A game changer: learning and adapting to climate change in Ghana

grazing game

Farmers try to best manage land and livestock amid unpredictable rains in the grazing game. Photo: Grace Villamor

Can a boardgame simulate reality in how farmers adapt to a changing climate as well as inspire social learning?

Scientists from the University of Bonn, Germany and Kwara State University, Nigeria have used a role playing game to gain useful insights into strategies used by farmers in semiarid Ghana to cope with increasing climatic variability.

They say the ‘grazing game’ they developed gives farmers an opportunity to observe how land-use decisions impact on their livelihoods. It has also given researchers a greater understanding of the rich ecological knowledge held by farmers.

A study on the effectiveness of the grazing game, in both identifying coping strategies in response to climate variability and as a learning tool among both researchers and farmers, has recently been published in the scientific journal, Ecology and Society.

The scientists found that the game was able to identify a wide range of coping strategies, such as selling livestock during the dry season, using crop residues to feed cows to maintain grass availability in other areas, seeking government assistance and engaging in alternative livelihood activities.

In terms of learning, the game helped farmers to recognize the consequences of their actions, better understand processes and interactions, and collectively examine issues and responses. It also aided researchers’ understanding of local systems and perspectives.

“With climate change predicted to have a significant impact on grassland areas in West Africa, local people need to adapt to increasing uncertainty and may not be able to rely on traditional methods of predicting rainfall,” explains Grace Villamor, senior researcher and lead author of the study.

“The grazing game explores how local farmers respond to highly unpredictable rainfall patterns and is aimed at helping them understand how desertification can occur as a result of changes in rainfall combined with management decisions, such as overstocking or not allowing land to recover from grazing / cropping,” explains Villamor.

cattle grazing Vea Ghana

Cattle grazing in the Upper East Region of Ghana. Photo: Grace Villamor

The original form of the game was developed 35 years ago at the University of Juba (Sudan) as part of ecology courses.

Together with local researchers, Villamor and co-author, Biola Badmos, undertook 23 game trials with 243 individual farmers of different ages, gender and status in the Vea catchment in the Upper East Region of Ghana. Farmers in this region generally practice agropastoralism, raising a mixture of livestock as well as cultivating crops that include groundnut, guinea corn, millet and rice.

Playing the game

In the grazing game, each player is challenged with how best to manage their land and livestock to maximize production and avoid desertification.

They begin with a herd of 5 cattle and 4 patches (squares on a game board) which they allocate to their choice of crop.

The die is rolled to determine annual rainfall for each land patch on the board (simulating unpredictability) and this determines the amount of grass growth (shown with coloured pins). Farmers must decide where to graze their cattle and whether to feed them on half rations or crop residue, which affects reproduction and sale value.

At the end of each rainy season, cows can be sold at the discretion of the player, while at the end of each dry season the cows that have been fed full rations for the past 6 months give birth to a calf.

Patches of bush are marked with green and patches of desert with red. If there is no vegetation in a patch at the end of each round, it is determined desert.

Each game consists of 5 rounds, simulating 5 years. Score sheets track indicators such as the production of grass, amount of grass used, number of calves produced, number of desert and bush patches, number of cows sold and amount of fertiliser bought.

To challenge the players further, new scenarios are introduced in the third and fourth rounds, such as a new household with a new herd and a fertilizer subsidy being offered to restore grass in desert patches in exchange for a cow.

Strategies and local knowledge

During the game, conversations among players were documented, and at the conclusion of each game, a reflection session saw players exchange information with facilitators. Villamor says this was the most important part of the entire process.

“We were able to investigate the reasons behind participants’ reactions more deeply and verify and validate behaviours and perceptions observed during the game.”

Some farmers proved extremely adept at strategizing their cattle movements with respect to timing and ration levels. All players kept at least 1 cow on full rations for 6months required to produce a calf.

Farmers were also observed to wait until after the rainfall had been determined before deciding on a coping strategy, suggesting they would prefer to make decisions based on relevant information.

An important finding from the study was how farmers rely on ecological knowledge. For example, guinea fowl are commonly used to indicate the quality of the rainy season, perhaps related to the availability and quality of insects that they feed on during the onset of the rainy season. The game was able to solicit such local knowledge and understanding of the system context in a way that questionnaire-based research may not be able to. Farmers also saw the value of keeping bush to restore the productivity of soil, even though bush was treated as an unproductive land use in the game. They were keen to protect trees and shrubs for animals as well as to create microclimates that provide services such as shade. Maintaining multistrata vegetation was also seen as important in protecting guinea fowl chicks from predators.

Learning outcomes

So are role-playing games, such as the grazing game, effective learning tools?

“These types of games help people visualize potential future uncertainties based on their existing knowledge and experiences,” says Villamor. “They also allow people to identify options that build their resilience to extreme climate change impacts and share their views, knowledge and perceptions of climate-related issues”.

The grazing game was found to facilitate social learning. It aided anticipatory or future-looking learning, which helps to develop skills and an understanding of future possibilities. Through interacting in a collective way, farmers were able to improve their knowledge of processes that link social and ecological systems and perhaps as a result will modify their perspectives of these systems and decisions that impact on their welfare.

An overwhelming 98 per cent of players saw the game as a reasonably good reflection of reality, especially the erratic rainfall patterns currently being experienced. When a desert was created, participants commonly shouted “disaster”. In another instance, one player was heard to remark to another: “we really need to talk after this game; I don’t like the way you manage your cows”.

The grazing game is currently being used to explore gender–specific responses to climate variability in northern Benin and Ghana. It has also been adapted to facilitate social learning between policy makers and local farmers in Ghana, still in the context of climate change.

The grazing game is one tool in the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use (WASCAL) program

Download the article:

Villamor G.B. and Badmos B.K. 2015. Grazing game: a learning tool for adaptive management in response to climate variability in semiarid Ghana. Ecology and Society 21(1): 39.


Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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