The following is the established format for referencing this article:Falk, T., W. Zhang, R. Meinzen-Dick, L. Bartles, R. Sanil, P. Priyadarshini, and I. Soliev. 2023. Games for experiential learning: triggering collective changes in commons management. Ecology and Society 28(1):30.
As resource users interact and impose externalities onto each other, institutions are needed to coordinate resource use, create trust, and provide incentives for sustainable management. Coordinated collective action can play a key role in enabling communities to manage natural resource commons more sustainably. But when such collective action is not present, what can be done to foster it? We contribute to the understanding of how experiential learning through games can affect behavioral change, potentially leading to more sustainable commons management. We present a conceptual framework describing the most important processes involved in experiential learning games. The framework highlights the importance of the game context for achieving game outcomes. We list game features that have been argued to influence learning and behavioral determinants, focusing on the game narrative and experience, game rules, and attributes of players. We briefly describe how each game feature influences the processes in the framework. Next, we apply the conceptual framework to examine design features that were particularly important for influencing behavioral drivers in commons management in three intervention cases from India relating to groundwater, surface water, and forests. Our conceptual reflections underpin the need to debate about underlying assumptions in using games as intervention tools. Making assumptions transparent can help to understand why or under what conditions experiential learning works or fails. There is a critical need for more systematic choices of the right tools for the right purpose. This includes participants of the experiential learning who must be able to relate the game to their real life. A social dilemma in the game should at least, in its basic structure, represent a real-life dilemma. We close by highlighting future research needs both from the conceptual behavioral change as well as the game design perspective.
Although key factors for successful commons governance lie in resource users’ intrinsic motivation and self-sustained collective governing mechanisms (Ostrom 1990), it is difficult for external actors to support these factors. We explore the potential of one approach to catalyze community-driven processes using experiential learning through games to trigger collective behavioral and institutional change. Emerging evidence on the potential of games to support behavioral change in the management of shared resources, herein broadly referred to as commons management, merits greater attention and investment in research and pilot implementation.
To be effective, rules for commons management should be adapted to the specific context (Ostrom 2005, 2007). This makes it challenging for policy makers and other actors to intervene at scale, however. Billions of dollars have been spent on projects to improve commons management, but sustainable resource management often does not emerge or breaks down after projects end. Although examples of successful facilitation interventions exist to support communities to craft locally adapted rules, these are often implemented with limited reach (Kolavalli and Kerr 2002). Participatory approaches hold promise to ensure solutions, and many solution-seeking processes are thus community driven (Pahl-Wostl and Hare 2004). The key question, therefore, is how to support community-driven coordination, rules, and behavior without external imposition and in a low-cost manner that supports large-scale uptake.
An emerging body of literature explores the use of group dynamic games as an intervention tool to facilitate sustainable commons management (Becu et al. 2017, Craven et al. 2017, Ferrero et al. 2018, Meinzen-Dick et al. 2018, Meyer et al. 2021, Bartels et al. 2022) because they provide participants with useful metaphors for their daily lives (Cardenas and Carpenter 2008, Meinzen-Dick et al. 2018). Approaches cover role-playing games (Barreteau et al. 2001, Bousquet et al. 2002) as well as behavioral games used in experimental economics (Cardenas and Carpenter 2008, Janssen et al. 2011a). We mainly refer to games that are played face-to-face with community members and leaders. There is growing recognition that games can offer a space for experiential learning, which includes experiencing, reflecting, and experimenting (Kolb and Kolb 2009). The approach contrasts with more formal presentations of abstract knowledge that are common in many forms of teaching or costly learning-by-doing in real life (Hertzog et al. 2014, Flood et al. 2018). Games create a relatively low-risk forum for experiencing and discussing the complexities of social-ecological systems and allow for exploring behavior that is too risky in real life (Starks 2014, Speelman et al. 2018, Muhamad and Kim 2020). Using games can lead directly to inventing and negotiating rules, including enforcement mechanisms (Woodhill 2010). Players can experiment with rule making (Speelman et al. 2018) and can take this experience to interact with the wider community. Because the exercise can trigger constructive interaction of resource users and other stakeholders, the resulting social learning effect can potentially go beyond the specific issue or framing of the game to support the development of institutional capacity for sustainable commons management (Meinzen-Dick et al. 2018).
As games gain increasing attention as an intervention tool, there is a danger of designing game-based interventions based on simple and unclear assumptions about human behavior. Den Haan and van der Voort’s (2018) systematic review of 42 publications on serious games and Flood et al.’s (2018) systematic review of 43 publications on serious games, in the climate change context, found that games are often assumed to influence behavior through three kinds of learning: cognitive (new or restructured knowledge), normative (change in norms, values, and group opinion), and relational (better understanding of others, building relationships, and trust). However, most interventions and evaluations of collaborative games focus on cognitive learning. Less attention is paid to normative and relational learning (Baird et al. 2014), which are important for triggering behavioral change in sustainable commons management.
We respond to this observation by focusing on experiential learning games, which explicitly address social dilemmas around commons management. Based on previous work, we (1) conceptualize how games can influence behavior related to commons management, (2) identify design elements that support this process best, and (3) reflect on game intervention cases. With that, we contribute to the understanding of how experiential learning through games can affect behavioral change, potentially leading to more sustainable commons management. We present a conceptual framework describing the most important processes involved in experiential learning games. The framework highlights the importance of the game context for achieving game outcomes. We list game features that have been argued to influence learning and behavioral determinants, focusing on the game narrative and experience, game rules, and attributes of players. We briefly describe how each game feature influences the processes in the framework. Next, we apply the conceptual framework to examine design features that were particularly important for influencing behavioral drivers in commons management in three intervention cases from India. Although these cases do not cover all aspects of the framework, we initiate a more systematic discussion on the use of experiential games for behavioral change in the context of commons management. Our reflections allow us to draw conclusions about methodological and operational implications, which can help make games more effective and efficient in triggering behavioral change toward sustainable commons management. In this way we respond to the call to provide better guidance for the design of experiential learning interventions (Flood et al. 2018, Speelman et al. 2018).
