Playing and learning in the global village

I admit that I’m not too much of a gaming freak these days, although I did go through a spell a ‘few’ years back when I was the proud owner of a 16-bit Sega Megadrive. There are enough challenges and puzzles in real life to be getting on with – I don’t need a bunch of virtual ones to add to the list.

So when a game manages to grab my attention for more than just a few brief moments, it’s worth taking a look. The game is called Village, and it’s a multiplayer online strategy game (in the style of Warcraft, Second Life and so on) which immerses the player into the role of an entrepreneur. The overall objective is to build companies to bring prosperity to the villages of the third world.

“Fly over a remote village watching people walking about, farmers tending to their crops, people buying and selling goods in the town markets. Browse anybody in the village and see what income, jobs, education they have. View the stores in the town centre to find out what is selling well, and what’s missing entirely. Set up your own store fronts to offer microcredit, kickstart pumps, solar cell rentals, all the self-sustaining businesses that will have the greatest impact on the villagers. Watch as farms flourish, villagers build new homes, and schools grow larger with more healthy children”

The Village is certainly a grand vision, and an incredibly innovative one at that. There’s even hope that some day the virtual villages – or components of them – may become a reality. Imagine… Some organisations have also been quick off the mark and picked up on the fundraising and awareness raising potential of the game. According to Darian Hickman, the Village ‘leader’, “Organisations such as Ashoka, Technoserve, Acumen Fund and Habitat for Humanity have a vested interest in seeing this game reach a wide audience as it will bring awareness and donations to their causes”.

People are already beginning to make quite tidy sums buying and selling in the virtual world. Adding philanthropy to the mix is a very neat, and a very nice, idea.

Keep an eye out for the Alpha version of the game, due in the new year, on the Village website.


I bought a couple of homeless people drinks tonight, as I passed them there on the street. University Avenue. A vanilla bean frappuccino and a coffee, milk and sugar.

It seems so very wrong that people should have to live like this in a place like Silicon Valley…

Could this really be the “coolest thing in conservation”?

A new partnership has recently been announced, designed to tackle the age-old problem of how to attach ‘value’ to the environment, or to ‘ecosystem services’, however posh you want to make it sound. Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) are collaborators in what’s become known as the Natural Capital Project.

Described by Carter Roberts – President and CEO of WWF – as quite possibly the coolest thing in conservation today, the Natural Capital Project, in its own words, aims to “make nature a regular column in our spreadsheets and cost-benefit analyses”. It may not sound that cool, but attaching value to a forest, river, mountain range, savannah, swamp, insect or whatever will take some doing.

Take the humble honey bee, for example. Their value to a bee keeper in Tanzania is undisputed – without the bee there’s no honey. But for a coffee farmer who relies on the same bees for pollination, a shift in population might instead ‘just’ effect his crop. It might not destroy it, but 25% less yield could be the difference between feeding or not feeding his family. So, using bees as our example, a healthy bee population, supported by a healthy forest home, is a key issue. For the bee keeper or the coffee grower, it’s in their interests for the forests to remain intact. What the Natural Capital Project hopes to do is attach some financial ‘value’ to this forest. As they readily admit, however, “putting a price tag on ecosystem services won’t be easy”. Clearly, if it was then someone would have probably managed to do it already.

It’s worth remembering at this point that we already have monetary values for the very services that this project seeks to value. A mahogany tree, for example, is worth several tens of thousands of dollars; a chimpanzee as a pet perhaps a couple of hundred dollars. But these are prices with the ‘ecosystem service’ removed from the ecosystem – not the price to keep it there. This is the key difference.

The problem will be, of course, in convincing as many parties as possible that it’s in their interests to keep forests, rivers, swamps or whatever intact, however many dollars or pounds appear in the financial columns. If the coffee grower owns the forest, then that should be relatively straightforward if you can present the sums, aided, of course, by that spreadsheet. But when external, third parties have vested or varied interests then the value could vary dramatically, down to quite literally zero. Attaching ecosystem value could well help at policy level – which is where the Natural Capital Project is pitching – but it won’t stop illegal logging from outsiders, or ‘travelling bushmeat traders’, or unscrupulous companies or corrupt government officials. It’s in some of these areas where the most pressing barriers to conservation perhaps lie.

This is a brave project which will be quite literally judged on its results. Success – however that is measured – needs to be turned into something tangible, with real results on the ground.

After all, this is where the actual conservation takes place.