Game of unknowns: Beyond the win-win, toward inclusive development


by Nikolai Sindorf, Diana Suhardiman, and Evgeniya Anisimova | April 28, 2020

A game stimulates a mind – at any age - to explore and wonder. A board game, often based on a near-life setting, offers a safe informal environment where players can interact and learn from each other. Among other potential benefits, a game can help open up players’ management, negotiations, and decision-making skills. Once the rules are explained and accepted, participants are actively learning and gaining experience as they play, so the game does not require much further guidance.

It is thus of no surprise that games have been extensively used by social scientists and development practitioners to help subjects of their research and programs internalize new concepts and behaviors, solve problems, and even facilitate conflict resolution. At PIM, we have been developing experimental games to help solve issues related to management of natural resources, especially those in common governance (such as water and groundwater).

A new board game developed by our team from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), in collaboration with Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Rulal: Wetlands has a wetland at its heart. The game is developed based on recent field study of collective action and conflict resolution in Daw Lar Lake, Karen State, Myanmar, yet the issues at stake, the different roles, and the learning experience would apply to any tropical wetland, traditionally managed as a common resource. In this boardgame, players assume their roles either as one of four villages, which each depend on the wetlands for their livelihoods, or as one of four government departments, each with its own development targets. The way villagers use the wetlands is evolving, following the introduction of commercial fishponds in combination with agricultural intensification, both of which indirectly reduce area for communal grazing. In other parts of the landscape, a village wants to sustain or even expand their rubber plantations. This all takes place as different villages and departments are planning for conservation areas, while planning of the natural resources demands different layouts between wet and dry season resources.

The game plays out scenarios and dilemmas happening in real life: Will agrarian transformation in the wetlands’ surroundings trigger opportunistic or collective action in the management of the natural resources among the villages? Will the government departments facilitate cooperation and coordination or blindly follow their targets?

For each game there is one board master who facilitates the distribution of resources, keeps the time, and ensures that each role will get a chance to perform its play on the board. Rulal: Wetlands offers eight roles to be filled in. These roles can be performed by single players or by a group of persons representing a village or a government department, which encourages discussions. Development practitioners, government officials, local community, civil society organizations, academics, youth groups, and village elders can all join and play the game. Rulal: Wetlands was specifically developed to equip key stakeholders with insights that would facilitate future decision making in their actual wetland settings. One of the main learning goals of the game is to show that in a landscape’s natural resource management context there is never a single label for a “local community”.

To explain this in simpler terms, here is an example typical for many Asia Pacific countries we did our fieldwork in. A private company introduces commercial fishponds to a village, explains potential benefits and (in some cases) offers compensation packages to mitigate potential adverse impact. The village agrees to participate, and the project gets approval from the authorities under the premises of a win-win situation which was welcomed by the local community. Yet a closer inspection of the stakeholders in the landscape reveals that, indeed, only one village agreed with the intervention. Nobody consulted with (or offered any compensation to) the neighboring villages, which are also under direct impacts of the project.

This is where Rulal: Wetlands can be helpful. The game highlights the importance of inclusive planning and decision-making in natural resource management. It exposes the interlinkages among various stakeholders in the wetlands landscape context. The game also gives players an opportunity to approach the subject from different stakeholders’ perspectives and think outside the box.

Previous scenarios of the Rulal game have been played at various international conferences and introduced as part of university teaching curriculum. We hope that Rulal: Wetlands will become another useful instrument for inclusive management of natural resources.

Also see this earlier blog on Rulal game and a short video:

Unraveling power-play in land use planning

The Rulal board game is developed by Nikolai Sindorf and Diana Suhardiman. The Wetlands scenario is the latest addition and was developed in early 2020. This game is based on research undertaken by researchers from International Water Management Institute (IWMI) under the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM).

The authors would also like to thank Marsu Productions for the use of Marsupilami character in the video.

Nikolai Sindorf is an Environmental Specialist in Water, Development and Nature, based in Vientiane Lao PDR. Diana Suhardiman is a Senior Researcher and Governance and Inclusion Research Group Lead at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), based in Vientiane, Lao PDR. Evgeniya Anisimova is a Senior Communications Specialist at PIM, based in Washington, D.C.

Images provided by Diana Suhardiman