Teaching Points

The key to a successful learning experience with the game is a debriefing discussion that brings out the players' viewpoints on these issues and what they thought and felt during gameplay. This document describes some of the teaching points that can be addressed with the Hurricane Landfall game in greater detail, including questions for discussion and examples from gameplay that illustrate the point (italicized sections).

Of course, this is only a beginning; you can emphasize whatever aspects of the game experience that are relevant to the take-home lessons you want the players to learn. Picking out important events requires an understanding of how the game works: what can happen, what typically happens, how the players' choices affect the outcomes and so on. The best teacher is experience, of course, but you can also learn a lot by playing the game a few times in single-player mode and by reading the "Under the Hood" document, which explains the inner workings of the game.


Windows of Opportunity

Spending resources on precautionary measures is often a tough sell. Prevention of events that may or may not occur has to compete with spending on measures with more immediate and tangible results. In the period after a disaster, while the event is still prominent in the public's mind, there is a window of opportunity during which it is easier to take action to prevent future such disasters. Policies that under normal circumstances would be impossible to pass may be viable options during this time.

As a real-world example, consider the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Normally such an overarching change to the federal government would encounter far too much institutional inertia to succeed, but a large disruption seems to generate plasticity, making people more open to changing the system. The flip side of this phenomenon is the question of whether it is necessary for people to experience a disaster first-hand before they are willing to invest in mitigation.

The Building Code Update proposal is an example of the kind of sweeping policy change that might be nearly impossible to make except in the aftermath of a disaster. Discuss how players' attitudes towards various hazard mitigation proposals varied before and after the hurricane of round 2.

Making Decisions Under Uncertainty

One of the difficulties presented in dealing with natural hazards is our inability to know when the next event will occur. We know that cities on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts are likely to experience hurricanes, but not whether the next one will be in one year or fifty. And even if there was a hurricane last year, the odds for this year are the same as any year. Nevertheless, decisions about mitigation must be made, even in the absence of information. One tactic for dealing with this problem is to pursue general-purpose mitigation strategies that have benefits in many different contexts.

The Ecological Monitoring proposal and the business sharing agreement option of the Improve EOC proposal from round 2 are examples of adaptive, multi-purpose mitigation strategies that can forestall a variety of problems, including unanticipated ones. Discuss whether the players found more value in spending their budget, carrying resources over to a later turn, or a combination of the two. When is reaction effective, and when is proactive prevention necessary? How do known hazards compare with unexpected problems?

Making Unpopular Investments

Policies that are both effective and popular are easy to manage. Some of the toughest decisions have to do with policies that work but are unpopular. Our natural impulse after a disaster is to rebuild and put everything back just the way it was. But that does nothing to prevent the problem from recurring, and in the end, invites another disaster just like the first. A disaster can be an opportunity to rebuild more safely and resiliently, but only if we are prepared to "bite the pickle" and make changes that may make some people unhappy.

The Property Buyout proposal in Round 2 converts high-risk destroyed properties to open space rather than rebuilding them. This is an effective method of decreasing hazard, but it costs a lot of money (or even more work). Discuss the reasons why people resist these kinds of policies, and what it takes to overcome that reluctance.

Complex Systems

Holistic Thinking

The elements of a community extend beyond just the obvious components like populace and buildings, and also include things like the economy, the transportation network, and the natural environment. Failure to appreciate the complexity of this interacting web of components can lead us to miss the forest for the trees and end up with a community developed in piecemeal steps that we wouldn't have willingly chosen in its entirety. Undertanding the whole system may require more information than is available from a single perspective.

Many of the problems that can occur in the game, especially in Round 3, relate to the interaction of different elements: the sewer systems of houses near the wetlands can lead to ecological problems that have an effect on tourism, for example. Also significant are the roles; each role has a different perspective on what's important, and it's very difficult to develop a desirable town unless those perspectives are balanced. Discuss how the players' roles affected their decision-making, and how they balanced those interests with their concerns for hazard, ecology, and other factors.

Long Term Effects of Choices

The demands of business and political cycles drive many decision-makers to focus on the short term, meaning that few important decisions are made with a view toward the long term. Moreover, it's often difficult to predict which decisions will matter most in the long run. But long-term thinking is essential for sustainability, and a community has to live with the effects of a decision long after those short term cycles have passed. A particularly important factor in sustainaibility is the way that early decisions can constrain later ones.

