Innovations in Agriculture: A Farmville to Train Real Farmers

via @FastCoExist

Gaming seems to keep popping up everywhere as one of the most interesting means to create social impact. One such new venture that I came across recently is Farm Defenders, “a Gates Foundation-funded game that lets people use incredibly detailed data (down to soil conditions in specific villages) to help people learn agriculture techniques before they actually start planting.”

Fast Company writes:

Developed to train extension workers–government consultants who spread knowledge in the countryside–it covers hundreds of aspects of running a farm, and in a highly realistic way. All the data–soil conditions, climate, commodity prices, and so on–is live, and accurate to a village level (the weather information, for example, changes every 15 minutes). As a player, you get a small virtual budget. Then you have to fend for yourself.

Simulating a real-world situation with climate change, unpredictable shifts like drought or cyclones, diversity of crops, market demand and many such elements, the game allows players to experience actual life of the farmer. They have to make complex decisions with long-term consequences, through which they can learn about the impact on productivity, diversity, the environment and more.

“You’ve got a lot of tradeoffs to make. You have to do it profitably and each thing you do costs money,” says Philip Parker, a professor at Insead business school, who was involved in the development.

“It teaches you how strategic you need to be. You can go for a quick and dirty yield this year. But then your soil depletion goes quickly that you erode soil to nothing, if you don’t have a rigorous soil management program. Then your farm is at risk.”

Funded by the Gates Foundation, the game is based on a database called Toto Agriculture. The first edition covers seven climatic zones of Africa. But Parker says it could be applied to any region of the world, including the U.S. Graduate students are now testing a beta version, ahead of a full launch later this year.

What is truly revolutionary about this kind of game is that it allows you to experiment and play with different crops, methods of farming and so on. Through this, it trains players to not only understand decision-making in their own local contexts, but also in unfamiliar ones, creating a more diverse, dynamic and engaging experience. It’s falso about following the complete process of agricultural production, from the sowing of seeds to the harvesting of crops, selling them in the market or storing them safely.

Farm Defenders tests players through a full “crop calendar”–seven stages, from soil preparation and “pre-planting”, to growing and weeding, and “post-harvest”. At each stage, they have to make choices about whether to invest in water, trees and shrubs, and fertilizers. And there are continual problems. Rats squeak and run across the screen, eating up seeds. Pests attack when the plants reach a certain height. Birds swoop down at harvest time (you can choose to invest in scarecrows, or something stronger). Then, once the crop is out of the fields, players have to decide whether to sell immediately–and whether to sell to a co-operative or direct–or whether to put crops in storage (where they could get damp with mildew and mold).

While the game is currently covers seven climactic zones of Africa, the developers say that it can easily be applied to any region of the world. Developed with the concept of training agricultural extension workers and government consultants, the game holds massive promise for countries in Asia and Africa, which are still largely dependent on agriculture, but also suffer a huge deficit in food security. The gaming element, being so dynamic and attuned to real-world data and weather developments, injects within its players that essential element of empathy for the plight of farmers. While it might not be quite as effective as actually going to a farm and getting your hands dirty, it might be closest that many policy makers and implementers get to actual farming.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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