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In ‘Landscape Game,’ greed is good—but being ‘green’ is better

Unlike other games, both economic and environmental “side effects” are taken into account in the Landscapes Game.
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The Landscape Game lets players experience the complex decisions that go into managing a landscape.
The Landscape Game lets players experience the complex decisions that go into managing a landscape.

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BOGOR, Indonesia — Say you have a plot of forested land in Amazonia to invest in.

Do you log it for quick cash, or preserve it for carbon credits? Do you clear it for oil palm or dig in for the long haul and build a tourist eco-lodge? Poultry farm or coffee agro-forest?

These are actual decisions being made daily throughout the tropical world—and they have global ramifications for the climate, for biodiversity and for economies. And now you can get in on the action.

Virtually, at least.

In 2007, Herry Purnomo, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and professor at Bogor Agriculture University in Indonesia, invented “Landscape Game,” a board game designed for players to maximize revenue while balancing the economic and ecological trade-offs of the “landscape approach” to sustainable development.

“The purpose of the game is a learning tool, to understand that in the landscape, there are many actors with legitimate interests,” Purnomo said. “It’s for academia, community members, policy makers—anyone who is interested in balancing conservation and development, including climate change.”

Games created explicitly for educational purposes don’t always get the same following as your typical board game. Purnomo’s board game, however, sold 1,000 copies.

A few years later, he thought of creating an online version. “I wanted to do [the digital version] because the technology was possible, and to reach a wider audience,” Purnomo said.

For the past year, he has been working with a team of developers and testers to bring Landscape Game to (digital) life.

The beta version is finally ready.

PLAYING THE GAME

At first glance, the Landscape Game seems a bit like Monopoly: A player lands on a property, invests in it, and the richest player wins—with extra considerations for investing “green.” Right?

It’s not that simple, Purnomo says.

“Monopoly only talks about buying property and getting a return,” he said. “There’s no concept of time. In resource management, you invest now and it takes time to get a return. Investing in teak plantations, for example—in real life, it takes 30 years to get a return. Invest in a coal mine, your return is sooner. In this game, we introduce the concept of time.”

Translation: Investing in that rubber plantation now means you don’t reap the benefits for several turns—and rubber prices could have fallen by then.

Games like Monopoly and its distant digital cousin, SimCity, also don’t account for externalities—the economic or environmental “side effects” of the actions taken in game play.

One billion people have played Monopoly, but Monopoly actually doesn’t teach you anything about sustainability

Herry Purnomo

“Look at carbon emissions,” Purnomo said. “These considerations exist in the real world, but not in most games. The same goes for biodiversity—it’s different if you invest in REDD+ versus logging. This is not available in Monopoly or SimCity.”

“And SimCity is very sad, actually—you can cut the forest and build the city without having to compensate for losing the environment. This is one of the important ideas we introduce in the Landscape Game.”

Therefore, logging every plot of land you land on for quick cash is not the way to win—carbon emissions, biodiversity and food production are tracked, and players who lead the pack in these categories receive payment or awards that factor in to the final score. This gives the game an extra dimension beyond the ruthless capitalism that Monopoly rewards.

“In general, it is difficult to win without paying attention to ecosystem services or environmental sustainability,” Purnomo said. “The smart player will try to combine eco-friendly investments with extractive ones.”

And built into the game is a powerful impetus to play “smart.”

THE WILD CARD

In the best games, there is a wild card, an external force that helps (or hurts) players throughout the game. In Monopoly, it’s a stint in jail, or a bank error in your favor. In SimCity, it’s tornadoes or earthquakes. Even in Settlers of Catan, a game in the same spirit as the Landscape Game, there is a robber that steals your resources.

In the Landscape Game, the wild card is the government—not an all-powerful or malevolent force, imposing its unshakeable will from above, but one that responds to (and guides) the run of the game. Too little food production? The government will subsidize it to encourage investment. Too much logging? The government will tax it.

An added twist: You can play as the government.

“If you play as a policymaker, you can see how your decisions affect others,” Purnomo said. “You are able to experiment with making policies and adjusting them, giving incentives and benefits as the game goes on.” At the game’s end, the player who plays as the government is judged on the productivity and sustainability of the landscape in terms of income generated, biodiversity conservation, food production and carbon stocks.

Occasional random market swings—such as fluctuations in the price of rubber mentioned earlier—help to keep players on their toes.

BEHIND THE GAME

The online game is an improvement on the board game in more ways than one, Purnomo says.

Whereas the board game focused primarily on forests, the online game adds agriculture and climate as larger considerations. “The game reflects what we now know about landscapes over seven years ago, when the board game was conceived,” he said.

The computer game also enables the inclusion of more variables, such as carbon emissions, and offers more different locations and types of landscapes to play in, including Java, Amazon and Congo, as well as peatland and mangrove forest.

We had to make the complexity of landscape management and governance simple. So the game has a good mix of simplicity and complexity

Herry Purnomo

While the game has a multiplayer option, it also lets you play against the computer—something that a board game can’t match. This is where Purnomo’s experience was brought to bear—he has (among others) a master’s degree in computer science and helped to design the artificial intelligence algorithm for the computer opponent.

One of his biggest challenges of this, he says: Ensuring that the game wasn’t too easy—or too difficult.

“We had to make the complexity of landscape management and governance simple. So the game has a good mix of simplicity and complexity,” he said.

Purnomo is confident that the game similarly blends the fun and the educational. He wouldn’t mind it being popular, either, he says.

“One billion people have played Monopoly,” he said. “But Monopoly actually doesn’t teach you anything about sustainability. This game provides a new platform for how to learn this.

“If a student only played Monopoly … they would just want to get rich. They don’t think about anything else.”

