The Geographical Journal

Coping with drought in Madagascar – a Role-Playing Game approach

By Maren Wesselow, University of Oldenburg and Susanne Stoll-Kleemann, University of Greifswald

The island nation of Madagascar is well known for its abundance of species and unique habitats. The potential loss of this impressive biodiversity, due in part to a combination of ongoing population growth and decreasing precipitation, is alarming for environmentalists and researchers. Threats to biodiversity in Madagascar have direct adverse effects on ecosystems and in turn on the people’s livelihoods, which largely depend on these diverse ecosystems.In the Mahafaly Plateau (southwest Madagascar) periods of drought constitute a major threat to rural livelihoods, which are based around subsistence agriculture and rely on rainfall for irrigation and zebu husbandry. In face of the impacts of climate change, it is crucial that rural communities like those in the Mahafaly Plateau develop adaptation strategies. Generating knowledge about the existing adaptation strategies is essential for supporting local actors to achieve food security by safeguarding their livelihoods and the ecosystems they depend upon.

Community participation through Role-Playing Games

In transdisciplinary science, researchers integrate the knowledge of various scientific disciplines and stakeholders such as resource-users, decision-makers, and practitioners into the research process. This demand for integrative knowledge production calls for innovative and integrative methodologies. The so-called Role-Playing Game (RPG) methodology is presented in our recent publication in The Geographical Journal.

The method involves a number of stakeholders in a gaming situation where they act out (or role play) individual and collective decisions in response to particular scenarios. During the games, roles are assigned to the players, and, typically, a game board is used as a stylised representation of a real-life situation.

The Livelihood Game

A participatory role-playing game (RPG) was used to understand household strategies in Southwestern Madagascar in years where “normal” rainfall was observed and in periods of drought in. Since the thematic focus of the RPG was on the maintenance of a livelihood, the game was termed a “livelihood game”. The fictional duration of the game was four years, with each round representing one year. A satellite map of the village layout containing mapped plot boundaries was used to set the spatial and topographic context for the households’ activities.

Four household roles, ranging from relatively wealthy to relatively poor, were randomly assigned to players. To simulate the households’ decisions, players could locate their fields on the map and decide how to cultivate them. Moreover, a set of seven action cards illustrating activities like livestock farming, trade, making charcoal, and making handicrafts were also available to the players. Expenses and revenue were calculated for the end of each year and were symbolised by beans. We found that anonymisation, achieved through the random assignment of roles, encouraged participants to open up more in comparison to other forms of group workshops. Watch this video to find out more about the RPG methodology as applied in the Madagascar case (WOCAT, Sulama).

Learning by doing and learning by failing

The results helped researchers understand the strategies different household types pursue in order to secure their livelihoods. Moreover, participants stated that they gained insights about how to improve their livelihood strategies from the in-game discussions. For example, they strategically accumulated starting capital to access more profitable livelihood activities. In times of drought, participants diversified their activities and increasingly opted to collect edible forest products or migrate temporarily.

The strength of the RPG method is that the close-to-real situations allow the creation of ‘safe, dangerous places’ (Lankford and Watson 2007, 426) where various courses of action can be tested and discussed. Furthermore, it constitutes a platform that helps to build trust, negotiate interests, and mediate conflicts between participants.

Jacques Rakotondranary2
Players discussing their livelihood decisions during the livelihood game © Jacques Rakotondranary

Power and empowerment

One problem associated with participatory methods is that power imbalances can arise between local research participants and non-local researchers. This means, for example, that the game, developed by non-local researchers, might be designed in a way that reflects the researchers’ prior assumptions about who holds power and who is to be empowered (Kothari 2001). In these situations, participatory approaches run the risk of reproducing such power disparities by providing a platform for those voices that are already most dominant (Mosse 2001), while marginalised groups such as women or the poorest members of the community might be sidelined.

The method requires a lot of preparation and communication skills. Therefore, it is crucial that facilitators have a good knowledge of the region and should pose critical questions when they suspect bias or distortion in participants’ answers. At the same time, they should act as neutral persons who allow all participants to contribute their knowledge and opinions. If applied in a thoughtful way, the method constitutes a powerful tool for observing players’ behaviour and eliciting their decisions in context, as well as providing a platform for the discussion of the consequences of their actions.

About the authors: Maren Wesselow is a PhD Candidate at the University of Oldenburg/ Germany, and Susanne Stoll-Kleemann is a Professor in Sustainability Geography at the University of Greifswald/ Germany.

BBC News 2016 Madagascar: 1.5m face hunger because of drought, UN says published on 27 October 2016 on BBC News (, accessed 20 December 2017

Kothari U 2001 Power, knowledge and social control in participatory development in Cooke B and Kothari U eds Participation: The New Tyranny? Zed Books, London, United Kingdom

Lankford B A and Watson D 2007 Metaphor in natural resource gaming; insights from the River Basin Game Simulation & Gaming 38 421-442 doi:10.1177/1046878107300671

Mosse D 2001 ‘People’s Knowledge’, participation and patronge: operations and representations in rural development in Cooke B; Kothari U eds Participation: The New Tyranny? Zed Books, London, United Kingdom 16-35

Nadene Ghouri 2016 Climate changes plague Madagascar’s poor ‘The water rose so fast’ Published on 7 July 2016 on The Guardian (, accessed 20 December 2017

Peter Lykke Lind 2016 Madagascar drought: 330,000 people ‘one step from famine’, UN warns. published on 25 November 2016 on The Guardian (, accessed 20 December 2017

Wesselow M and Stoll-Kleemann  2018 Role-playing games in natural resource management and research lessons learned from theory and practice. The Geographical Journal 

 Feature image credit: Baobob tree on the Mahafaly Plateau © Jacques Rakotondranary


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