A couple of weeks ago I stumbled on a brilliant mind map of “Serious Games” compiled by Maria H. Andersen on her blog Busynessgirl. Though not an avid gamer, I did have a quick look through some of the offerings, and soon found a fun game entitled 3rd World Farmer, described as “a thought-provoking simulation.”
The gist of the game is to help your little family survive year over year by planting crops, raising livestock, buying tools, building wells and barns, and eventually, building infrastructure, such as roads, schools and health clinics. Each year, you’ll be affected by common issues that arise: droughts, civil wars, illness, corruption, and so on, with which you must cope to survive.
When my boss found me wasting valuable work time on this game, we had a brief discussion about whether or not I was actually “learning” anything. Indeed I was, both about Farming in the Developing World and on Gamification in Learning.
What I Learned about Farming in the Developing World
Diversify your crops until you’re out of the woods. If you have a bad year on wheat, you’ll have corn, cotton, and peanuts to sustain you until the following year. And it’s true, corn is pretty resilient.
Keep your adults as healthy as possible. They do the bulk of the work, and when their health fails, the farm fails.
Education is a distant dream for your family in the first (and maybe second) generation(s). Education is expensive and the loss of the workers on the farm is costly.
Don’t send your family members to work in the city unless you’re desperate. You need all hands available to work the farm. The short-term pay-off of sending them away is counter-balanced by the cost of losing a good farm worker.
Be planful about having kids. Children don’t contribute for the first few years, but when they get older they can share an increasing amount of the work. If a disease wipes out a family member, you’ll need the kids to pick up the slack.
The family’s needs are secondary to tough fiscal realities. It’s a harsh bottom line. You’d better not let your daughters get married and move away because they need to work on the farm. You may have to accept a corporation’s offer of payment to store poisonous chemicals on your land in order to have money for next year’s crops. You may have to forego medicine for the kids to keep the parents healthy enough to work.
What I Learned about Using Games for Learning
If well done, games can be addictive. I played this game several times and it became a goal to get my little family out of poverty. The longer you play the game, the more experiences you have with the various hardships experienced by people in developing countries. I realized I was learning things without trying to learn things, and that is pretty exciting for a learning professional to learn.
Games make learning painless. And they create “stickiness.” The lessons stick because they’re associated with something else of interest in your mind.
It takes a village. This game is impressively detailed, with lots of dependencies. Each choice you make, and each situation that is imposed on you, affects crop and livestock prices, the family’s health, and the bottom line – the amount of money you have to work with each year.Because of the level of detail, the game clearly involved a great deal of planning. Originally, it began as a group project at the University of Copenhagen in Spring 2005. To quote the website:
“All initial participants were actively involved in shaping the original concept to a playable game. Actually, the very most of the game features have been discussed by the entire group until a fitting solution was agreed upon.”
Positive feedback from users caused some of the team to continue development of the game. Finally, in November, 2006, a redesigned game was released online.
My point is this: A really good game takes time and money to create. And that makes it difficult to implement unless you have the commitment of your business, non-profit, or team. In my time as an instructional designer I have come across few organizations that have the budget or time for developing such a game.
That being said, gaming is worth exploring if you need to “hook” your learner. A relatively simple game could be developed within a budget, and it might still create a reasonable level of engagement and learning.