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How to play with serious topics in social simulations

Hi gaming fans, we are Aleksandra, Michalina and Sarah from the Centre for Systems Solutions, a Polish-based organization developing and applying social simulations that engage individuals and organizations in problem-solving processes. We had the pleasure to contribute an article about four of our games about a year ago—today, we want to inspire you with two more: Flood Resilience Game and The World’s Future. What were the ideas behind the games? Why are they helpful tools for organizations? These and other questions we will answer in our post—enjoy reading!

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Social simulations
To give you an insight to our work on social simulations, we will start with some basics—a social simulation is a type of multiplayer serious game where emphasis is put on building relations between players. Social simulations are foremost focused on “serious” goals rather than just entertainment. They are thus often used in educational, training or awareness-raising contexts. The word “simulation” means that this type of activity stimulates the key aspects of some process that we want to explore. How? By employing e.g. problem cards, pictures, tokens, boards, etc. The social component, on the other hand, presupposes an active engagement of the players, which is achieved by group scenario building, role-playing, negotiating, brainstorming and other interactions among the participants. As a consequence, social simulations offer a realistic but simplified representation of a selected problem and create a safe environment for practicing and pretesting various solutions and strategies.

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Flood Resilience Game
Enough for the theory. Let’s explore some examples, starting from the Flood Resilience Game. This fascinating board game has been created to promote the concept of resilience. It is often said that what really counts in times of adversity is not so much physical power but a strong psyche, flexibility and ability to ‘bounce back’. “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm,” as an old fable concludes. It is especially true in the context of disaster management, where the resilience is defined as “the ability of a system, community or society to pursue its social, ecological and economic development objectives, while managing its disaster risk over time in a mutually reinforcing way”.

Unfortunately, the experience shows that in many cases, the disaster resilience is mistaken for investing in hard infrastructure and short-term activities, whereas other aspects, such as social, natural or human capital are frequently ignored, and the role of the cooperation underestimated. The Flood Resilience Game was designed to address this problem and to help players recognize potential trade-offs and consequences of their decisions on resource use and disaster risk reduction.

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In the Flood Resilience Game, players take on the roles of citizens, members of the local government, or water board officials living together in a flood-exposed valley. The simulation is played over four rounds, during which floods of various magnitudes strike. Such sequential gameflow develops gradually, allowing players to discover the underlying flood mechanisms step-by-step, prepare for and act against the threat, collectively prioritizing tasks and observing the consequences of the decisions. Wrong ideas are being verified, new long-term strategies developed, and finally players gain a better understanding of ways that lead to community resilience.

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The World’s Future
While the Flood Resilience Game aims to raise the flood risk awareness, The World’s Future undertakes even a more ambitious goal to explore the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For some time researchers have claimed that our planet has certain environmental boundaries that determine the “safe operating space for humanity.” According to this concept, if we continue to exploit the Earth’s resources and pursue overconsumption trends, we may cause an irreversible disaster.

To counteract the increasing degradation of natural system without sacrificing human ability to meet their basic needs, 17 major targets for the year 2030 were set by the global community. While putting emphasis on tackling climate change and environmental protection, the Sustainable Development Goals integrate environmental objectives with the aim of ending poverty, ensuring economic growth and addressing a wide range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities.

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The SDGs work in the spirit of partnership and offer a unique opportunity to put the world on a more prosperous and safe path. However, their pursuit remains one of the most challenging tasks of our times. The task that has become the main objective of the World’s Future game. Participants of this rich social simulation enter the roles of international policy-makers and try to ensure the economic and social stability within their countries, at the same time meeting the Sustainable Development Agenda requirements. The world’s future is literally being negotiated, triggering conflicts and revealing shameless policy gaps. The simulation has been already played by policy-makers, professionals, and students across Europe (e.g. at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the European Commission or the European Forum Alpbach), and all of them admit that it provides critical insight into the complex character of human-nature system.

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Creating the experience
So how were the Flood Resilience Game and The World’s Future game created? Simulation design is based on the design thinking. While designing a simulation, we at CRS go through all the steps of this process: empathizing, defining a problem, ideating, prototyping and testing. The key to creating a social simulation is to firstly identify our audience and their needs. For example, the Flood Resilience Game was created with the idea to raise the flood solutions awareness among communities from flood-prone areas.

The second step is to understand the challenges, problems, situations, important stakeholders and how all of those aspects interlink and affect the overall shape of the systems. This phase of the process is often supported by vast research, interviews with stakeholders, and through knowledge input from sustainability specialists. Defining a problem is sometimes a challenge itself. Packing all 17 SDGs into one game—The World’s Future—was an arduous task!

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Ideating is next. This is where we think about how to reflect the 2nd step in the game while taking into account all needs of an audience—even those more mundane, like the size of the materials, colors included, the complexity of mechanics and more. One of the final stages in game design is prototyping. It involves playing with various ideas for mechanics and with the in-game world, roles, and challenges. Also, we try out the materials, interface, and UX. And of course there is testing, lots and lots of testing with the target audience in order to deliver the most meaningful experience possible. Last but not least, the game design does not stop when the final prototype is completed. We always consider feedback of game participants.

As you see from the examples provided, gaming constitutes an excellent alternative to more traditional lecture-based workshops. In contradiction to typical classroom activities, it leaves space for active problem-solving and awareness-raising. What is more, although it usually illuminates important issues, it is exciting and inspires players to do something more, something that makes our world a better place.

Photo credits: Centre for Systems Solutions / Used with permission.



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