Watch the video above to learn how to play, then go to cifor.org/landscapegame. Find a bug in the game? Let us know in the comments section below this blog post.

For more information about the Landscape Game, please contact Herry Purnomo at h.purnomo@cgiar.org.

The Landscape Game was produced with the support of CIRAD, the CGIAR Fund and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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  • Nathan Brown

    I’ve played through the game a couple times, just against AI. I’ve played a lot of board games and video games, and I have some criticism. First of all, I like the balancing act between the different types of investments. I think it’s a good abstraction that teaches people what you want them to learn. Furthermore, the government player and the possibility for asymmetric play with a human playing the government is a very clever idea that doesn’t get done nearly often enough.

    As far as negatives, I dislike the aesthetics of the game a lot. I think that the game would look much better as a 2D game (the Unity engine does 2D games perfectly well). The extremely low-fi 3D models and poor textures really take away from the experience. 2D would allow for a nicer looking game that still performs well on low-end mobile devices. The 2D art is passable if uninspired in terms of design, though I will praise the diversity of the player avatars. I’m picking on this because how a game looks has a huge influence on whether people will even try it.

    As someone who’s played a lot of board games, I found that the random movement takes too much skill out of the game for my taste. It’s Monopoly-like in a bad way. Personally, I’d have gone for a simplified take on a worker-placement game like Lords of Waterdeep (which is too complex for people who aren’t avid tabletop gamers), which avoids dice-rolling mechanics and forces slightly more direct competition between players for resources, but that is neither here nor there. I already mentioned liking the asymmetric aspect. I also found that the long-term effects of investments helped demonstrate the cons of things like logging (which has such a high return early on).

    One last quibble. I felt that the default game-board view was too zoomed in. I’d like to be able to see most of the board at a time. I can zoom out to a 2D view, but it resets every time another player takes a turn, which is frustrating. I think there is a really interesting and educational game here, it just needs some work in order to be a game that people will want to play.

  • Tried a little. I must try rather much before getting started. The avatars and dice roll are a bit childish. The alternatives seem to many and complex. It is not that easy to understand what it is about. Thus it is too much contrast in the sophistication of different game ideas. Perhaps I write more if I can edit here

  • Commenter

    There’s a bug where you miss your roll, and it appears to be triggered when another AI player is in the spot next to you at times.

  • Commenter

    There’s a bug where you miss your roll, and it appears to be triggered when another AI player is in the spot next to you at times.

  • Commenter

    There’s a bug where you miss your roll, and it appears to be triggered when another AI player is in the spot next to you at times.

  • Commenter

    There’s a bug where you miss your roll, and it appears to be triggered when another AI player is in the spot next to you at times.

  • Commenter

    There’s a bug where you miss your roll, and it appears to be triggered when another AI player is in the spot next to you at times.

  • Owen Morris

    An avid gamer with rather limited knowledge of the kind of issues this game covers, I was directed to this by my father (Richard Perkins; Food, Agriculture and Land Use Specialist, WWF UK). Having just played a few games against the easiest AI, I’ll wait until I get a chance to play with others to comment on the game itself in more detail, but for now, I’ve noticed a few bugs. I can’t see a version number anywhere, but I’ve encountered all of these today:

    To expand on what (I think?) DagL commented previously, if the AI’s money goes into the negative (through being forced to pay for tourism or landing on a disaster area), it will roll the dice and move, but refuse to take its turn (investing or passing), locking up the game. This has happened twice now and is a rather annoying bug. (It also doesn’t go into debt, if you check the statistics screen; its money just drops below 0.)

    A more minor issue: The map Java has a pre-placed disaster area (maybe others also do, I haven’t checked). I’m pretty sure this tile is not explained in any way to the player unless he or she lands on it; the tutorial will explain disaster tiles if a player causes them to appear via extreme carbon debt, but not if they’re already present. It doesn’t really matter, you can’t control whether you land on it, but it would be nice to know!

    Also, if you choose not to reinvest in a property with a negative carbon stock change, its entire negative effect will magically vanish from your company’s overview – and, one turn later, when it becomes available for new investment, its effects vanish entirely – including natural disasters! If only it was that easy in real life. I have some reservations about calling this a “bug”, since it does fit with the way I would expect the game to operate, from a mechanical perspective, but realistically it’s bizarre.

    (The bottom few encyclopaedia entries – “turn”, “policy”, and the maps – are empty! Not a bug as such, but could do with fixing before the game is finished. Also, could that become accessible in-game, perhaps via the options menu – even better, with some sort of guide to their gameplay effects? It’s not very useful if you have to exit in order to see it.)

  • Cochabamba Project

    I don’t “do” computer games and have never played one before so it has pehaps taken me a lot longer to get to grips with this than the vast majority of first time players. However, like DAGL I am left wondering who the game is really aimed at – the dice rolling, avatars and graphics suggest to me a audience of 12-14 year olds – but the level of sophistication of the concepts involved suggests a much more mature audience – undergraduate level in fact. It also appears to have taken very much for granted that REDD is both active and successful – as the sponsor of a reforestation project in Bolivia I can assure you that this is not actually the case!

  • William Dunbar

    I think this is a great idea and a good start. I hope this kind of project can be used to raise awareness of holistic landscape management. One problem I have with the game is it seems too conservation-oriented. I have played several times, and my impression is that you can always win (against the AI at least) by being an extreme conservationist, that is, always choosing REDD+ or afforestation. At least I haven’t lost yet with this strategy. You get such a boost at the end for your carbon stock that it trumps everything else. This is good for conservation, but does not help to teach the idea of sustainable use. I’d like to see a more balanced outcome, where you need to take into account the tradeoffs needed to provide human livelihoods as well as maintain a lot of natural forests.