Using a board game to plan a changing planet

This story was originally posted by Hakai Magazine and is reproduced here as part of the Climate office collaboration.

Two kilometers inland from Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island, a dark red gate just off the highway marks the entrance to the Tangoio Marae. This marae is where a hapū or local Maori community holds regular gatherings and ceremonies. The location seems perfect: surrounded by green hills, close to the town of Napier and a stone’s throw from the ocean. But there is a problem: the marae is very exposed to the risk of flooding. The hapū of Tangoio Marae have a serious decision to make regarding this place so central to their community, and one of their decision-making tools is unorthodox: a board game.

Called Marae-opoly, the Maori community designed the game in partnership with researchers from New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, or NIWA, with the explicit aim of helping the hapū decide how to manage the risk of flooding of their marae. While NIWA researchers provided scientific data on known flood risks and predicted effects of climate change, the hapū brought their own experiences and values ​​to the game development brainstorming sessions.

“Brainstorming is really important,” says Paula Blackett, a social scientist at NIWA who co-designed Marae-opoly. “It allows people to express their thoughts on what could be done [to address the flood risk], and why. It’s a pretty inclusive approach because you consider all the different things that might be possible.

A round in Marae-opoly takes place in several stages. First, the teams debate how to deal with the risk of flooding and choose either to make the marae more flood resistant by waterproofing the buildings, raising the banks or improving the drainage works; move its location; or wait and save money. Each turn, a random “rainmaker” event reflecting the actual probabilities of extreme weather conditions determines the rainfall for that decade. Sometimes the team is hit by a devastating flood, other times it’s dry, but it’s impossible to predict what will happen when. Rounds continue like this until players have lived through 100 years of climate change, with decisions they made early on getting worse over time.

Once the game was ready to play, several dozen hapū gathered in their marae to spend a Saturday playing. It was a lively event, with teams debating their picks at every turn.

“Although it was a safe environment, it actually made people realize that whatever they decide there will be consequences,” says Tania Hopmans, president of the Maungaharuru-Tangitū Trust, which represents the hapū of Tangoio Marae. . For example, investing money early in the game to save for larger expenses could expose them to higher costs due to flood damage, but spending a small amount could mean insufficient protection against larger floods.

Games like Marae-opoly are what researchers call serious games, games designed for a specific educational purpose. NIWA has been using serious games for a few years as a way for people to better understand the risks of climate change.

“Most people struggle to integrate all the different streams of information they need to make solid decisions about adapting to climate change in the unknown future,” says Blackett. Games make this type of information more manageable and allow people to experience it on a small scale.

In recent years, board games have been used around the world to teach a wide range of subjects, from medical skills to cultural history. and more. Like Marae-opoly, games can be used to model real-world environmental scenarios. For example, Azteca Chess has helped Mexican coffee growers make decisions about pest control.

According to Rebecca Bayeck, an expert on the educational value of games at Utah State University who was not involved with the Marae-opoly project, board games have inherent qualities that make them appropriate learning environments. “Collaboration, mathematical thinking, computational thinking — all of these skills you’ll need in the 21st century — are actually found in board games.”

Even commercially designed games can be used for educational purposes. For example, Pandemic, a board game in which players work together to stop the global outbreak of several infectious diseases, was used to teach group decision making. Recently the game sparked new interest during the COVID-19 pandemic as a casual way of understanding the complexity of what was happening in the world.

But why board games? Unlike video games, Bayeck sees board games as fostering a welcoming space because they facilitate in-person connections. Playing the game ‘invites personal interaction where you can see each other’s faces [players]see their expression, ask a question,” she says.

The casual setting of playing Marae-opoly allowed the hapū to have difficult discussions openly about their options – either stay and defend the marae from impending floods, or relocate the cultural and spiritual center of their community.

While playing the game, Hopmans says, “people can have big arguments at the table about what to do or what not to do, and the consequences come five minutes later.”

In addition to facilitating discussions, the game also clarified complex concepts. “One of the things that really stood out to me was how people think about and deal with risk,” says Blackett.

For example, the type of flood that poses a particular danger in New Zealand is often referred to as a 100-year flood, which makes it unlikely to happen anytime soon. The reality is that each year has an equal chance of seeing a 100-year flood, and it is possible to get two 100-year floods back to back. Climate change also makes these extreme floods more likely.

Marae-opoly helped the Maori community of Tangoio Marae better assess the risk to their meeting place and how their actions affected possible outcomes. It was a low-stakes trial for a big decision – and after weighing all the options, the community made their decision for real. “We’re moving the marae,” Hopmans says.

By a stroke of luck, a local farm recently sold them a plot of land just 300 meters from the current site of the marae, on slightly higher ground. “As time goes on, we may have to go even further,” warns Hopmans, as flooding could eventually overtake the new site. But, she adds, “at this point, we’re definitely making progress on the road.”

Moving a site of such cultural and spiritual importance was a tough decision, with real people and real money at stake. But playing a board game made the process a little easier.


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