Three situated case studies of games in the context of facilitating sustainable commons management in India, were instrumental in developing our conceptual thinking and more strongly integrating this thinking into game design. Between 2013 and 2018, the three cases were designed, tested, and implemented by the same partners: the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). All three game cases were published (Meinzen-Dick et al. 2016, 2018, Falk et al. 2019, Zhang et al. 2021, Bartels et al. 2022). Previous publications focused, however, on the dynamics within the games or the impacts the games achieved. The partners were also driven by the question of how game features influence individual and collective factors expected to change real-life behavior. Thus, we focus on the game design, supplementing quantitative impact assessments with feedback from communities and field staff, and discuss it in light of our conceptual thinking on experiential learning.
For conceptualizing how games can influence behavior, we combine qualitative insights from our practical game experiences with feedback from communities, field staff, and findings from other related studies. In all phases of the game design, testing and revising experiences were collectively reflected on and incorporated into the conceptual framework and the design of the games. Lessons learned with one game contributed to refinements in another of the three games. Feedback during international conferences was part of this process. We complemented this practical reflection with a continuous conceptual review of related theories and empirical evidence, resulting in the version of the conceptual framework presented below.
Our analysis demonstrates an approach of critical reflection, which can contribute to conceptualization based on situated knowledge. Being transparent about the unavoidable subjective perspective analysis of our cases, we contribute to designing more powerful intervention tools through informed arguments (Greenhalgh et al. 2018). Our experience-based insights demonstrate that the conceptual framework can guide and structure reflections on intervention designs from a behavioral change perspective.
CONCEPTUALIZING HOW GAMES CAN INFLUENCE BEHAVIOR
To address our first objective, we present a framework representing a theory of change, expressing assumptions about causal relationships, and formulating expectations about the mechanisms through which experiential learning leads to real-life behavioral changes (Flood et al. 2018, den Haan and van der Voort 2018, Muhamad and Kim 2020; Fig. 1). The framework is inspired by the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework (Ostrom 2011), which helps to understand complex collective action problems as well as the deliberative value formation framework (Kenter et al. 2016a), which conceptualizes how deliberation leads to the formation of shared values. We integrate lessons from psychology, economics, and behavioral and education science related to individual and collective learning and behavior.
Our analytical focus is on action situations, which are structured social spaces where actors learn, make decisions, and interact to achieve outcomes (Ostrom 2011). Our framework distinguishes between the real-life action situation (RLAS; gray box in Fig. 1) and the experiential learning action situation (ELAS, apricot box in Fig. 1). The RLAS can be any social-ecological interaction and is embedded in a broader real-life context (purple box in Fig. 1). Community attributes, governance arrangements, and the biophysical environment are important real-life context dimensions (Ostrom 2011, Muhamad and Kim 2020).
In our case, the ELAS is built around games but also includes debriefings in which game players and other community members share their experiences and discuss connections to their real life. An overlap exists between the actors present in the ELAS and the RLAS. Our underlying assumption is that experiences in the ELAS influence behavioral determinants, which then affect actors’ behavior in the RLAS (Ostrom 2009, Parks et al. 2013, den Haan and van der Voort 2018). More specifically, we assume that outcomes experienced in the ELAS create feedback to mental models and motivation as two behavioral determinants, which are also relevant in the RLAS. The quality of this feedback depends on the experiential learning context (blue box in Fig. 1). Important domains comprise player attributes, game rules, game narrative, and experience.
A first channel through which experiential learning can influence real-life behavior is by changing mental models and norms in a participatory way at the individual level (green boxes in Fig. 1). This can lead to stronger convergence of mental models and norms among participants (Wouters et al. 2013, Scholz et al. 2014, Starks 2014, den Haan and van der Voort 2018, Flood et al. 2018, Muhamad and Kim 2020, Garcia et al. 2022). Such a process can be called social learning (Scholz et al. 2014).
Mental models refer to functional but incomplete internal cognitive representations of systems, including beliefs about ecological and technical components of the system as well as perceptions about the constellation of stakeholders, their perspectives, resources, motives, and roles in the governance framework (Jones et al. 2011, Shelton et al. 2018, Garcia et al. 2022). In many cases, actors struggle to sense the impact of their actions on themselves and others at different spatial and temporal scales (van Vugt et al. 2014). Games can help to condense such interactions and create awareness for system dynamics and causal links between own action and outcomes (Flood et al. 2018, Speelman et al. 2018).
Norms are an important aspect of mental models. Behavior is influenced by both descriptive norms (when individuals witness what others do) and injunctive norms (when individuals form perceptions of whether their actions will be approved by others [Cialdini 2003]). Often people take actions based on assumptions about perceived norms in a specific community or broader society. The social interaction in the ELAS can help to confirm or question such assumptions, which supports the formation and expression of shared values and norms (Kenter et al. 2016a, den Haan and van der Voort 2018). Experiential learning can activate transcendental values and trigger a change in more specific norms (Kenter et al. 2016a). Participants first discuss what should be done in the ELAS and then take this discussion to the wider community in reference to the RLAS. Players in the ELAS experience how others act on such norms and how they accept jointly formulated rules. This can support changing expectations about the real-life behavior of others as parts of mental models and the foundation for social norms (Balliet 2010, Hertzog et al. 2014, Meinzen-Dick et al. 2016), which can contribute to trust building (den Haan and van der Voort 2018, Flood et al. 2018).
