In the winter semester 2016/17, we used an innovative teaching method for the first time. That is, we played “Developing Carana”.
This game is about making a plan for a rural development project. The players take the roles of the key local actors, as well as national authorities, and the external NGO driving the project.
You may ask why this is innovative, since the M.Sc. programme contains a lot of role plays. Overall, the game is more complex; resources and needs have to be balanced, groups that are sometimes handled as monolithic blocks (like farmers) have diverse needs.
Also, the background material adds complexity, it addresses ethnic divisions in the country, it includes information on education problems, low life-expectancy, environmental problems… So altogether it contains the sort of information, that you may have about a developing country from afar.
But the main innovation is that the game is not about a rural development project when you look behind the curtain. Yes, it is ostensibly about a village, the farmers and the officials trying to improve living conditions through a development project.
Behind this pretext, the game is about how players act in this complex environment with too little information, a dynamic situation, and the sometimes conflicting agendas of the other players. There is not enough time to overcome all difficulties and unknowns. This is the main difference to more conventional role plays, as these concentrate more on the outcome and less on the process.
Some outcomes are almost guaranteed and happen too most groups:
Overemphasis on the planning process without proper bootstrapping to the local situation.
The planning group consists of the mayor, the minister of agriculture and the NGO-representative. Only the mayor can travel freely between the capital and the project location. The NGO representative can only do one “field trip”. Often, they ignore this possibility until they are quite advanced into their own plan.
Additionally, some of them may have own agendas and the mayor is able to leverage his information monopoly to a degree. The late arrival of the planners in the village suppresses real participatory processes, as at a point so late in the game, it is almost impossible to change the whole plan again.
Creation of unnecessary conflict or reacting to a conflict that does not exist.
Planning teams often go out of their way to avoid fueling ethnic conflicts by favoring one of the groups. The same is true for imbalances in farmers of different areas or attempts to gender mainstream the village.
Most often, the farmers are too caught up in their daily lives. Ethnic conflicts rarely emerge, women can make themselves heard, and farmers in the highlands are sympathetic towards the lowland farmers with their degrading lands.
Many social problems are addressed by the farmers themselves, either in some form of rational choice market exchange between the players, or by introducing co-operative forms of property management.
But even if ethnic conflict emerges, as it does in some groups, this is a result of the player’s actions and prejudices. The game itself does not force them to discriminate based on any characteristic. The game creates teaching moments when the players are confronted with the original situation: the material explicitly states that there is no conflict in the village.
Negotiations are driven in unhelpful directions by single actors or their agendas.
Sometimes, the insistence of one of the planners to (not) finance a particular item, adds a lot of friction to the negotiations. Again, the game material does not force the players to discuss these items, they can pool their money and resources. Or they discuss at length, who can present the plan (and thus, earn the credit and the glory).
The same goes for players overpowering other with eloquence or sheer ego. To let everybody be heard in negotiations is not an easy process and often the players, who meet each other without a hierarchial structure (because they know each other), do not introduce a negotiation process that guarantees that everyone is heard.
Innovations in Evaluation
The biggest step for us was to implement forms of evaluation that allow for individual recapitulation of the whole process. As the game is very complex and addresses economical, ecological and social problems, as well as social (group-) dynamics, conventional methods of assessment would have failed.
More than half of the 4 hours allotted to the game is spent in discussions about the game, emphasizing different processes and events. We gained a lot of experience and continue to improve on that front. However, this may be a topic for another blog post. Stay tuned.