Can a roll of the dice help communities prepare for climate uncertainty?

Children play Act to Adapt, a game designed by Plan International in collaboration with the Red cross and Red Crescent Climate Center. The game has been introduced in classrooms across Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand. Photo by: Plan International

In classrooms across rural Asia, school children are pretending to be climate change bringing chaos to their community. They throw pieces of paper at maps of their villages drawn on the floor, symbolizing how vulnerable the houses are to earthquakes, landslides or floods.

As the paper floats to the ground, children in the “community team” gather together to discuss how they could have prevented the damage and how they will react in the future — when the weather will be even more extreme and unpredictable due to climate change.

They’re playing Act to Adapt, a game designed by Plan International in collaboration with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Climate Center. So far the game has been introduced in classrooms across Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand. Without even realizing, children — some of whom are illiterate — are learning about climate concepts such as preparedness and probability.  

Around the world, rising temperatures are leading to severe weather including floods and droughts. Climate change impact on ecosystems and livelihoods will affect the work of professionals in sectors ranging from WASH to education to urban planning, and not one sector has been left out of the call to mainstream it in programming and strategies. And although climate scientists are under pressure to predict the future of global weather extremes, in many cases they can’t say exactly what’s coming.

“Instead we need to deal with probability,” said Kirsty Lewis of the Met Office, speaking at an Overseas Development Institute. But climate scientists and development professionals were finding it difficult to communicate probability through ordinary powerpoint presentations.

Stephane Hallegatte, senior economist at the World Bank, found that even experts working in disaster risk management were worried that uncertainty would make project design much harder.

“When we tried to present our work [on uncertainty], the feedback we got back from people was ‘oh wow, this will make things more complicated,’” he said.  

So, like Plan International, the World Bank turned to the RCCC for help. In collaboration, it took around six months to create Decision for the Decade, a game designed to explain how climate change could affect communities in the future.

First used in Indonesia in June 2013, the game is used internally, as well as in rural farming communities across the developing world.

Each of the game’s three rounds represents one decade. Players are allocated a province and told they must use investment to make it as prosperous as possible.  

Responding to only limited scientific information, players divide their budget of beans between protective investments — to protect against floods and droughts — and prosperity investments.

Decisions are made quickly and a roll of the dice determines how much rain ralls. If a flood or a drought occurs, beans are deducted from the protective investment pile. If no beans have been allocated to the flood and drought funds, there is a humanitarian crisis. With each decade, the chance of floods or droughts increases.

The winner is the player whose province experienced the fewest humanitarian crises.

Ultimately, Hallegatte wanted to normalize the concept of uncertainty: “In our everyday life, we behave very differently when we know the consequences of our choices, compared to when we don’t know,” he said. “It’s similar to buying home insurance — we look at the consequences of something bad happening. But despite uncertainty and lack of knowledge, we feel we can make an informed decision.”

School children play a game designed to explain how climate change could affect communities in the future. Photo by: Plan International

The RCCC has been using games to educate development professionals and local communities for over a decade. The center now works with around 40 different games in total. Although the games take place in person, the instructions for 15 are freely available on the RCCC website.

Although all the RCCC’s games are designed to help players understand the planet’s “new normal,” Paying for Predictions is the organization’s key tool to help adults understand uncertainty.

Paying for Predictions differs from Act to Adapt and Decisions for the Decade because it helps players understanding forecasting in the face of uncertainty.

In the game, each player is given a budget of beans to protect an area of the world from climate change. Told that their area is at risk of flooding, for example, players must choose between early action and inaction. Spending their beans on relief items risks wasting them if no flood comes. But acting too late could be much more expensive than preparing early.

The RCCC believes the humanitarian movement does not use climate-forecasting enough — partly because it’s confusing.

That’s why the organization created Paying for Predictions: to help players understand forecasting’s potential and how to use it effectively. The game is aimed at humanitarian actors who fear preparing for disasters that might not materialize. It helps them understand risk and encourages them to adopt a long-term perspective, noting how to respond to change over the next 30 years.

A roll of two dice — one hidden, one visible — determines how much rain will fall on each district.

Later in the game, one six-sided dice is swapped for an eight-sided dice to illustrate how extreme weather events will be more likely in the coming decades. Players can also bid for a forecasting device — making predicting the future easier.

Paying for Predictions can be used with everyone — from rural communities in The Gambia to development professionals in the boardrooms of Brussels.

Maarten Van Aalst, director of the RCCC, described climate games as a leveller; the worst players he’s encountered, in fact, have been a group of climate scientists.

The scientists spent all the beans on forecasting devices but had no money to respond when disaster hit, Van Aalst said.

“Players need to get used to making decisions under uncertainty; to accept they’re not going to have all the perfect information.”  

Not only do games communicate complicated climate concepts, they also encourage innovative thinking among both children and adults. It was Paying for Predictions that inspired forecast-based financing, a humanitarian financing system where action is automatically triggered by climate forecasts, according to Margot Steenbergen, games specialist at the RCCC.

“Normally in disaster situation, money starts pouring in after impacts have happened. That’s been the case for decades,” Steenbergen told Devex. “As part of this game thinking, a new way of dealing with humanitarian finance flows has been created; where you create standard operating procedures before event happens.”

However, the World Bank’s Stephane Hallegatte believes climate games are not all about creating concrete results; they’re also designed to change mindsets.

“The one goal of all of this is to make people understand that disregarding uncertainty is not the solution. Embrace it.” he said. “There are ways to manage it.”

Right now, the World Bank is in talks about future games. Hallegatte says his team are interested in using games to illustrate the conclusions of its recent report, “Shock Waves,” that looks at how climate change could set back efforts to eradicate poverty.

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About the author

  • Morgan Meaker

    Morgan Meaker is a London-based freelance journalist. She writes for Reuters, the Guardian and the BBC among others. She covers human rights, development and sustainable business at home and abroad.