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Can Games Influence Development Policy?

Often referred to as “games for good” or “games for change,” a new generation of socially- and environmentally-oriented online simulation games aims to go beyond entertainment by raising awareness of global issues and securing funds for projects—making a real-word difference.

Over 10 million people worldwide have played World Food Programme’s (WFP) “Food Force,” for example, spending money that goes to fund WFP-sponsored school meals projects. However, few simulations have been useful at the policy-making level—until now. Today marks the release of “SimPachamama,” a new game from Bolivia that could influence international, national and local-level policy decisions that affect forest communities.

SimPachamama—“Pachamama” means “Mother Earth” in the local Aymara language—was developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from British and Bolivian institutions.* The simulation is modeled on data collected in a real-life Bolivian forest town, and in the game, the player becomes the mayor of an Amazonian rainforest community. The goal of the mayor’s 20-year term is to increase citizens’ wellbeing and reduce deforestation through a variety of policies: levying a tax on deforestation, making conservation payments, creating green jobs in the ecotourism sector, and adjusting public spending.

One proposed way to curb global deforestation is to transfer money from rich countries to poor ones via the UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN REDD). SimPachamama takes this kind of mechanism into account by including one additional important policy lever: the decision of whether or not to accept international payments to reduce local deforestation.

It is notable, however, that the simulation’s developers are not supporting UN REDD per se—or its REDD+ and REDD++ versions that include initiatives for forest conservation and, sustainable forest management and enhancement of forest sinks. This is because the UN REDD mechanism has been vigorously opposed by the Bolivian government, in part because it links emissions reductions payments to volatile carbon markets. It is also not likely to help the poor—one of Bolivia’s major policy concerns. The researchers found that under the kind of payments system proposed by UN REDD, less than 5 percent of the population—mainly the richer large-scale farmers—would reap more than 90 percent of the financial benefits. Bolivia’s proposed Joint Mitigation and Adaptation Mechanism for the Integral and Sustainable Management of Forests (Joint Mechanism) addresses some of REDD’s worst issues and is presented as a practical alternative. The researchers involved in developing SimPachamama are working with the Bolivian government in an advisory capacity to help get funding to start the mechanism.

Two policies from the game are recommended by the researchers as general policy recommendations applicable to the real world.  Dr. Lykke Andersen from the Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD) argues that a tax on large-scale agriculture companies of about $450 for every hectare of cleared land would make little difference to the companies’ profits because Bolivia’s agriculture sector could continue growing highly lucrative crops such as soy. Meanwhile, the tax could raise a quarter of a million dollars in annual revenue to be used for conservation payments, green job creation and public spending.

On its own, this amount would not have the kind of effect on deforestation and on poor people’s lives that would please both the Bolivian government and the international community. However, the second policy—implementing a matching system of payments from rich countries to supplement the deforestation tax—could act as a catalyst, helping to drastically reduce forest loss while raising revenue for the population overall, and the poor in particular. According to the research results, $1 billion raised every two years through the two policies and used for conservation payments and creation of green jobs, as well as other poverty reduction strategies, could reduce annual deforestation by 29 percent and raise the incomes of the participating poor by the same amount, while ensuring the participation of 72 percent of the rural population.

While lay players describe SimPachamama as fun and addictive, it was designed specifically to help guide policymaking on two levels. First, the game helps to stimulate the first concrete conversations between developed country embassies and the Bolivian government about international payments for deforestation reduction via the Joint Mechanism. Secondly, SimPachamama’s biggest promise lies in creating better understanding among policymakers and local communities, and thus, ownership, of sustainable development policies by forest communities around the world**. According to Daniel Mendía T., the one-time mayor of the town of San Buenaventura, the game helps people who have used it in community workshops to visualize the effects of deforestation and the policies proposed to reduce it in the future.

Only a few “games for good” have been able to make a real difference, especially amid changing policies. Simulations like SimPachamama are beginning to break through the impact barrier and offer a glimpse into the future of games in development policymaking.

* The inter-disciplinary project team includes researchers from the Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), Conservation International Bolivia, the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE), University of Sussex and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The project was funded by the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) initiative.

** Although the game is stylized and does not consider all relevant factors, since SimPachamama and its underlying coding is open source and therefore freely available, it can be adjusted to more closely characterize each new location and better reflect community priorities. Researchers from the University of Florida, for example, changed the coding to make a more realistic representation of a community in Panama. In addition, the game has already been used in university classrooms as far away as India, helping a future generation of policymakers, academics and practitioners around the world understand the effects of policies on local deforestation.

*Ioulia Fenton is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Emory University in the United States and is affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD) in Bolivia.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Bolivia, Deforestation

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