Motivation is another important behavioral determinant. It describes the diversity of human needs and the desire to fulfill them, which stimulates actions. Different need classifications have been proposed (Maslow 1981, Max-Neef 1991). In the context of experiential learning, the needs for security, self-determination, competence, belonging, entertainment, and subsistence are most relevant (Muhamad and Kim 2020, DeCaro et al. 2021). For instance, self-determination and belongingness needs are activated if people can successfully solve collective action challenges in the ELAS (Muhamad and Kim 2020). Experiencing self-efficacy in the ELAS can influence players’ belief in their personal competence to solve challenges in the RLAS (Starks 2014). The less obtrusive, self-controlled, and pro-social approach in the ELAS can stimulate different motivational factors and thus reduce resistance to change often observed in more conventional teaching practices (Muhamad and Kim 2020). The entertaining nature of games can support the motivation to learn (Garris et al. 2017).
People make decisions and act based on their mental models, norms, and motivations. It is useful to distinguish between decision making and behavior. Decisions can be made habitually or deliberately (Kahneman 2003). The vast majority of decisions are made habitually based on default mental models requiring little effort (Kahneman 2003, Lerner et al. 2015). However, many interventions assume deliberation (den Haan and van der Voort 2018). One goal of experiential learning is to activate deliberate decision making (Flood et al. 2018) and create a moment of recognition that hopefully persists and overrides problematic heuristics in the RLAS.
The learning in the ELAS aims to eventually change real-life behavior in participants and other community members (den Haan and van der Voort 2018), which in the context of commons management, is associated with appropriation, resource provisioning, and institutional service-provisioning actions (Ostrom 1990, Hinkel et al. 2015). Although playing games may have the strongest experiential learning effect on individuals who play or directly witness the game, creating spillover effects to those who did not participate represents a crucial component of the learning process. Community debriefings that include participants beyond those who played the game are especially important for this collective learning and may lay the foundation for future institutional service provision in the RLAS.
IDENTIFYING DESIGN ELEMENTS
Our second objective is the identification of game design features as elements of the ELAS context. Influencing mental models and norms, stimulating motivation, and activating deliberation in the ELAS strongly depend on the learning context. We categorize three context dimensions: player attributes, game rules, and game narrative and experience. Table 1 presents the key features of the three context domains that have been argued to influence learning and behavioral determinants. We describe how each feature influences processes in our conceptual framework.
BACKGROUND ON GAME CASES
The three learning cases we analyze and use to reflect on game intervention cases each included a common pool resource game and community debriefing sessions in which general observations and implications of the game for the real-life management of that resource were discussed. Figure 2 illustrates the study locations. The main game rules are described below and summarized in Fig. 3. More detailed game descriptions are provided in Appendix 1. The game manuals are available on the website at https://gamesforsustainability.org/. The groundwater game simulated the connection between crop choice and groundwater levels. The game was first piloted in 17 communities in rural Andhra Pradesh, where it was conducted twice in the same communities in 2013 and 2014 and compared to 9 control communities (Meinzen-Dick et al. 2016, 2018). It was later applied in 184 communities in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh. In each community, separate game sessions were conducted, one for men and one for women, with five players in each group. Each group began with a certain groundwater level. In each game round, players were asked to choose between a more profitable but more water-intensive crop and a less profitable but more water-efficient crop. A fixed water recharge amount was given after each round. If too many players chose the water-intensive crop, water use would exceed recharge and the groundwater level fell. If the water table went below a threshold, the game was over. The game had a phase without communication and a phase allowing it. The communities were monitored afterward in terms of changes in their rule formulation.
In the surface water game, players had to jointly invest in a virtual dam. In 2016, the game was played in 30 randomly selected villages in Rajasthan (Falk et al. 2019). In each game round, players decided simultaneously to invest a share of their endowment in dam maintenance. The total of all individual contributions determined the group earnings based on a nonlinear payoff function similar to the one in the irrigation games by Cardenas and Carpenter (2008) and Janssen et al. (2011b). The group earnings were distributed equally among players. In 2017, a crop choice decision was added for a second rollout in 60 communities in Madhya Pradesh. In each community, one session was held with two groups of seven players each, including both men and women. In this version, the group investment in dam maintenance determined the amount of irrigation water available in a round. This water could be used to grow a more profitable but more water-consuming crop and a less profitable but more water-efficient crop. All players could only grow a crop and receive game income if the dam maintenance investment was sufficient, and all players chose to grow the water-efficient crop. The game had a phase without communication and a phase allowing it. Game implementation was complemented by a baseline and a follow-up survey of the participating communities as well as 30 control communities to assess the impact of the games (Bartels et al. 2022).
The forestry game, adapted from Janssen et al. (2013), was conducted in 60 habitations in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan between 2017 and 2018 (Zhang et al. 2021). In each habitation, two game sessions were carried out, one for men and one for women, with five players in each group. In each round, participants could harvest trees from a shared forest, which gave them income in the game. For every 10 trees remaining in the shared forest, 1 tree was added at the end of the round as regrowth. The maximum number of trees that could be harvested in each round depended on the size of the shared forest at the beginning of that round. Within each game session, participants played three phases in a fixed order: noncommunication, communication, and optional election of monitoring and sanctioning rules. We tested whether alternative graphics of the game board influenced learning.
