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Stratagem: Gaming Sustainable Development
Alex Steffen, 15 Sep 06

balaton.jpg I'm here at the annual meeting of the Balaton Group (named after the Hungarian lake on whose shores we're gathered), watching teams of people from five continents argue about how best to transform a nation with an economy and social indicators similar to Nicaragua into a nation more like Sweden without destroying the environment.

They're playing Stratagem, a game developed by Dennis Meadows to teach the latest thinking on sustainable development. It's essentially a tool for learning how to win the Great Wager.

We've talked about serious games and how they can help us better understand the world, or indeed, even come up with new innovations for changing it. Stratagem is a hybrid board game/ computer simulation designed entirely to teach (the basics of the game are available as a PDF here). The purpose of Stratagem is to force you to learn 15 fundamental principles relating to systems dynamics in the real world, including issues like capital depreciation, diminishing returns on investment and the value of ecological services.

Players assume various roles, and aim to increase their country's supply of goods, food and energy over a 50 - 100 year time period. For each there is a hard path, based purely on investment and increasing production, and a soft path, based on efficiency and environmental protection. In addition, the time horizon of decisions players make (short- vs. long-term thinking) influence the results they get, as the game, much like the real world, is full of feedback loops and connected systems. Balancing a countries energy imports, foreign debt, population growth, social services, trade and environmental health turns out to be a very complicated and difficult task.

Dennis stands up and goes through the thinking behind the game (which is based on his work on exploring the limits to growth and research of his colleagues and various research institutions). He asks, "What is winning this game?" Again, as in life, there is no clear victory condition, and only an arbitrary finish line. Indeed, players are invited to agree on a victory condition, and debate what processes and decisions lead to their success or failure in achieving it.

It's not a flashy game: in fact, it's downright wonky. But if you are the kind of person who is trying to understand the kinds of big, systemic changes we face over the coming century, it's a valuable tool.

What I'd love to see, though, is a game which understands the development process, environmental limits and systems dynamics with this level of insight and real world experience, but combines it with both the passion of a game like A Force More Powerful and the beautifully immersive simulations of a Wil Wright game, and maybe threw in some ground level perspective like Village. In other words, it'd be great if Stratagem mated with some future-making tools.

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This is a very relevant discussion when looking at where the world is headed to......its rather sad that the many people and tools that could be helpful in informing dialogue are not being used to the full extend of their availability and potential by our policy makers. I would like to refer anyone interested in real profesional future making tools to have a look at T21 (or Threshold 21). Its a system dynamics simulation model, developed over the past 20 years by the Millennium Institute (a not for profit organization) and now being used in a number of countries to support scenario based development planning. The model is being promoted by the Carter Center and UNDP. Support has come from these organizations and others like the World Bank, Private Foundations, UNEP, CIDA among many more supporters.

MI provides capacity and institution building to government officials and civil society groups and works with centers of excellence and universities on research and capacity building. Run only versions of different models can be downloaded from the MI website at or Inquiries from potential partners and users are welcome. We also welcome comments and suggestions on how to improve and refine the model.

Posted by: Hans R Herren on 15 Sep 06

Alex, please give my very best regards to Dennis - and learn everything you can from him while you're there. The game may be wonky, but it's a stronger lesson than most of the flash out there now. That's not to dispute your point - anything to make such lessons more powerful and compelling is welcome - but the core insights matter when internalized, however they've been illustrated.

Posted by: David Foley on 15 Sep 06



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