By Yee San Su, CNA
It’s Hunger Games. DC style.
On November 9, Washington DC will host high-level decision-makers from around the world for a two-day, role-playing game: Food Chain Reaction.
It’s about time. Roughly eight years ago, the world saw a surge in food prices that pushed more than a hundred million people into food insecurity. Governments reacted by introducing various policy measures, sometimes without fully considering how their decisions transferred food insecurity to the rest of the world. The question of how best to address a large-scale disruption to the global food system—particularly against a backdrop of stressors such as population growth, climate change, energy needs, and water demand—led CNA, Cargill, the Center for American Progress, World Wildlife Fund, and others to organize a game that explores the how governments, institutions, and the private sector might interact in this situation.
Getting Serious about Global Food Security
Global food security is a serious issue, and Food Chain Reaction is one of a growing number of “serious games” being used to simulate real-world events or processes. And while they can be entertaining to players and observers alike, their main purpose is to inform and educate.
In hindsight, using a serious game to explore global food security seems like an obvious fit, since a game format allows players to tackle issues in a deeper, more meaningful way. In debating the tradeoffs of possible policy actions, players get an opportunity to contribute their expertise, while interacting and learning from others. This is huge for an issue as complex as food security, which is tied not only to agriculture and food production, but also issues of diplomacy and national security, environment, climate change, economics and trade, and development.
Design by Objective
Like any game, the design process for Food Chain Reaction began with defining the objectives. Through this process, we identified several overarching objectives to guide game design, as well as a dozen more detailed learning goals from which to build the scenario that players would encounter.
One objective was to test the hypothesis of whether player actions could stabilize the global food system. The highly networked nature of the global food system meant that the game had to capture the world’s top food producing and consuming populations, as well as vulnerable nations affected by the surging prices. The end result was eight teams—totaling roughly 60 players—representing Continental Africa, Brazil, China, the European Union, India, the United States, multilateral institutions, and businesses and investors.
Another overarching objective was to identify the ways in which the public and private sector could intervene in responding to the crisis. This meant the game had to have an extremely open-ended design. Early on, we recognized that if players were to be given the freedom of developing strategies and negotiating agreements, it would be impossible to develop quantitative models that would accurately account for all possible player decisions. Instead, the game would rely on a human simulation cell, comprising numerous subject matter experts, to adjudicate the collective outcomes of team decisions and actions. Although the adjudication cell members have access to documents, aids, and price-forecasting tools, they will ultimately rely on their expertise to modify and determine outcomes for each round of play. This added element will help create more gameplay and allow players to better see the consequences of their decisions.
The Long and Winding Road
Over six months, the game’s core planning team made numerous design decisions—some easy, many hard—using the game objectives as guidance. Game parameters such as the game’s timeframe (2020–2030) and the number of rounds of play (four) were debated. Player handbooks describing the state of the world in 2020 were carefully constructed with the aim of helping players immerse themselves in the game. A baseline scenario was developed to structure the flow of gameplay and prompt discussion around the learning goals without forcing players down a rigid path of action. Potential game injects were also crafted to fine tune the level of stress on the food system during the game and help control game flow. Subject matter experts helped review and verify game materials. In addition, a half-day test game allowed experts from various think tanks, agencies, and institutions to play through one round, and provide feedback on the game design, challenge assumptions, and suggest improvements.
In less than two weeks, these decisions and inputs will come to fruition. And with it, learnings from the game that will help mitigate the risk of a future crisis.
Let the game begin.
Yee San Su is senior research scientist with CNA Corporation.
Image: © WWF / Simon Rawles