How strategy games may hold the key to environmental policy that works

Despite numerous goals, pledges, strategies and agreements that exist to tackle the Earth’s parallel biodiversity and climate crises, we do not seem to be making progress. Take the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets. None were fully achieved, and today in 2022 it seems like we are back to the drawing board. So how can we move past these sustainability deadlocks and make change actually happen? Strategy games, argue a new perspective in Nature Sustainability, can play a key role.

When played by the right people in the right way, strategy games can help break free from established norms and support more transparent democratic dialogues, responding to the human and social limitations of current decision-making. This is the main message of the team of international researchers, which includes René Verburg, an assistant professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University.

Human agency missing from Integrated Assessment Models

Sustainability strategies stemming from decision-making processes are generally explored by Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which integrate data from different sources to come up with possible policy solutions to issues like deforestation or biodiversity loss.

The question of how—how do you effectively conserve nature areas, how do you make policies to eat less meat, is not addressed in Integrated Assessment Models. It just happens

“But IAMs fall short in representing how humans behave and interact, limiting the range of options that are contemplated and paving the way for system stalling and unwelcome surprises during implementation,” says Verburg. “The question of how—how do you effectively conserve nature areas, how do you make policies to eat less meat, is not addressed in IAMs. It just happens”. Simply speaking, the authors argue that human agency is lacking.

Lead author Dr. Claude Garcia, from the University of Applied Sciences in Berne and ETH Zurich explains “With games, real humans make real decisions in a context where emotions are important and stakes are high.” Strategic games let players understand how a system works by taking on the roles of different actors involved in real-world socio-environmental scenarios. The study finds that games allow the players to better understand interactions among stakeholders' beliefs and motivations that promotes dialogue and can lead to the discovery of new solutions.

So if games are the answer, where is the evidence that they work, and why aren’t they widely used already?

Players must have the power to shape norms and policies

“Having farmers play will not change farming subsidies. Students will not change laws, and interns will not change corporate strategies. Unless players have the power to shape norms and policies, the lessons drawn by participants will not translate into changes of the normative landscape and therefore will fail to register on the ground,” say the authors. This is not the only thing. “For a game session to trigger transformation, three events must happen, sequentially, one enabling the others”. First, the session must happen. Second, the session must transform the mental models of the participants. Third, the participants must act upon these learnings. 

A lack of clarity

The authors outline the specific conditions required for each of these steps to be successful. “The lack of clarity on these conditions until now explains why the use of games is not widespread despite their effectiveness,” explains Verburg. “We propose a way to redesign the way decision- makers come to decisions, through a pragmatic, value-agnostic yet inclusive method to develop narratives and update mental models. We will change the choices we make when we change the way we make choices,” concludes the paper. 

Garcia, C.A., Savilaakso, S., Verburg, R.W. et al. Strategy games to improve environmental policymaking. Nat Sustain (2022).