World Wildlife Fund Science Driven

game players

Games: a Win for Conservation

  • Date: 13 October 2014
  • Author: Amy Rosenthal and Gregory Verutes

Natural capital is everywhere. It’s the fresh air we breathe, the clean water we drink, the beautiful coral reefs we visit that protect coastal communities from storms and support fisheries around the world.

Some of these benefits that our lands, waters and biodiversity provide are not fully appreciated, often because they don’t have a price tag like products in a store. Yet without them our well-being, even our survival, would be threatened.

Through the Natural Capital Project—where WWF is a founding partner—we seek to improve the state of human wellbeing by motivating greater and more cost-effective investments in natural capital. Valuing nature helps ensure that the benefits people enjoy today will be available to support their health and livelihoods well into the future.

game board

Best Coast Belize game board by Amy Rosenthal and Gregory Verutes

With this approach, the people of Belize were able to map, measure and value the benefits of coastal tourism, lobster fisheries, and natural defense from coastal storms and inundation. By explicitly taking into account nature’s values and tradeoffs among options—e.g., assessing how dredging for a new shipping lane could reduce revenues from commercial fishing due to the removal of nursery habitat for spiny lobsters—Belizeans have created a coastal management plan that maximizes economic opportunities while minimizing environmental impacts (based on this interactive map).

Using a natural capital approach can improve outcomes for people and nature. Yet in many critical decisions around the world, we still fail to consider the value of nature. How can we change this and get people to consider these vital lessons? That’s a challenge we confront in our daily work.

In 2010, we were asked to introduce natural capital to a group of conservation leaders in the MesoAmerican Reef region. Instead of making the typical PowerPoint presentation, we decided to test a new approach. We designed a game.

Our game, Best Coast Belize, teaches players about nature’s values and our capacity to affect those values through the choices we make. In a 60-minute timed competition, players develop the Belizean coast, deciding where to fish, where to build, and what to conserve. Over two rounds, participants compete to win the most points and a prize for their team. Players quickly see the consequences of their team’s decisions, stimulating changes in behavior. Because ultimately that’s the real endgame—an educational tool that will spur decision makers to consider tradeoffs in their decisions and policies, leading to better environmental outcomes that benefit people.

Game players in the MesoAmerican Reef

In the MesoAmerican Reef, Best Coast Belize generated an excitement among players that was contagious. The conservation leaders struck up a friendly competition among teams, shouting and laughing about game decisions and scores. Several subsequently took up a natural capital approach in their work. Building on that success, we honed and refined our game over the next three years, testing it with over 1500 players in 20 countries. Players have included WWF partners in conservation, business leaders, local and national policy makers, students, researchers, and scientists.


Now we’re working on a series of these games, collectively called Tradeoff!, which show how understanding the value of nature can improve common natural resource decisions, like spatial planning and land management. Last week, we published lessons learned about using gamification to teach about tradeoffs and natural capital.

It’s important to recognize and act on tradeoffs when we make decisions – not just in Belize, but all around the world. Every day, people make difficult decisions about development and conservation, and we can make these decisions better. Tradeoff! helps people recognize these values by introducing them to the fundamental concepts. Another tool developed by the Natural Capital Project, InVEST, then helps people to act by clearly showing how decisions affect nature’s values and the tradeoffs among options. By using tools like InVEST in an integrated decision-making process, which embraces stakeholder participation, we can make choices that lead to better outcomes for people and nature.