To test whether individual incentivized payments affected players’ choices and learning, all three games randomly allocated half of the sites with individual payments based on their “earnings” in the game, and the other half with a single lump-sum payment to the community.
Key characteristics of game impacts
In 2013 and 2014, the first groundwater pilot in Andhra Pradesh found impacts on mental models and rules. Comparing members of 17 treated communities with randomly selected members of 9 control communities, 1 year after the games were played, respondents in treated communities were significantly less likely to report the widespread belief that crop choices were individual decisions and in principle should not be restricted in any way than respondents in control communities. Treated communities more frequently expressed the need for farmers to cooperate and were also more likely to have introduced water registers or groundwater management-related rules compared to control sites (Meinzen-Dick et al. 2018).
Impacts from the surface water games were assessed in Madhya Pradesh. A comparison of baseline and endline assessments of 60 randomly selected treated and 30 control villages showed that 2 years after the game was played, treated communities reported more dam maintenance activities than control communities (Bartels et al. 2022).
Based on mental model surveys administered immediately after playing the game, participants from the forestry game related the game to real-life aspects such as forest benefits, forest management rules and their enforcement, own provisioning actions, and the importance of trust and collective action. About 1.5 years after the game, we revisited a stratified random sample of 16 out of 60 habitations. Despite the generally positive memory of the game, actual reported changes were limited (Zhang et al. 2021).
RESULTS: REFLECTION ON CASES
Our third objective was to reflect on game features we considered particularly important for influencing behavioral drivers in commons management in three intervention cases from India. We follow the three domains of the ELAS context defined in the framework section. Tables A1a-c in Appendix 1 offer a systematic response to each of the key features of experiential learning context for all three games.
Game narrative and experience
The theory of change for all games was built around real-life social dilemmas in which incentives for individual actions conflict with group interests. We expected that participants’ positive experience in the ELAS would motivate cooperation in the RLAS.
To illustrate the social dilemmas, all our games had a simplified framing featuring the RLAS. This made it easy for participants to understand the link between actions and consequences. In the RLAS, these actions have delayed effects at large spatial scales, which made it difficult for actors to see causal relations. Imitating real-life management challenges in the ELAS helped players relate to the game. The debriefings indicated that this allowed participants to transfer learning from the ELAS to the RLAS.
The groundwater game created an awareness of links between individual crop choices, local medium-term hydrological dynamics, and income of farmers. Participants in the forestry game related to the framing of a degraded forest condition, the message about the benefits of the forest, and the importance of protecting and sustaining it resonated with community members. The surface water game reflected the challenges of local communities to maintain common water infrastructure and to distribute the rainwater harvested in these structures. This was relevant in most communities in Madhya Pradesh where the game was played. By accident, the game was played in some communities that do not use surface water for irrigation. Attention should be paid to the right fit between tool and RLAS context.
Game boards with different colors corresponding to different levels of ecosystem services provided by varying sizes of the forest were used in different sessions of the forestry game. Because men and women in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh responded differently to this treatment, we found it difficult to interpret the inconsistent results. Male groups in Rajasthan showed a more cooperative behavior in the game when playing with a multicolor board. In contrast, female groups in Rajasthan and both gender groups in Andhra Pradesh showed less pro-social behavior when playing with the same board.
Social dilemmas always have potential for conflict. We observed heated discussions in some of our sessions. Some players behaved very opportunistically in the game and convincingly expressed after the session that they wanted to show fellow villagers a mirror of what they believed was happening in their community. Although this was intended, such situations required sensitive facilitation and debriefing to harness “creative tension.” It was important that our local facilitators were well grounded in the communities and had a good understanding of the background of potential conflicts to avoid unintended negative effects.
Even the moderate rollouts of the games would not have been easily possible had we relied on experienced professional facilitators. Over multiple days, we developed the community facilitators’ capacity to lead through the games. In addition, we reduced the complexity of the game rules to adapt to the capacity of facilitators and players. Development of a mobile application that guided facilitators through the different steps of the surface water game also reduced the demand for facilitation capacity; an android app has now also been developed for the groundwater game.
We experienced, both in the discussion during the games and the debriefing sessions, the temptation from facilitators to hint or give advice. Although this is a way to include expert knowledge in the discussion, it undermines self-determination and may push participants to make decisions they do not really support. When training facilitators, we emphasized the need to be patient and let participants find their own solutions. In the surface water game, we added open questions based on theoretical concepts of commons’ management to make participants think and discuss critical aspects of the problems.
The debriefings were critical for the larger community to discuss how the experiences in the game related to their resource use and condition, and the factors influencing it. Debriefings encouraged people to share their perceptions about current and past rules and regulations. But most importantly, debriefings helped communities develop a vision for what should change in the future and what they could contribute to move toward this vision, for example, changes to the rules. The combination of playing the games over multiple rounds and encouraging discussions provoked deliberation processes. Although baseline assessments in our study indicated there were habits of insufficient efforts to manage resources sustainably, the players connected the game to their real-life experiences and discussed the need to change behavior. Players in all the water games expressed that the game helped them better understand how their actions affected other community members and motivated them to deliberate on alternative management. The debriefing sessions also revealed if the game was not addressing a critical management challenge in the specific context, such as fluctuations in water availability or crop prices.
The length of the game was another important aspect in our interventions. The games were supposed to be long enough to enable the benefits of cooperation and to create a memorable experience, but short enough to respect participants’ time constraints. We especially noticed in the groundwater game that women were particularly time constrained and, in some cases, depleted the groundwater faster so they could end the game. Finding appropriate times for women to play the game reduced this problem.
