It's time to rethink the future of global governance through games

by Pablo Suarez | Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre
Tuesday, 28 November 2017 15:11 GMT

Partipants acting as advisers hold up placards indicating their insurance preference during a game on insurance choices designed by Pablo Suarez at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, on Nov. 16, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Games offer familiar structures designed to allow us to play with the unfamiliar and rethink what is possible

Changes in global governance – how we make critical collective decisions on global issues - happen at the speed of trust. Unfortunately, today’s governance systems are less successful than they could be in engendering this trust. This is particularly true in the realm of climate change where threats are rising more quickly than our collective ability to understand and address their causes and consequences.

Part of the problem is the way we choose to interact during international governance events. Proceedings are dominated by traditional meeting formats, a sequence of - sometimes dreary - presentations with insufficient opportunity for questions. Unidirectional statements dominate, establishing an atmosphere of ‘more of the same’ and rarely leading to genuine transformation in ideas and positions. To help participants meaningfully rethink the future and their role in it, a new approach is needed.

Games offer a promising option. Whether virtual or involving face-to-face interaction, games that capture the essence of real-world systems allow for safe and rich explorations of how those systems could be changed. They compress space and time, and offer an embodied experience of the tensions that dominate global governance challenges – ‘now versus later’, ‘certainly versus probably’, ‘me versus us versus them’.

Importantly, through gameplay, people combine the concentration of analytical rigor with the intuitive freedom of imaginative, artistic acts.  In the words of SimCity creator Will Wright: “Games amplify our imagination, like cars amplify our legs, or houses amplify our skins.”

In a range of projects that engaged the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, the World Bank, Oxfam, the UN World Food Programme, NASA and many other partners, breakthroughs in humanitarian and development work have emerged through gameplay. Illiterate Ethiopian farmers who don’t have a word for ‘insurance’ in their local language took part in a game with dice and beans designed to help them learn about parametric insurance bundled with credit.

The innovations that sprang from these games evolved into the R4 Rural Resilience initiative which currently provides micro-insurance services to over 200,000 farmers in five developing countries.

Another game called “Paying for Predictions” brought together Red Cross volunteers with donors and hydro-meteorological experts in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It showed how funding for disaster management materializes after a disaster, but no mechanism was in place for shifting money to areas where science indicates the unusual likelihood of an extreme event before the disaster strikes.

Thus Forecast-based Financing was born, which is currently being implemented in Bangladesh, Peru, Togo, Uganda and numerous other countries

At a 2017 conference in Berlin, a dice-based game session explored potential governance mechanisms for geoengineering, the potential manipulation of the global climate by spreading sulphur in the stratosphere to block sunlight and cool the planet. When one participant tried to alter the climate, a remarkable range of reactions emerged from other individuals and teams -– from silent endorsement to self-sacrifice and even threat of nuclear war.

The discussion that ensued had emotional intensity, bringing visceral realism to the intellectual examination of potential governance frameworks for preventing predatory geoengineering. 

Games supporting the development of better governance mechanisms have been played from fishing villages in Fiji to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working groups of Nobel-prize winning scientists, and from the Ugandan Parliament to the White House. Platforms ranged from amphitheaters with 2,500 participants to immersive solo experiences in virtual reality.

They have shown that playable explorations of system dynamics can accelerate learning and dialogue about complex issues, improving stakeholder participation, revealing systemic shortcomings and prompting reflection on systemic improvement.

Engagement games can be integrated into day-to-day governance mechanisms and deepen the role of citizens in global-to-local institutions, involving people in data collection and analysis, policy development or decentralized decision making.

Well-designed games could improve the workings of UN bodies – including the Security Council – by enabling a more genuine, informal, out-of-the-box dialogue built on shared rules in pursuit of creative thinking and trust building. Games create a safe space that encourages players to switch roles, and experience the consequences of their decisions from numerous perspectives. They trigger new ways of imagining an issue, and new ways of addressing it.

Of course, games are no panacea: like all forms of designed interaction, things can go wrong. But a growing body of evidence and experience suggests that games can help nurture interactions, so they become more anticipatory, more inclusive, and more imbued with trust.

Notably, fun is functional to governance explorations. Games offer familiar structures designed to allow us to play with the unfamiliar, enabling us to re-imagine the space of possibility latent in our shared futures.

Pablo Suarez is associate director for research and innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, and a scholar at Boston University and University College London. He has consulted for the UN Development Programme, the World Food Programme, the World Bank, Oxfam, and twenty other humanitarian and development organizations, working in more than sixty countries. His current work ranges from financial instruments to machine learning to collaboration with artists to inspire thinking and action.

This piece forms part of the Global Challenges Foundation's report, Global Governance in the Age of Disruptive Technology.