Competition, Collaboration and the Games We Must Learn to Play

In a previous blog about personal leadership I shared thoughts about the role of competition as a driver for sustainability. To put these thoughts to action I started a University of Cambridge team to compete in the EcoChallenge competition. During the course of the EcoChallenge the University of Cambridge team grew, our number of competitors grew, and their team members and achievements grew, but we still prevailed as the highest ranked team in the UK, even beating Cambridge’s traditional rival, Oxford University. I was humbled by the CISL MSt cohort 7 and 8 members that joined the team, took actions such as writing letters to local leaders back in their home countries, used public transportation, reduced their meat consumption/adapted a more plant-based diet, and so much more. Despite my role as team captain, as is default for those that create the teams, I was not the highest scoring member of the team, perhaps not even the most active member, and many of the challenges I picked for myself were less challenging than those of my teammates. Instead, I challenged myself in different ways, such as, taking the role of cheerleader, advocate, organizer, strategist. I made public announcements, virtual and in-person, to encourage membership; familiarized myself with all of the challenges, how they related to climate-change, and engaged with people on these subjects, encouraging action; I chose our opponents strategically, and at different times, for instance, when an opponent would be surpassed, another more advanced opponent (in members and/or points) would be challenged; opposing teams were also chosen from similar areas (i.e. university, course program, etc.).

There was certainly a desire from the team to win by overcoming opponents in points and members, but the game was essentially about acting on climate change. In the “game” of climate change we are all potentially losers, so it’s not about beating your opponent in the traditional sense. Addressing climate change is more about collaboration, even with opponents.

I was recently introduced to an Israeli game called Matkot, a type of Paddle Ball. The game is played by hitting a small rubber ball to the other player using a wooden racquet. In the version that I played, the point was not to get the ball by the other player, as in tennis, Ping-Pong, or any other racquet sport I know. Rather, the point of the game is to encourage a good volley. If you serve a bad pass to your partner and they miss the ball the game is less exciting, less fun. Interestingly, there are not winners or losers in this game—at least in the version I was playing. Considering the sustainability challenges facing humanity, I think there should be more games like Matkot where people can interact with each other in fun and exciting ways and, in doing so, learn to become better collaborators.

There is a noticeable difference between many of the organic and conventional farmers that I’ve interacted with over the years. The organic farmers tend to be more open to sharing ideas and techniques with other organic farmers. They might say—what cover crops did you use; what can you tell me about managing bee colonies; try this dibbling technique, etc. While no members of my cohort are farmers, I do know they are all passionate about sustainability. In the spirit of collaboration, Matkot and organic-farmer knowledge-sharing, I want to take this opportunity to describe a hypothetical game about sustainable food systems, collaborative in nature, without the traditional winners and losers, while also educational, and hopefully fun all at the same time.

In this game, unlike lessons learned from Monopoly, the goal is not to own everything and bankrupt your opponents. Humanity is faced with sustainably providing food and fiber to an estimated global population of 10 billion people by 2050. So, think of that as a farmer in the number of seasons to get things right, or as a player as the number of turns in the game. In this game, players are different types of farmers—urban, rural, back-yard, hydroponic, soil-based, organic, etc. Certain “event” cards are played, such as, hurricanes, flooding, pest infestations, etc. and the different types of farmers are affected to different degrees, unless they have played cards to make them more resilient. Perhaps the urban, warehouse hydroponic farmer dependent on LEDs for plant photosynthesis is affected by power outages more than the rural farmer, but perhaps the rural farmer is more affected by flooding—unless they have the compost card, for instance (i.e. increased soil organic matter (SOM) helps with water infiltration and topsoil runoff).

I don’t yet have a detailed plan to take this game forward, but I think planting the seed here, with a group of smart, passionate, colleagues committed to sustainability, is a good place to start.

9 thoughts on “Competition, Collaboration and the Games We Must Learn to Play”

  1. Firstly thanks for being a great team captain ! It was a lot of fun and the bonus was our own efforts assisted the overall sustainability goal. A suggestion of how to take your game forward would be to talk to Johnny from Cohort 7. He specifically made lesson plans etc for use in schools as his research and I attended his presentation and it was excellent. I think there is a great deal of alignment between both of your ideas and it would be worth a conversation or two to discuss further. Please let me know how it goes as I do think there is a great deal of value in using games to get children involved as most often they then provide the nagging options to their parents in making decisions for the family.

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  2. Great post James! I think you’ve got a strong point here: there is a lot of fear around sustainability issues but it is true that in many cases addressing them can be very playful! Sustainable development requires strong collaborative skills with a sense of competition, a perfect mix for a fun game.
    I remember in one of your posts you were reflecting on the difficulty some traditional farmers have to make the transition to organic farming. The game could help them to learn and progress towards certification. Teams that have achieved great progress could receive an award that they could potentially use as marketing and communication material.