We experienced that the games had more positive effects if they complemented other interventions. The longer an NGO had been operating in a community, the more likely the groundwater game was to effect change in behavior. The surface water game was more likely to lead to increased maintenance activities if it was implemented in a site where FES was implementing additional activities.
The partners faced the challenge of developing game rules that featured important RLAS social dilemmas and were simple to facilitate in a reasonable time. The groundwater game used two generic crop/income combinations to illustrate that short-term gains can come at long-term and social costs; game payoffs did not reflect the full range of real-life crop income and water requirements. In contrast, the surface water game had very context-specific game rules, with payoffs simulating typical values of the region based on focus group discussions and expert advice.
Although the forestry game fits the real-life biophysical context in terms of forest degradation, we noticed that the choice options did not fit the governance context. The harvesting decision was phrased in terms of cutting trees, but in reality, the government prohibits felling trees. Many communities have their own rules prohibiting tree cutting, even restricting the lopping of branches. Some participants expressed concern that they were being told to cut trees in the game. When communities already had a good understanding of the relationship between cutting trees and forest condition, the simplified rules in the game did not help advance the mental models of players or the community regarding community forest rules.
For all our games, some players questioned the game rules and parameters, requesting more context accuracy to be embedded in the game. In response, in some cases, the framing was adjusted. For instance, many groundwater game participants found the constant water recharge level to be unrealistic because rainfall and recharge fluctuate between years. Thus, subsequent variations of the groundwater game as an intervention allowed for randomizing the amount of recharge based on a roll of the dice.
Flexible designs are a way to help make connections between the ELAS and the RLAS. In the revised groundwater game, participatory design elements were added by offering alternative framings for water extraction decisions and for variable groundwater recharge. In the Rajasthan surface water and the forestry games, game variations such as subsidies, the possibility to sanction, or unequal benefit sharing were optionally played. Depending on what players discussed, the facilitator would introduce one of the variations. This process helped players discuss and understand particular aspects of the management and coordination challenges they felt were most relevant to them.
Our assessments confirm the positive effect of communication in all our games. At the beginning of the games, we prevented players from talking and asked them to make decisions in private. During this game phase, decisions were more erratic and improvements in group earnings were much slower than when discussion was permitted in later rounds. Both players, bystanders, and facilitators enjoyed our games more when communication was allowed. Nevertheless, preventing communication in the first phase offered an opportunity for players to see how others behaved if they were not observed and if the group could not coordinate. This experience underscored the value of communication when it was then allowed.
To support a positive learning experience and make the games more enjoyable, we let two groups play the surface water game simultaneously. Often a friendly competition emerged as the two groups could observe each other, which seemed to strengthen within-group cooperation.
All our games were played over multiple rounds, giving players immediate feedback in a compressed time. This contributed to the players’ increased awareness of consequences on third parties and ecological processes, such as the effects of cropping choice and individual water abstraction on groundwater levels, as expressed during the debriefings.
We experimented across all games with different modes of payments. As is common practice in experiential economics, at some sites players received performance-based individual payments, which were compared with players in villages receiving a lump-sum payment to be used for any community purposes. Our results are inconclusive. In the Andhra Pradesh groundwater game, no effect of the payment methods could be found. Two years after playing the surface water game, communities that received performance-based individual payments reported more frequent dam maintenance than the villages that received community payments. In the community forestry game, incentivized payments lowered ELAS harvest for both men and women’s groups in Andhra Pradesh and for men’s groups in Rajasthan.
Attributes of players
Group composition is an important aspect of creating multiplayer learning spaces. In some communities, we recognized that many women would not speak in public in the presence of men. For this reason, we held separate groups for women and men in the groundwater and forestry games. Facilitators observed active participation of women in the female-only sessions. We then asked ourselves how to facilitate more relational learning. In heterogeneous groups, players with different land size, age, education, and gender could share their perspectives. In the groundwater game, it helped to modify the community-level debriefing practice to have small group discussions separately among women and men, and then to ask representatives of those groups to summarize their insights in the larger group discussion. We got the impression that this helped to negotiate power dynamics. As an alternative approach, we played the surface water game sessions with mixed female-male groups. On average, female players only talked half as much as the men during the discussion. At the same time, in almost every session, we observed interaction between men and women.
Relation was also a discussion among the ELAS designers regarding the trade-off between empowerment of sub-groups and game impacts. By the time of the interventions, the decisions featured in the games were mainly made by men in real life. In the forestry game, women were experimenting with monitoring and sanctioning rules, even though they were traditionally not very much involved in such activities. In the water games, women made crop choices and contributed to dam maintenance even though these decisions were also traditionally dominated by men. Influencing more men may have resulted in stronger institutional service provisions, cropping system shifts on larger areas, and more efforts in dam maintenance. It was a conscious decision to balance the two objectives.
Across all three domains of the ELAS context, we struggled with the trade-off between simplicity and relatability and context specificity of games. Games that target more general norms or support learning of a more universal mental model (such as that in social dilemmas, cooperation improves group outcomes) do not require a framing strongly linked to the context. The advantage of simple games is that they are typically easier to facilitate, simple to understand for the players, fast to play (Flood et al. 2018), adapt into modules or building blocks of games, and apply in heterogeneous geographic situations (Speelman et al. 2018). Therefore, simple games can more easily be scaled given the limited number of strong facilitators (Kolavalli and Kerr 2002).
