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Getting Serious About Playing Games: ELI Designs Award-Winning Educational Game

Monday, July 31, 2017
Dave Rejeski

Dave Rejeski

Director; Technology, Innovation and the Environment Project

John Hare-Grogg

John Hare-Grogg

Former Research Associate

ELI’s Technology, Innovation and the Environment project targets the market for serious games with our new game, Cards Against Calamity, a multiplayer board game that explores coastal communities’ resilience to crises. Cards Against Calamity was developed in collaboration with 1st Playable Productions and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The game recently won gold in the educational tabletop games category at the 2017 International Serious Play Awards.

Why Play Games? 

In 2011, an article on games in the Economist made the following point: “The main reason why games are different is that they marry the power of modern technology to the insatiable human desire for play.”  As researchers and advocates tackling complex environmental problems, games move us beyond reports and policy briefs, many of which don’t even reach their intended audiences. By combining content with interactivity and play, games provide players with opportunities to role play, test hypotheses, fail and learn, explore systems effects such as feedbacks, and move in time. A new genre of serious games, like Budget Hero and its successor, Fiscal Ship, successfully reached millions of people, and the analysis of player data provided policymakers with important insights into public preferences and strategies. 

Cards Against Calamity

ELI's Cards Against Calamity board game engages coastal communities in resilience planning.

In this game—currently a prototype in tabletop format—players adopt the roles of community stakeholders (recreational fisher, hotel owner, emergency services worker, and others). The game’s currency is “resilience,” measured with tokens that are gained or lost as the game unfolds. Players draw “preparation” cards, discuss the impacts of each card on each stakeholder and on the whole community if it is played, and pool their “effort” tokens to play an agreeable preparation card. Then, they draw an event card, which has good or bad consequences for resilience that vary by industry. 

Events range from the grim to the goofy.  In one event, nutrient pollution causes hypoxia, which decimates local fisheries and reduces resilience across the board. In another, hipsters flock to the town, forcing the community to make a choice between preserving the town’s historical character or capitalizing on the newfound popularity of cold brew coffee shops and locavore eateries.

The game has both individual and collective goals. Each stakeholder’s objective is to accumulate as many resilience tokens as possible. Stakeholders who are down to one resilience token can draw on a community resilience pool, which grows and shrinks with preparations and events. But if this pool runs dry, the stakeholder loses. Together, the players must make it through eight rounds of preparations and events without any stakeholder running out of resilience, or else the community loses as a group. 

What Are We Learning?

Games necessarily simplify complex realities. Cards Against Calamity intends not so much to instruct as to catalyze conversation. It is a tool to engage community members and facilitate consideration of the issues that affect peoples’ ability to solve collective economic, social, and environmental challenges, such as how to work with stakeholders who have disparate interests and how to balance individual and community interests.

Play-testing this game revealed insights about the interplay between cooperation and competition.  Although experiences vary by age, profession, and other variables, many players quickly detect the need to cooperate in order to achieve the win state. This behavior may or may not mirror reality, but it shows that players use the exercise to think about how a community might operate under ideal conditions.

Our hope is that allowing players to confront these issues and collective dilemmas in a hypothetical, low-stakes situation will enhance their interest and engagement in real community planning scenarios. Additionally, the game encourages each player to think about these issues from the perspective of another stakeholder whose interests may differ from their own in real life. Harvesting data from gameplay could also yield useful insights for policymakers and community organizers. 

Games like Cards Against Calamity present opportunities for scaling engagement on complex environmental issues. They are an important tool, as well as an entertaining conversation starter.