Risky Business: Using Games to Understand Farmer Decision-making in Sri Lanka

Thushara Gunda, Vanderbilt University
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Summary

In coupled natural and human systems (such as farming), decision-making is rarely straightforward since it is influenced by myriad factors. This in-class role playing game allows students to step into the shoes of a farmer in Sri Lanka and understand the complexity of decisions they face. In the game, the students are given a seasonal weather forecast and asked to select crops to plant, where the crop options have different costs and rules for return (rice is fixed while onions depends on fellow players' decisions as well). Then the "wheel of rain" is spun to determine the actual weather and the crop returns are doled out. The wheel is then reset to another forecast and play continues. The interactive and immediate feedback nature of the game design helps students understand "first-hand" the challenges Sri Lankan farmers face in trying to balancing uncertainties associated with both natural factors (i.e., weather) and social factors (i.e., market conditions) concurrently. This activity has been successfully implemented in various settings, from farmers in Sri Lanka to students in middle school to graduate school in the US. The game was designed as part of a research effort that aimed to understand farmer adaptation and decision making in Sri Lanka (Gunda et al., 2017). More information about the project can be found here: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/srilankaproject/

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Context

Audience

This activity is ideal for any course that aims to increase understanding of coupled natural and human systems. It has been successfully implemented in exercises with middle school, high school, undergraduate, and graduate level students and in multiple disciplines including environmental sciences, environmental engineering, and sociology. This game could also be used as a hook for a modeling class, focused on either system dynamics or agent-based modeling.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

None necessary.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity can be a stand-alone activity or integrated into a larger lesson plan that focuses on general decision-making or on factors influencing food or agricultural systems.

Goals

Content/concepts goals for this activity

Depending on the class in which this activity is used, concept goals include probabilities (middle school-level), policies (high school-level and above), or decision-making under uncertainty (undergraduate-level and above).

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Synthesizing factor interactions and developing a systems level perspective are the higher order thinking skills associated with this activity.

Other skills goals for this activity

After the activity, the students could be tasked with a writing assignment (e.g., reflection paper on their game strategy during class, and why it was/not successful) to develop their writing skills. For more advanced students, assigning Gunda et al. (2017) as a reading prior to class could help develop their academic paper reading skills.

Description and Teaching Materials

In coupled natural and human systems (such as farming), decision-making is rarely straightforward since it is influenced by myriad factors. The context for the activity is summarized in this brief video: 3MinuteThesis_Presentation (MP4 Video 156.1MB Aug31 17)

In class, the students will step into the shoes of a farmer in Sri Lanka and understand the complexity of decisions they face by playing the game mentioned in the video.

As part of the setup, the students are given some farm land, startup capital, crop cards to plant (that include the associated costs to plant), and a return sheet that summarizes the crop returns for each weather conditions. In each round, the students are given a seasonal weather forecast and asked to select crops to plant, with the crop options have different costs and rules for return (rice is fixed while onions depends on fellow players' decisions as well). Then the "wheel of rain" is spun to determine the actual weather and the crop returns are doled out. The wheel is then reset to another forecast and play continues for a few more rounds. Once game play ends, the students tally their tokens and engage in a discussion of their game strategy.

The Risky Business_Lesson Plan (Acrobat (PDF) 648kB Aug25 17) contains specific details about the lesson plan layout and suggestions regarding the game materials, game rules, and debrief questions. The Game Materials (Zip Archive 362kB Aug25 17) contains templates for the farm land, crop cards, return sheets, and forecast wheels that could be printed and cut.

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • The game has been successfully played during a 50-minute class period, with 10-15 minutes of overview and setup, 25 minutes of game play, and 10-15 minutes of debrief.
  • The collection and distribution of money/tokens as well as tallying the numbers of onions planted each round does take some time. So I encourage the instructors to have no more than 7 farms in play per facilitator. If there are more than 7 students, consider pairing or grouping the students on each farm. This adds an extra dimension of "family-style" decision-making, that has it's set of dynamics and challenges that can be explored during post-game activities.
  • Don't forget to have the players verify each others' finances - facilitators should pay attention to whether the students are paying the right amount to the banker and students should pay attention to whether the facilitators are paying them the right returns.
  • The Risky Business_Class Slides (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 7.2MB Aug25 17) contains slides that could be used to set up the context, game play (especially for online casino wheel version), and results of research in class. Or if limited time is available, consider just using the 3MinuteThesis_Presentation (MP4 Video 156.1MB Aug31 17) video for establishing context.
  • The game was designed as part of a research effort that aimed to understand farmer adaptation and decision making in Sri Lanka. The data collected from the farmers using the game were incorporated into a system dynamics model that was used to explore how climate change could influence farmer livelihoods. We encourage you to read this open-source paper, since it provides a lot of valuable context for both the system and the game as a whole: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa5ef7/meta. For undergraduate students, a possible pre-activity assignment would be to have the students read the paper.
  • For graduate students, a discussion about the different datasets used to develop the model could be added to the discussion. The model could be directly accessed at https://www.openabm.org/model/5395/version/1/view
  • Note: the discussion focus typically tends to reflect the age group. For example, the "wheel of rain" and associated probability discussions is a major focus for middle school students while undergraduate students in social sciences tend to focus more on farmer interactions.
  • Note: if the "flood" option occurs in the first couple of rounds, often the students all become bankrupt, in which case, you can reset the game from the beginning. Don't forget to reflect on the issues associated with extreme events in the debrief.
  • Last but not least, have fun! The whole point of this activity is to engage the students about agricultural decision-making in a fun, interactive way!
  • I routinely update my teaching materials. So if you use this activity in your class, I would appreciate a short paragraph summarizing your reflections on what was or was not successful. Please send me your thoughts via email: tgunda [at] gmail [dot] com.

Assessment

The Pre-Asssement (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Aug25 17) and Post-Assessment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Aug25 17) are formative assessments that can be used to gauge students' understanding of the system pre- and post- the activity.

If the research paper is assigned as a reading assignment, the students could be asked to answer some basic questions about the reading. Possible questions include:
  1. What crops do farmers in system M/H primarily choose between?
  2. What physical and social factors influence farmer decisions?
  3. What are the strengths of field vs modeling studies on assessing the impacts of seasonal climate forecasts?
  4. Did incorporating forecasts into planting decisions generate higher net agricultural income for the farmer in the study?
  5. How do varying crop economics moderate net agricultural income changes under different climate conditions for the farmer in the study?
The post-game debrief could be followed up with a written assignment that allows the students to reflect on their game strategy and elaborate on a specific aspect pertaining to the learning objectives (for e.g., the various factors influencing the farming system). Alternatively, the students could be tasked with drawing a concept map (similar to the one presented in the pptx) using MentalModeler: http://www.mentalmodeler.org/.

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