In contrast, more complex and context-specific games may better represent the constraints and opportunities actors face in the RLAS (Garcia et al. 2022). Relevant learning requires that players can relate the ELAS to the relevant RLAS (Medema et al. 2016). This allows game designers to target more specific mental models that relate to causal links between own actions and outcomes at different temporal and spatial scales. Especially in the context of wicked commons management challenges, the major difficulty is often not the biophysical complexity, but the social system complexity, with actors’ conflicting agendas, power relations, and beliefs (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2008, Schlüter et al. 2017, Speelman et al. 2018). If players respond to this social system complexity by agreeing on a specific rule in the ELAS, it becomes easier to transfer this rule into real life. New rules can thereby gain additional legitimacy, which later reduces enforcement costs (Falk et al. 2012). Context-specific games can support the identification of locally adapted solutions and improve the participants’ feelings of ownership of the solution. When players encounter positive impacts of simulated rules in the game, this experience can strengthen their confidence in the respective institution as well as their capacity, willingness, and feeling of responsibility to invest in the provision of institutional services (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007, Wigboldus et al. 2016). But as the forestry game shows, context-specific games require detailed understanding of the local context.
Even for more context-specific games, the game rules need to be challenging enough to engage participants but simple enough to allow them to succeed in cooperating. Positive game experiences can create trust required for fruitful collaboration (Hertzog et al. 2014, Meinzen-Dick et al. 2016). Conversely, negative game experiences can support undesirable habits and do harm. Pro-social experiences are therefore important in experiential learning games. It is a challenge to design games in a way that steers players toward more desirable behavior while also allowing them to make their own choices and find their own solutions (Sunstein 2018). Overall, the majority of groups in our surface water game sessions improved their cooperation over the rounds and most managed to reach a cooperative group outcome at the end of the game (Bartels et al. 2022).
Acknowledging the importance of real-life context for collective action and deliberation in the ELAS points to limitations of the experiential learning approach. Changes in mental models and especially shared norms will be strongly influenced by the quality of deliberation affected by local power dynamics, deliberation, and negotiation skills, which are out of the control of the experiential learning facilitators (Scholz et al. 2014, Kenter et al. 2016a). It is critical to carefully frame social interaction in the ELAS through conscious choices in the game rules and attributes of players. Depending on how the game rules are defined, real-life power constellations may be less prominent in the ELAS, which can help bring the voices of different subgroups to the table. A game can surface hidden smoldering conflicts (Shelton et al. 2018) and as a result contribute to questioning current practices. Games provide an informal space in which actors can leave entrenched positions (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007). Power-sensitive facilitation and game design can reduce the risk of creating destructive conflicts. Debriefings are especially important when strong positive or negative feelings are generated in the game, which would especially apply when conflicts surface (Crookall 2014).
Unlocking a games’ potential to trigger participatory institutional change requires nonprescriptive facilitation. Facilitators who can flexibly react to group dynamics can support creation of a constructive group learning exercise (Flood et al. 2018). This requires special capacity-development efforts, especially when working with less experienced facilitators, often used to more conventional teaching (Meinzen-Dick et al. 2018).
Our results confirm that experiential learning more likely leads to intended behavioral change if it is embedded in repeated interactions and complementary interventions (Kolavalli and Kerr 2002, Woodhill 2010, Wouters et al. 2013, Meinzen-Dick et al. 2018). The scaling challenge is therefore to develop effective and efficient intervention packages, potentially containing games as one element. Experiential learning tools such as the ones discussed, can also be incorporated into long-term system change processes in an iterative and adaptive manner (Herrmann et al. 2021). This will intensify the learning experience, help relate it to specific real-life decisions, and support feedback into real-life context. Combining the conceptual thinking of scientists with the applied and context knowledge of NGOs, government partners, and community members was essential in the development of all three described games. The integration of various bodies of knowledge, perspectives, and approaches coproduces socially robust, context-specific, relevant, and holistic solutions, also in the context of game design (Aeberhard and Rist 2009, Jahn et al. 2012, Muhamad and Kim 2020). Codesign processes such as adaptation of the water games, create a feeling of ownership, increase trust, and stimulate commitment among facilitators and other change agents. Codesign increases the legitimacy and impact of the research for development outcomes. Further, it ensures that the time, experience, and resource constraints of facilitators are considered. Eventually, codesign processes increase the likelihood for the solution to be later adopted (Bracken et al. 2015). At the same time, codesign processes are challenging. It is important for all involved parties to move beyond their individual agendas and comfort zones.
Games have potential as intervention tools for sustainable resource management, but to achieve that potential, careful attention to underlying assumptions in using games is urgently needed in research, policy, and design of interventions. Although it is beyond our scope to synthesize and integrate the massive research on human behavior in multiple disciplines, the reflections on the three cases using the structure of our framework helped us understand the most important features of our games, which we believe have broader theoretical and practical implications.
First, making transparent assumptions in theories of change allows for questioning them and can help identify effective ways to influence behavioral change. It follows from our conceptual framework that experiential learning can mainly influence mental models and norms. Consequently, they are unlikely to change real-life behavior if mental models and norms are not the main constraints for desirable behavior. Making assumptions transparent can help to understand why or under what conditions experiential learning works or fails (Davis et al. 2015). Acknowledging the diversity of intervention tools, we conclude that there is a critical need for more systematic choices of the right tools for the right purpose.
Second, participants from the experiential learning must be able to relate the game to their real lives. Game designers should consciously decide whether they want to influence more universal mental models or mental models related to a more specific management challenge. The game narrative and rules must fit the specific resource management context if interventions are to influence a particular behavior. A social dilemma in the game should, at least in its basic form, represent a real-life dilemma. Too often communities experience interventions that are only perceived as important by outsiders, not considering the specific context.
