Board Game Teaches the Challenges, Uncertainty of IPM
By Max Helmberger, Ph.D., and Tim Lampasona, Ph.D.
All it takes is one look at Facebook to see agriculture has a misinformation problem. Claims run rampant that genetically modified organisms cause cancer or that farmers gleefully poison their crops with pesticides; yet, with people in industrialized economies increasingly disconnected from their food and those who grow it, this shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, we, along with Max Helmberger’s doctoral advisor at the time Matt Grieshop, Ph.D., began design work on Pest Quest, a co-operative board game about bringing peace and profit to a pest-plagued farm. Our two goals for the game were to teach some aspects of integrated pest management (IPM) in undergraduate classroom settings and to provide laypeople who play the game a basic understanding of how insect pest management decisions in agriculture are made and an appreciation for the often-harsh economic realities of modern agriculture. We share the game and our suggestions for its use in educational settings in an article published in September in the open-access Journal of Integrated Pest Management. (To try Pest Quest yourself, see the online version or a print-and-play edition.)
Pest Quest uses a semi-random assortment of face-down “field cards” to represent a field of crops, with a variable cultivar that players can choose. These cards are hidden to players and may contain natural enemies, pollinators, or pest infestations of varying severity. Players have a limited ability to “scout the field” and reveal these hidden cards, and then they must make critical management decisions based on the limited information. There is always a risk of under spraying a highly infested row or accidentally damaging populations of beneficial species! Because of these risks, players are incentivized to smartly allocate their insecticides, neither drenching the field in poison nor leaving it to the proverbial wolves. The result? Players (hopefully) gain a first-hand understanding of the IPM concept known as the economic threshold—i.e., the level of pest density or damage that equals or exceeds the cost of management.
Original designs for the game were mechanically intense, requiring a lot of math for players to determine the extent of pest damage across their field. These were refined into a more elegant and user-friendly game experience through repeated prototyping and playtesting with a diverse audience of game designers, casual gamers, researchers, and students. The resulting product is accessible to people with varying degrees of game experience, as well as complete novices to the worlds of IPM and entomology. That said, the game can still be challenging, with plans that seem optimal based on players’ available information blowing up in their faces as a pesticide application fails or undetected pests wreak havoc. Even we, the game’s creators, don’t always turn a profit when we play, so in this way the game simulates agriculture’s inherent difficulty and uncertainty.
In fall 2021, we brought the game into a non-majors entomology course taught by Amanda Lorenz, Ph.D., at Michigan State University, aiming to evaluate its effects on student understanding of IPM via pre-assessment surveys before they played the game and post-assessment surveys afterward. Though this instrument did not detect significant improvements in student learning above the course as a whole, in our JIPM article we offer insights and suggestions for more effective implementation in future courses.
Journal of Integrated Pest Management
Max Helmberger, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in the Biology Department at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. Email: email@example.com. Tim Lampasona, Ph.D., is an entomologist and professor of biology at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.