Let the games begin! Having fun and playing games can improve the lives of people and wildlife.

Full Citation: Hardy, P., Dray, A., Cornioley, T., David, M., Sabatier, R., Kernes, E., & Souchere, V. (2020). Public policy design: assessing the potential of new collective Agri-Environmental Schemes in the Marais Poitevin wetland region using a participatory approach. Land Use Policy, 97, 104724. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2020.104724

Farmers and conservationists roll the dice in France

Let me ask you a question: name one thing we can do to address the environmental issues of the world? I’m sure several things came to your mind. Perhaps you thought of planting more trees. Maybe you thought of increasing our use of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy. You also might have thought of using fewer plastics. But my guess is this option didn’t cross your mind: playing a game. Yes, you read that correctly. In some cases, spending a relaxing day playing board games can help us figure out how to address environmental issues. Board games can be used to simulate real world conditions, and understand why people make certain decisions. Although infrequently used, some scientists have gathered various actors together and asked them to play a board game to determine individual behavior under different conservation scenarios and policies.  

In one example, a research team lead by Pierre-Yves Hardy brought their games to the Marais Poitevin region in France to determine the effectiveness of policies that pay farmers for performing certain conservation actions. The Marais Poitevin region is home to the second biggest wetland of France. This region is very important for biodiversity conservation, but is also heavily cultivated by crops and grazed by livestock. During the early 1990’s, the French government created policies called Agri-Environment Schemes (AES), which paid farmers to engage in more sustainable practices to protect biodiversity. Decades later, the effectiveness of these policies are still being questioned. Researchers contend that farmer participation is too low to achieve significant results in terms of biodiversity conservation. This brought up the question of how AES could be restructured to better satisfy the needs of farmers and conservationists and achieve better results for biodiversity. Scientists need some way to understand how different scenarios related to policy design could influence biodiversity conservation. To do this, Hardy and the team proposed playing a role-playing game with actual stakeholders in the study region.

The Marais Poitevin wetlands are home to an astounding diversity of birds and other wildlife, and are actively farmed with both crops and battle. Image Credit: https://p0.pikist.com/photos/62/359/marais-poitevin-marsh-river-water-wild-nature.jpg
How can a game mirror the real world?

In this game there were eight roles to be played: five farmers, one head of a wetland association (a group of individuals in charge of controlling water levels) who is also a crop farmer, one head of a wetland association who is also a cattle farmer, and one nature conservationist in charge of a nature reserve. The game simulates a three-year period, where players make land management decisions corresponding to the spring season, while a computer simulates the rest of the months based on decisions made in the spring. During a round, players can perform several actions according to their roles. Farmers can choose to rotate their crops and allocate land for cattle. Wetland association presidents can decide on water levels. The nature conservationist works to provide suitable conditions for species in the reserve, and is involved with discussions with farmers and wetland association presidents. Farmers have the goal of securing sufficient incomes, the nature conservationist has the goal of maintaining the highest possible bird population, and the wetland association presidents have no specific goals.

The game was played in two scenarios (one during a morning session, and one during an afternoon session). The morning session simulated action-oriented AES. This corresponds to how current AES operate. Farmers receive a certain amount of money regardless of the environmental outcome. Farmers work individually, but face restrictions set forth by the AES such as mowing date and extent of livestock trampling. The afternoon session simulated free-form AES. In this scenario, farmers are only financially rewarded if they achieve a certain environmental objective (in this case, the goal was to increase breeding success of birds by 20%). The farmers worked together as members of two collectives, and had no restraints placed on them. 

The set up of the board game played between farmers and conservationists. Image Credit: Fig. 3 in Hardy et al. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2020.104724
Forget the rules: let’s create our own rules

As the game was played, researches recorded audio of the conversations between the stakeholders, and analyzed the dialogue to determine emergent themes. Three main results emerged. First, farmers greatly preferred the free-form AES, where they worked collectively and had no restraints. Despite the uncertainty associated with receiving payment only if an environmental objective was met, farmers preferred being able to work together to create their own systems of rules, rather than having rules prescribed to them. The farmers were observed working together to support each other in case one farmer’s crops or livestock failed. Second, in the free-form AES, there was direct competition observed between the two collectives, where farmers were racing to create a bird-friendly landscape, and sometimes tried to sabotage the other group’s conservation effort. Finally, farmers performed better economically in the collective free-form AES than in the individual action-oriented AES, suggesting that paying farmers based on environmental objectives leads to better economic well-being rather than simply paying them regardless of the outcome.

Although these results were from a game, they are highly relevant for forecasting what may occur in reality under different scenarios. The clear result that farmers preferred the free-form AES suggests that the current AES may need to be restructured. Furthermore, an action-oriented AES may be more effective at bringing different stakeholders together, and promoting conversations about conservation. The researchers found that in the afternoon session, there was a much higher level of interaction, both among the farmers and between the farmers and the nature conservationists. With their payment conditional on wildlife, farmers increasingly collaborated with the nature conservationists. Both groups of actors expressed interest in increased social interactions to manage land in the region. While I’m sure none of us would want to play Russian roulette with the health of our planet on the line, there’s no reason we can’t stop and play a few other games. Especially when those games can help us protect the environment.

With farmers and conservationists working together, birds such as the Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) will be able to flourish, while still allowing farmers to earn a living. Image Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Common_Redshank_Tringa_totanus.jpg

Reviewed by: Elisabeth Lang

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Connor Rosenblatt

I am most often found running, backpacking, or birding. When not pursuing one of those passions, I spend my time studying social and cultural factors in cities that influence biodiversity conservation policies. I am currently pursuing my PhD at the University of California, Davis. I previously earned an M.S. from The Ohio State University and a B.S. from Cornell University. In the past my research focused on population and occupancy modeling of shrubland and grassland birds.

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