Third, allowing communication for a considerable part of the game is necessary to support social learning. Communication allows players to coordinate and, thus, have a positive cooperation experience. The latter is required to ensure that groups align their mental models regarding the benefits of coordination and cooperation. Game designers should be conscious that how they structure the ELAS exercises power over the learning process. A tension exists between giving players freedom to deliberate without external interference and the intent to support learning around a specific real-life issue through process design and active facilitation (Kenter et al. 2016a, b).
Fourth, games benefit greatly from the subsequent debriefing that can serve as a bridge to transfer the lessons from the games to real life. In the debriefing, it is important that facilitators allow space for participants to find their own solutions. This will increase the acceptance of the solutions as well as help to better adapt the solutions to the specific context of the session’s participants. As a result, the experiential learning will more likely lead to actual behavioral change. If the solutions found are manifested in local rules, this bottom-up process is likely to support better-adapted resource governance.
The conceptual framework we presented can provide a structure for future impact assessments of experiential learning. We propose a stepwise approach including: (1) assessing indicators for changes in mental models and descriptive and injunctive norms, (2) measuring real-life behavioral changes, and (3) assessing changes in real-life system contexts.
Our conceptualization and reflection on experiential learning shed light on future research needs, including the following:
- Better understanding of the role of people’s motivations in social dilemma situations and in experiential learning interventions is needed. How would alternative goal definitions affect the lessons participants learn from playing the game? In particular, what is the role of individual incentivized payments?
- Many commercial multiplayer games include an element of competition between groups. It has been shown that such competition can strengthen cooperation within groups. Intergroup competition may have harmful effects in real life but can support cooperation on a community level. The interaction between competition and cooperation at different scales of social structures deserves additional research.
- More research is required to understand the effect of visual design, language, and embodiment elements on behavioral responses and learning for people with different socioeconomic attributes. Advanced cognitive testing methods may be required to better understand the role of specific design features.
- The potential application of experiential learning games in situations in which power rather than mental models and norms drive commons management needs to be better understood. We see the potential to empower marginalized groups in the game sessions but recommend studying the impact of game dynamics on real-life power dynamics.
- Gender dynamics deserve particular attention to (1) identify the conditions under which women can participate actively in mixed male-female games and (2) to identify how social learning among women and men relates to their gender-differentiated roles in resource management.
- The desired impacts of our game interventions require behavioral change at both the individual and community levels. This indicates the importance of complementary interventions such as debriefing sessions. More thought is required on how experiential learning experienced directly by (a limited number of) participants can be diffused effectively to the wider community, triggering sustainable commons management on a larger scale.
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This work was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on policies, institutions, and market as well as the program on water, land, and ecosystems. This work received financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, commissioned and administered through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, grant number: 81250397. It was further supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, grant number: 01UC2114A. We have benefited greatly from discussions with Marco Janssen, Bjorn Vollan, and Juan Camilo Cárdenas over several years as we developed and implemented the games. We thank Mahesh Jadav for editing the map of the project sites and Lee Dixon for designing a figure, which captures the complexity of our conceptual thinking in an accessible and attractive way. Special acknowledgment goes to all Foundation for Ecological Security staff and participating communities for their time, assistance, and hospitality. The opinions expressed here belong to the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations involved.
Links to the data are included in Appendix 1, which describe the different game tools.
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Table 1. Key features of the experiential learning context.
|Design features||Explanation||Related sources|
|Game narrative and experience|
|Theory of change||The experiential learning action situation (ELAS) should be designed on the basis of a theory around a significant real-life action situation in which current actions lead to undesirable outcomes, which players can potentially address. The issue and response can be abstract or more specific.||Weber et al. 2004, Speelman et al. 2018, Muhamad and Kim 2020|
|Embedded or isolated intervention||Experiential learning interventions may address important but not all factors influencing behavioral change. A comprehensive theory of change can indicate how the ELAS, in combination with other interventions, can support change. It has been shown that repeated ELAS interventions support learning. Evidence also shows that games are most effective if they are combined with other capacity-development methods.||Weber et al. 2004, Wouters et al. 2013, Scholz et al. 2014, Flood et al. 2018, Muhamad and Kim 2020|
|Story framing||It has been shown that learning is most effective when it is contextual, and the ELAS structure and possible choices closely reflect the context and key management challenges in the real-life action situation (RLAS). In contrast, simple and more abstract games can activate transcendental values, and their transfer to a specific context could happen at a later step. Subtle manipulations of the narrative can influence learning in desirable or undesirable ways. The intervention can lose credibility or lead to counterproductive learning if the rules of the game are not congruent with the real-life reference of the narrative.||Weber et al. 2004, Wouters et al. 2013, Starks 2014, Medema et al. 2016, Kenter et al. 2016b, Muhamad and Kim 2020, Garcia et al. 2022|
