A serious Game for Agricultural Development
I believe that we as Young Professionals in Agricultural Research for Development can have a big impact by thinking about innovative practices, technologies and approaches in our working domains. Therefore I would hereby like to share an example of such an innovative approach to show other YPs how we can increase the effects of our efforts by linking other working domains to our own.
Context of my research
Land degradation is an increasing problem for smallholder farmer communities in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania. A lot of research on this issue has been conducted in this area, but there lacks communication with district level policy makers, who can adjust and implement land conservation policies.
For my graduation research as MSc Land and Water management, I took up the task to develop a computer game, which could be used in a workshop with these policy makers. My study was part of a research project, investigating the implementation of sustainable land management [SLM] in the East African Highlands. The project wants to organize a policy maker workshop where the debate about existing policy, SLM practices and farmers’ livelihoods can be started. The idea was to make a short computer game to trigger these discussions.
The game itself was made in cooperative effort with Hannah Kay Piché [graphic design] and Joram Rafalowicz of WeirdBeard Games [technical design].
Research Results in to a Game
Games like this where “entertainment” is not the main goal, are called ‘serious games’. The main goal of this game was to create awareness among policy makers by explaining farmers’ main issues in a fast and comprehensible manner. Therefore, the local farming system, and farmers’ critical decision moments and investment behaviour were examined.
Results indicated that in general, the smallholder farmers in the Usambara Mountains keep savings, e.g. in the form of stocked goods and livestock, which increases their coping capacity for low market prices. In case of conflict, illness or death, farmers’ social relations support in resolving that. Farmers cultivate both staple and cash crops, which makes them relatively resilient to natural disasters [e.g. pests, droughts]. It became clear as well, however, that the implementation of soil and water conservation techniques was highly variable, i.e. some farmers construct terraces on their plots while others do not apply such measures at all. It seemed that farmers lack a knowledge basis on the possible benefits of these measures. The influence of district authorities and extension workers looked limited: incentives and regulations do not extent beyond villages along the main market points, are not well enough adapted to farmers’ capital and meet little acceptance. Taking this into consideration, the principal conclusion was that the computer game needed to show farmers’ resilience as well as their limitations in order to give a clear message to policy makers.
As a researcher for this study the most challenging part of was to balance between the development of the game and the fulfilment of an academic research, not because the two exclude each other but because the requirements of these products lie in an opposite scope. For the game it was important that the input information is simplified, generalised and/or combined in order to keep the player focussed on the main idea behind the game. Contrary, for academic research the aim was to do in-depth analysis of the gathered data. In my thesis, the aim was to do both, starting with an analysis of the data and to narrow down from here onwards to simplified game input. To keep this balance was a real challenge indeed!
“African Highland Farmer” – the Game
- After a short introduction on the context of this project and instructions how to play, the start of the game is set in the environment of Tanzanian highlands. You see a plot of land situated on a slope, next to a farmer family in front of their house and shed. This is the main playing field.
In several side-menus, the player can choose different actions, like 1) buying crop seeds to plant that year; 2) send children to school; 3) buy malaria medication; 4) hire labour or find employment elsewhere yourself; 5) invest in livestock; and 6) invest in the construction of terraces and/or grass strips.
- These options are limited by the availability of labour and money.
- Soil productivity declines over the years if no measures are applied.
- At the end of each turn, a summary is given of income and expenses.
- Each year, however, an event occurs which influences your options, expenses or income [e.g. drought, social conflict].
- To finish the game there are two options: 1) you are game over; 2) you finish fifteen years and receive an evaluation of your performance as a sustainable highland farmer.
- End of the game: the player has the option to restart a new game.
That’s my story on this game! I have to say, it was a wonderful experience and quite an eye-opener for the possibilities we have in practices and approach.
Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or remarks.
More on Machteld's profile
Download the Full paper : "Creating awareness among decision makers on land degradation and sustainable land management – a Farm System Analysis for the development of a computer game, in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania"