Knowledge Management for Development Journal, Vol 13, No 1 (2017)

Viable metaphors: the art of participatory modelling for communicating sustainability science

Deborah Cleland


Overexploitation is at the centre of an accelerating trajectory that is undermining the long-term ability of our planet to sustain human life. Therefore, the future of humans does not rely on generating new knowledge, but rather on integrating, disseminating and implementing knowledge we already have. Models are one tool for this: by synthesising and representing what we know, models can be useful in answering questions about what should be done. One approach is to create a game in conjunction with a model in a participatory setting. Integrating theory and critical reflection from field experience, I argue that, to be useful, this type of model/game must work as a ‘viable metaphor’. This means making the model recognisable, playable and suitable for its intended audience and socio-ecological setting. This paper describes how to apply these three principles to create a gamified model, using the example of ‘ReefGame’, which has now been played with around 500 fisheries stakeholders in the Philippines. Focusing on small-scale fishers, ReefGame facilitates discussions and raises awareness about overfishing, alternative livelihoods, marine protected areas and coral reef ecology. Following a principles-based ‘viable metaphor’ design process enabled creating a game/model that contributed to both learning and engagement.

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