Playing Games in Order to Learn About the Problems with the (Economic) Games We Play
Several years ago, I participated in a simulation that made a lot of the sometimes abstract talking points on systems thinking painfully clear. I was in something called the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership (IGEL), a year-long, intensive program that not only placed us, the 30-odd particpants, into some very tense, real-world dilemas around the state in hopes that we might help facilitate further dialog between antagonistic factions, but also challenged us to find common ground within our own group. IGEL particpants are selected evenly from the environmental sector (from which I came), the government sector, and the business sector, and suffice it to say that the business sector and the environmental sector…did not always see eye to eye.
So, when we were not in the field trying to resolve conflicts, we were engaged in conflict resolution amongst ourselves, and some of the ways in which we learned to play together was through simulations. And Fishbanks, LTD, was one of the games we played. It made such an impression on me that a month ago, we brought the Director of the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility from Georgia State University to run the game for our graduate students in the Design for Sustainbility program, and the students’ understanding of complexity theory and systems thinking hit warp speed.
The game, which is the focus of a chapter in Peter Senge’s latest book, The Necesssary Revolution, brings into stark reality the nature of our inability to asses the relative health of ecosystems on which our economy so deperately depends. The game (which can accomodate up to 30 players) was designed by Dennis Meadows (one-time husband of Donella Meadows), and the computer programming component of the game realistically mimics the dynamic nature of a living system, and that system’s ability to rebound…to a point, after having been exposed to overfishing.
Even a roomful of graduate sustainable design students—people who, you would think, could resist the market pressures to compete so as not to kill off the natural system that was the very source of profits for that industry—crashed the fishery in 8 years; and crashed it in a way that made the fish populations unfishable for hundreds of years. The fact that we were told that our sustainable design students did much better than most MBA student groups was hardly solace.
The game brought into perspective our natural tendency to focus on short-term and ‘comparable’ (or competitive) gains at the expense of ANY longterm considerations. One benefit of having designers play such a game is to give them insight into the temptations that their clients might fall prey to when focusing on short-term gains, and remind designers, as Richard Farson has said so well and so often, that design should not just be a business (get money to do what you’re told by a client), as much as a profession (get money to tell the client what to do, whether they like what they hear or not). While the game is memorable for many other reasons, that reason alone is good enough to play it: We need not only to have the vision for a new sustainable way of doing business, but we need to have the courage to stand up and demand it from those who would pay us.