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Examining sustainable development through culturally-appropriate games

In an innovative “mash up” of science and culture, the board game ERAMAT encourages Maasai pastoralists to examine current and future practices regarding how they manage their cattle herds in the semi-arid rangelands of southern Kenya.  Livestock remain central to Maasai household economics.  Rural Maasai are often affected by cycles of drought, challenging their ability to balance livestock numbers with ecological carrying capacity and averting hunger or famine. The game was inspired by the catastrophic drought of 2009 in southern Kenya that killed up to 95 percent of some herds.

Derived from the Maa word for “mind your cattle,” ERAMAT was designed by Malta Program professors Michael Deaton and Jennifer Coffman, ISAT graduate student Jacob Mayiani, and JMU undergraduate Alexandra Hickling. Mayiani helped lead development of the game as his master’s research in ISAT. Deaton teaches the Systems Thinking course in the Malta Program and Coffman regularly serves as an advisor and committee member on Malta Program theses and projects.

ERAMAT is a “culturally anchored eco-game,” a phrase coined by the team to connote games that, according to Deaton, “are designed for a specific group of people in a specific cultural context to address an important problem that their community faces.”  Such games are customized for a target audience and “anchored” to their cultural beliefs, values, and practices. By playing the game, participants become more educated about the relevant problem in a learning environment that lets them explore alternative solutions.

As a board game, ERAMAT simulates the dynamics associated with the human-environment interactions that contribute to this cycle of abundance and drought. These dynamics are represented in a system dynamics model Eramat game board sessiondeveloped by the research team. Through game play, participants are able to make management choices and develop strategies for managing their livestock holdings and the natural resources on which they depend. The game allows players to experience the impact of their choices in “fast forward time,” leading to deeper insights and more focused discussion and problem solving. Using system modeling concepts of stocks, flows, and feedback, the game incorporates a number of real life features such as household size, water resources, cash income, livestock husbandry, weather fluctuations, and political and ecological pressures. Randomly selected life event cards create scenarios in which a player’s social standing or livestock holdings can be abruptly altered.  Player-chosen action cards allow players to adopt short or long-term strategies to try and minimize risk while caring for the needs of their families and communities.

ERAMAT was field-tested with Maasai pastoralists to refine the details of the game and establish its cultural validity. Maasai participants generally praised the game with such comments as, “Whoever made this game understands our lives.” One elder said, “This feels real. What should we do?” Another stated, “I need to play this game over and over to learn.” Part of the game’s success was that players built on the structure the game provided to make it still more meaningful and relevant to their own experiences. 

The potential for the game to be part of the process through which Kenyan pastoralists sustainably manage cattle herds, avert famine, and contribute to long term sustainable development is significant. Pastoralism is one of the most efficient ways to use ecologically sensitive semi-arid lands, but traditional herd management has come up against a host of other factors, including the expansion of urban and peri-urban development further into the savanna on which Maasai rely.  The game forces conversations about high risk factors regarding certain short-term conditions, stressing both the well-being of families, the environment, and the national economy. Pastoralists own and manage over 60 percent of Kenyan livestock, contributing approximately 10 and 50 percent of the domestic and agricultural GDP, respectively. Pastoral production accounts for 90 percent of employment opportunities and 95 percent of family incomes and livelihood security in arid and semi-arid lands of Kenya.

For a more detailed discussion of ERAMAT!, please see the System Dynamics Society conference paper ERAMAT! A Culturally-anchored Board Game Simulator for Maasai Pastoralists in Southern Kenya

View a short video of the game in action here.

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