Games Get People Talking About Eco Issues

  • Kyle Winkler and Simon Lipsky, rivals in the Eco-game about farming. Photo: Julie Grant

September 13, 2013

When Travis Mecum approaches new businesses for work, he sometimes gets blank stares. Mecum works for a non-profit called GTECH Strategies. It’s his job to find restaurants that want to donate their used cooking oil for reuse.

“Oh yeah, there is an education issue involved with this," he says.  " I mean, it’s like, ‘Yes, you can turn this into a fuel source.’”

Mecum says once restaurateurs understand that used cooking oil can be recycled, and that that creates jobs, he finds many who want to work with him–everyone from the upscale Phipps Conservatory Café to Primanti Brothers–famous for putting french fries on their sandwiches.

But Mecum says most of the time, it’s hard to engage people about the environment and how it intersects with jobs and the economy.

“There are serious concerns and serious debates on topics to be had, but we don’t have them because they’re too difficult or because we come from completely different places when it comes to vocabulary. We may know all the same things by different names, and then we try to have a serious conversation about the minutiae about what words mean,” he says.

As a former language teacher, Mecum wanted to do something about it. So he turned to his longtime hobby: making board games.

Four of us sit around a table as Mecum explains how to play what he calls an eco-game. It’s about farming.

“You are all farmers, and you have a dream. You own a small farm, and you want to own a big farm,” Mecum explains.

We each start out with three parcels of land. The goal is to buy more. Whoever gets six parcels wins the game.

First, we choose what we’re producing: apples, grain, or pigs.

“So the question is, how are you going to spread your investments around? Are you going to go all in one thing? Are you going to go big, and go with all pigs, which is the highest payout, the highest risk, or are you going to mix it around?” Mecum asks.

We place our tokens on the board. It’s just a game, but still it’s a little intimidating, deciding how to invest. I mix it up.  But 34-year-old Kyle Winkler goes big. He puts all of his tokens on pigs. Then it's time to roll the dice, and find out how our investments will pay off.

“However they need to be rolled, just get ‘em rolled," Mecum says.

“Oooo, cha-ching, cha-ching,” says Kyle Winkler.

The pigs get the high roll. That means Winkler gets a big payback.  With our season’s earnings counted, we each bid on a piece of land.

Each round of the game, the bids get higher. We talk about inflation. Mecum asks about labor costs. 16-year-old Simon Lipsky thinks growing grain takes the most workers. Then Mecum brings up environmental considerations.

“How about in terms of nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium inputs for soil–which of these takes more fertilizer?” he says.

Winkler responds, “Grain, as well.”

Mecum has created his series of games for ages 16 through adults. As you master each concept, the game moves to new levels. Others in his series look at issues such as biodiversity, and placing a monetary value on public resources.

Mecum says a good game is fun, gets people thinking in new ways, and talking to each other. It’s trendy to use video games to enhance classroom learning. Mecum says board games can be even better.

“Because there is no right or wrong answer for a computer to give you here. I’m actually going to let you and three other game players discuss the ethics of making a purchase, or not make a purchase. And theoretical concepts like fairness. Things that can’t really be programmed,” says Mecum.

And in the end of our game, Kyle Winkler takes his sixth parcel of land. Mecum says, “Kyle, you just did not diversify, you did not at all."

Winkler explains his winning farm philosophy, "Monoculture all the way."

If YOU would like to play one of the Eco-games with us, join us for The Allegheny Front's Green Gathering Wednesday, September 25.  More information and registration here.