Decisions made early in the game affect later outcomes, to the extent that the problems encountered in Round 3 are entirely dependent on decisions made earlier. This phenomenon can be highlighted by contrasting the outcomes of different groups and noting that everyone starts with exactly the same city. Also worth mentioning is the effect of voting order: after a proposal has passed and budget is spent, proposals will become unavailable due to lack of funds. Players frequently have difficulty anticipating this consequence, and may find their options unexpectedly limited by the cost of the first proposal to pass.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Decisions made at the small or local scale can have consequences at much larger scales, either through amplification by interaction with other systems that cross scales, or by the aggregation of many individual decisions across a large population. This ripple effect can generate secondary consequences at larger and larger scales. These secondary effects are often unexpected because of the lag and lack of immediacy connecting the decision and the consequence. Thinking about what would happen if a decision were expanded or replicated out to the global scale can help to prevent the worst aspects of this effect.

After the immediate problems presented in Round 3 are resolved, there are a number of secondary consequences that can happen, such as the weakening of the economy due to a loss of tourism if the beach erosion problem is not solved. Many ecological problems are also commons problems, rooted in the question of what happens to a shared resource as individual stresses accumulate. One house near the wetlands has a negligible impact, but when many houses are built, their cumulative impact can lead to septic contamination of the watertable and other problems.

Real-World Decisions

Problem-Solving and Negotiation

Collaboration, negotiation, and problem solving are interrelated life skills best acquired through experience. Making proposals, expressing opinions to other constituents, resovling conflict, and gathering support for initiatives are all tasks that require effective communication and are required for successful community planning.

The main activity of the game is negotiating with other players, providing ample hands-on experiences with these skills. Ask the players what they learned about these skills from their experiences, particularly as they relate to working with people in other roles who have different goals.

Managing Limited Resources

In a world of limited resources, effective action requires the ability to analyze and prioritize the available options and sacrifice less-important goals. Knowing when to compromise and when to stand your ground – how to pick your battles, in other words – is important. Another important skill is setting the agenda: starting the discussion by making an initial proposal frames and shapes the debate that follows. Leaders often emerge as those who can most quickly and decisively start the ball rolling, whether or not their initial efforts are successful.

In practice, players are typically more inclined to pass the first proposal in a round, when there will be resources left over, and will fight harder when the budget is nearly depleted. Thus, setting the agenda by putting a proposal up for vote before other player do is a way of claiming power. Along with the budget, players also need to use their favors wisely. Players who use up all their favors in strongly-contested bidding wars may find themselves shut out in a later vote by someone who held back and conserved favors for later. Discuss the dynamics of voting with the players. Did leaders emerge, and if so, what were their characteristics?

Competition vs. Cooperation

Community decisions are political, and politics is usually competitive. While the word "game" usually connotes an exercise in competition, cooperation is often most beneficial to community planning and development. Balancing the interests of different perspectives within the community is important for a healthy and diverse community. The best solutions to problems are usually those that confer some benefit on all stakeholders: aside from the fact that a win-win outcome is often better in the long run for both parties involved than a win-lose is for the "winner", cooperative solutions are also much easier to implement. People sometimes believe that success is synonymous with defeating an opponent, but in the real world, very few problems are zero-sum.

Because the exercise is framed as a game, players may be inclined to view it as a competition with the other players. They may interpret landuse growth rates as a 'score' to be maximized. But an overabundance of one landuse leads to imbalance problems in Round 3. Every role has some reason to ally with every other role, and some reason to disagree with every other role. Discuss whether the players experienced a cooperative or competitive atmospher during the game. How much did alliances and compromise factor into their most successful decisions?

Treat Causes, Not Symptoms

When solving a problem, it is important to address the underlying cause; otherwise, the problem will just keep coming back. Although fixing the symptoms may be cheaper or easier in the short run, the need for repeated fixes means that, in the long run, it's more effective to tackle the problem at the root. In other words, many problems are expressions of a system's structural weakness. To solve the problem, you have to change the structure that allowed it to happen in the first place. Especially since, in the meantime, it's not unlikely that there will have been growth that will exacerbate the problem, or that some new problem will have cropped up that will significantly complicate the situation.

Aside from the ever-present threat of a hurricane, there are several recurrent problems in the game:
  • Beach loss is caused by changes in patterns of erosion. Renourishment puts the sand back but doesn't change the pattern that caused it to be lost in the first place, and is ultimately only a temporary solution.
  • When industrial runoff happens, it may appear that contamination is the primary problem, but it's the threat of repeated and expensive cleanup costs (which can actually be worsened by the Pollution Regulations proposal) that can reault in the company pulling out and causing significant damage to the local economy.
  • Flooding in the downtown area puts local businesses at risk of closure, both from the direct costs of flood damage and the disruption to trade. That's an economic problem, but it is caused by the flooding hazard, an infrequent but persistent problem.


