for wide public is designed by a committed company in producing sustainable development games, Bioviva.