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  3. This is a great idea! Favouring and nurturing more people to have win-win mindsets will spur on more collaboration and more results. In recent years the idea of pre-competitive collaboration has become an important tool to address critical sustainability issues, where the combined action of companies benefits the planet and their bottom lines exponentially more through working together. Getting points for collaboration and having many winners is surely a more feel good game, and with less tears than the likes of monopoly (which has been banned in my family home for many years as it always ends in someone stomping off!!). Fabulous idea!

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  4. Excellent gaming idea. We use games at work for similar objectives you have indicated. ETH Zurich for example have developed an approach called companion modeling (google search ETHZ+companion modelling and you will find more details on their approach). The approach is useful for sharing perspectives and building a common understanding of how an issue or range of issues impact each other. For example working with smallholder production systems for an agricultural commodity and playing the game with local government, downstream offtakers and the smallholders themselves can help to expose the responses these stakeholders have to a change or shock in the system. While the approach doesn’t try to solve the problem it does make the important step towards stakeholders realising what the problem is and how it impacts each other, which then supports dialogue on solutions. I am happy to be an earlier gamer if you need a guinea pig. Good luck!

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  5. Great Idea James,
    When I was young I played a lot of computer games that revolved around building up communities, Such as Ages of Empires and SimCity. In many of these games, the importance of producing food and utilizing local resources for the community was well presented and it had a kind of educational factor to at the same time. For example, you had to build fields to grow crops and mine ore, and extract oil for energy. If you did not grow enough food the people would riot or even die.
    This leads me to think about the role of popular games and game designers in the computer game industry and how interesting it would be to team up with such people to bring more sustainability education to the younger generations through computer games. Many young people play computer games for a few hours per day so why not use it for something good.


  6. Echoing the thanks for being our team captain for the EcoChallenge!

    I think what really hit me about your post was fundamentally the idea that everything in life is a competition. Evolution is all about the survival of the fittest, about ‘winning’ and being better than your opponent. That is the exact sentiment that has allowed a system like capitalism to thrive and propagate the dire state of the world we live in today.

    I love the idea of gamifying the solutions to the sustainability challenges we are faced with, and I’m glad you see the ultimate way to ‘win’ as being closer to a game of matkot than monopoly because we can’t really afford to keep ‘dropping the ball’ on these issues! You should definitely consider including a cooperation element into the game you are designing to illustrate how we can’t get to where we need to be by going it alone – the principle may be cheesy, but its an important lesson for our generation to exemplify. Learning to trust one another and work together may be most critical skill we master to solve these wicked problems.

    Thanks for sharing another insightful post, James!

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  7. James, I must say you were a great cheerleader and Team Captain. You inspired me to take on challenges that I otherwise would not have. The beauty of the challenges I took on were that they were small and did not take a lot of effort, but without your push and enrolling us in the EcoChallenge I would have never taken them on. Some of the challenges took so little effort that I have continued them far after the conclusion of the competition, so thank you.

    I additionally appreciate your points concerning collaboration, especially in a manner where individuals don’t necessarily focus on a winners and losers monopoly mindset. Working with others to produce something of value together is essential to deriving truly sustainable solutions. Your farming game idea is a good mechanism to get individuals to start thinking about and putting into action sustainable ideas. As you know in many corporations, sustainability is not only a core issue for management teams but all employees. Using games is a great way to engage employees in a competitive collaborative atmosphere. Outside the box methods such as the ones you mention are a good way for companies to reflect on what employees already know about sustainability, as well as provide opportunities to learn more about what sustainability can do for your organization.

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  8. Thanks James for another insightful post. I too really like the gaming idea.
    For better or worse we are all competitive to a certain degree and what better way to take out the fear by making it fun. Sustainable development hinges on efficient and effective collaboration and sharing of ideas. It also needs to ‘stick’ and this is a great way of doing just that.
    At work we also practice this as we have many casual laborers (over 250) and we found that the best way to find solutions in the work place (and make people feel like they had ‘skin in the game’) was to introduce an element of competition as well as a rewards system. We have found that this has naturally bonded workers with one another (created a team spirit and comoraderie) , created an environment of trust and also allowed people to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses in an environment that requires them to be stretched.
    Many of our workers come from different parts of Uganda where the language is different and literacy levels vary amongst the team but engaging them competitively (with rewards as well as recognition) has worked nicely in encouraging effective communication and they all have unique memories attached to their learning and contribution.

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