Growth and Hazard

Hazards only matter when they overlap with human habitation. If a category 5 hurricane hits an unihabited island, that's not a natural disaster, it's just an event. Unfortunately, there are many places (like the Gulf coast) where hazards coincide with features that people want to live near. "Hazards create scenery," as it is sometimes described. Growth has an important effect on hazard exposure both because it increases the number of people and buildings in harm's way, and because the dynamics of growth creates a landscape of attraction that determines where people will settle.

The hazard layer of the game map shows one of the ways that growth interacts with hazard. Naturally, the higher the growth rates, the higher the hazard rating will be at the end of the game. The Round 1 proposals Acquire Open Space and Municipal Sewer Reform have an indirect effect on hazard because they affect where new growth will happen. These are examples of policy decisions that are typically made without hazard in mind but that still have a big effect on it. Discuss how hazard levels changed over the course of the game and how they relate to the indirect effects of various proposals on growth.

Growth Rate Imbalances

Most cities have a mixed composition, with a variety of different landuses and economic activites that support and reinforce one another. If that mix gets too far out of balance, various feedback loops can kick in that will make the city gravitate toward a different composition. The dynamics involved are complex, but they all start with one element of the community growing much faster or slower than the others. Decision-makers need to beware of decisions that are highly skewed toward or against one particular facet of the community.

There are three Round 3 problems, Overcommecialization, Soaring Land Values, and Weak Job Market, that are the result of the community composition getting out of balance. The imbalance, in turn, is the result of secondary effects of various proposals passed in the first two rounds. Individually, these side effects are small, but a bad combination can lead to systemic problems. There are also a number of proposals, such as Historic Preservation, the Mixed-Use option on Rebuild Downtown, and Development Plan, that can forestall or ameliorate these problems by focusing attention on the makeup of the community. Discuss how players thought about the issue of growth rates in their decision-making.

Benefits of Planned and Gradual Growth

Because growth has such a significant impact on hazard and other problems, faster growth makes problems crop up sooner. In effect, that means more and bigger problems, since every problem takes time and effort to solve, and the faster they come, the fewer resources are available for solving them and the more likely they are to interact. We often forget that growth is synonymous with change. The more the town grows, the less it will resemble its starting state. If the players value the small town's native ecology and unique character, growth is largely a negative.

The Highway Improvements proposal in Round 1 has the biggest effect on on growth, an effect that is magnified considerably by building a bridge. Players often fail to associate more rapid growth rates with more overall growth later on, especially with the resulting negatives (a much more developed island, higher hazard, and lower ecology). Faster growth also affects the incidence of various problems, such as the industrial runoff problem, which requires buildings north of the channel. These buildings only come about as a result of induced growth caused by the highway and the bridge. The bridge is often built under the assumption that it will improve the island's ability to evacuate, which it does, at first. Eventually, however, the induced growth overwhelms the capacity added by the bridge and highway, and the town may end up worse off when it comes to evacuation than it was in the first place.

The Difficulties of Gauging Success

One of the goals of hazard mitigation is to prevent problems from occurring. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know if this goal is ever achieved because an avoided disaster is a non-event. Consequently, it is difficult to argue successfully to spend resources on disaster prevention when competing against a readily observable problem.

In Round 2, road damage is prevented by highway improvements, and wetland contamination is prevented by purchasing open space bordering the nature preserve or by some of the sewer reform options. In Round 3, there are a number of problems that can be averted (that is, the event happens, but it is not a problem) by earlier actions, but otherwise, unless the final outcome is compared with the outcome of other games, players are unlikely to be aware of the bullets that they successfully dodged. Discuss some of the problems that players were able to avoid. Were they able to tell when they were doing well? What are the implications for hazard mitigation?

Infinite Games

Every game, exercise, or planning scenario has an ending. But the real world does not end; communities go on indefinitely, and each generation must live with the consequences of earlier generations' decisions. There is no "winning" in real life because the game never ends. Successful strategies for infinite games, of indefinite duration and with repeated interactions, are very different from the kinds of strategy that work well in a finite game.

The game intentionally steers away from declaring the players successful or unsuccessful at the end, and instead asks "are you happy with this community"? The goal of the game is not to 'win' by meeting some arbitrary condition; the goal is to develop a community that people want to live in both at the time of decision and later in the future. It's an ongoing and perpetual challenge that may not be met, either because players made assumptions based on the nature of the exercise or because they were drawn into competition with their peers. How do decisions change when you are conscious of needing to live with the consequences for years and decades into the future?