|Goal definition||Games create an experience structured around goals. The nature of the goal influences behavior and learning in the ELAS. Evidence exists that cooperation is enhanced when games are framed as ethical rather than income-generating challenges. Incentivized payments and common practice in economic behavioral experiments may emphasize material goals, but can also influence learning. Activating relevant transcendental values may support the formation of contextual norms. Ideally, ELAS outcomes mimic RLAS outcomes that are relevant to actors’ motivations.||Liberman et al. 2004, Parks et al. 2013, Mørkbak et al. 2014, Starks 2014, Kenter et al. 2016b, Flood et al. 2018, Meinzen-Dick et al. 2018, Speelman et al. 2018, Bartels et al. 2022, Garcia et al. 2022|
|Facilitation||The more complex a game, the more skilled and experienced facilitation is required. To respond to self-determination needs, facilitation needs to offer spaces for reflection and transformative dialogue rather than teaching solutions. Together with fair game rules, facilitation can create a collective choice system that players perceive as legitimate. It needs to be respectful of the knowledge of all involved, especially marginalized groups. This experience may affect how players want the collective choice rules in the RLAS to be revised. Facilitation also affects the enjoyment of the process.||Scholz et al. 2014, Kenter et al. 2016b, Flood et al. 2018, DeCaro et al. 2021|
|Game flow||Players are more likely to learn if they feel engaged in the ELAS.||Starks 2014, Muhamad and Kim 2020, Garcia et al. 2022|
|Graphics of posters and game materials||Graphical material used to explain and facilitate the game is especially important when working with target audiences with limited literacy. Its quality activates visual intelligences as a source of creativity, affecting learning.||Gardner 2000, Starks 2014|
|Language||Learning is influenced not only by the information content but also by how well the language used is attuned to the audience. Language further activates linguistic intelligences as another source of creativity, affecting learning.||Gardner 2000, Starks 2014, Flood et al. 2018|
|Integration of any embodiment||People subconsciously react to other bodies in their environment, influencing feelings of connectedness with others and eventually, cooperation. This aspect activates body/kinaesthetic intelligences as another source of creativity, affecting learning.||Gardner 2000, Marsh et al. 2009, Starks 2014|
|Game length||Often, long games are perceived to be exhausting. Shorter games can capture less complexity and give participants fewer opportunities to learn about the system.||Flood et al. 2018, Garcia et al. 2022|
|Group competition||Letting more than one group play simultaneously, and allowing them to observe each other can trigger competition between groups, which often strengthens within-group cooperation.||Darwin 1871, Parks et al. 2013, Muhamad and Kim 2020|
|Response options||Response options need to be aligned to the theory of change. They can be more general or represent a specific action as experienced in a RLAS. Allowing players to set their own rules in the game can activate creativity and satisfy self-determination needs. This can trigger rule acceptance and support a feeling of self-efficacy.||Weber et al. 2004, Ostrom 2009, Flood et al. 2018, Speelman et al. 2018, DeCaro et al. 2021|
|Payoff structure||The payoffs of a game can illustrate a social dilemma with simple action-outcome relations. Alternatively, they can represent more complex RLAS system dynamics. Because this affects the type of learning, payoffs should be well aligned to the theory of change, the game narrative, and the response options. Payoffs should represent the real-world appropriateness of actions in the ELAS.||Weber et al. 2004, Flood et al. 2018, Speelman et al. 2018, Muhamad and Kim 2020, Garcia et al. 2022|
|Uncertain payoffs||Payoffs can be fixed or random, representing unpredictable RLAS dynamics.||Weber et al. 2004, Parks et al. 2013, Flood et al. 2018|
|Sequence of decisions||Decisions can be made simultaneously or sequentially. Sequential decisions express asymmetric power.||Weber et al. 2004, Janssen et al. 2011a, Parks et al. 2013|
|Repetition of decision||Games can have only one round or repeated rounds. Repeated game rounds allow participants to experiment and revise strategies. Thereby, the decision situation of the next round can depend on the game dynamic in the previous round, which can support learning about long-term path dependencies in the RLAS. In addition, it has been shown that cooperation is more likely in repeated interaction.||Ostrom 2009, Parks et al. 2013, Wouters et al. 2013, Flood et al. 2018, Garcia et al. 2022|
|Communication||The possibility to interact improves cooperation through multiple mechanisms. It activates people’s deeply rooted impulses of curiosity, to wonder, to know, to explain, and to understand. In addition, communication activates interpersonal intelligences as a source of human creativity. Social interaction is the most powerful driver of social learning.||Ostrom and Walker 1991, Gardner 2000, Balliet 2010, Starks 2014, Kenter et al. 2016b, Flood et al. 2018, DeCaro et al. 2021|
|Consequences||Including rewards or punishments influences cooperation. Consequences are also an important aspect of institutions and including them in the ELAS may encourage institutional change in the RLAS.||Ostrom 2009, Falk et al. 2012, Parks et al. 2013|
|Encouragement||Feedback on individual and group success or failure supports learning. Feedback can be given individually and secretly or openly for all players to see each other’s decisions and outcomes.||Ostrom 2009, Wouters et al. 2013, Starks 2014, Muhamad and Kim 2020|
|Power||Many learning games give all players the same power in the ELAS. Where power is an issue in the RLAS, unequal endowments, information, or sequential decisions can be integrated to explore how power dynamics influence cooperation.||Parks et al. 2013|
|Personality and identity||The combination of individuals with their socioeconomic attributes such as gender, age, education, and skills (for example, to participate in deliberation and negotiation), as well as their role and power in the community, affect social dynamics in the game and the learning. On one hand, games can support empowerment of marginalized groups. On the other hand, it has been argued that to create impact in real-life, games should be played with the actors who have the power to make decisions.||Weber et al. 2004, Scholz et al. 2014, Kenter et al. 2016b, Speelman et al. 2018, Garcia et al. 2022|
|History/experience with management challenge||Players’ past experience with the RLAS affects their behavior in the ELAS and their learning.||Weber et al. 2004, Ostrom 2009, Muhamad and Kim 2020|
|Group size||Facilitation and the emergence of cooperation are more difficult in larger groups.||Hamburger et al. 1975, Ostrom 1990, Weber et al. 2004|