Board games for participatory research

People playing boardgame

An experimental ethnography of sale of products from the chagra in indigenous communities of the Colombian Amazon[1]

De La Cruz, Pablo; Bello Baltazar, Eduardo; García-Barrios, Luis; Baquero Vargas, María Paula; Acosta, Luis Eduardo; Estrada Lugo, Erín.

In 2015 we carried out an experimental ethnography using a board game in a participatory research in Tarapacá in the Colombian Amazon. One of the objectives of this project was to increase dietary autonomy and promote traditional knowledge associated with biodiversity of indigenous peoples.  In 2012, indigenous organizations of the township of Tarapacá and the Sinchi Amazonian Institute of Scientific Research agreed to support members of Tikuna, Uitoto, Cocama, Bora, and Inga indigenous peoples by helping to develop a local market in which they could sell their traditional products.

People playing board game
Members of the Cocama indigenous group at the Cardozo Community Center during a session of the Game of Chagras, Tarapacá, Amazonas, Colombia, 2015

Our initial hypothesis was that the main reason that indigenous peoples sell few products from their chagras was that in Tarapacá there is no local marketplace. Rather, they generally sell on the street or to intermediaries at very low prices. With the board game, new variables of analysis emerged, such as intra-community redistribution, sufficiency, and seasonality of planting and harvesting, which transformed the initial hypothesis and explain the low level of sales of chagra products by indigenous peoples and the lack of a permanent marketplace (De La Cruz, 2015, 29; Eloy & Le Tourneau, 2009, 218; Eloy, 2008, 17; Fontaine 2002, 177; Peña-Venegas et. al. 2009, 84; Yagüe 2013, 31).

The idea of carrying out an experimental ethnography using a board game as part of participatory research was a response to criticism by the indigenous peoples, that research results often do not have a significant positive impact on their territories.  They commented that “scientific” methodologies typically do little to resolve the problems that they identify, and that research results remain limited to production of academic documents.  This is partly due to the fact that methodologies used in encounters between indigenous peoples and government functionaries are generally meetings in which “people just speak” and non-verbal communication is rarely explored.

We understand experimental ethnography as:

  1. A combination of qualitative methods (stories) with quantitative methods (numbers) to achieve experiments that create an effective “black box” test of cause and effect and an understanding of how those effects occurred inside the black box.
  2. As a research practice that involves embedded, embodied, sensorial, empathetic learning – through sensorial means such as games – that transcends a simple combination of participation and observation (Magnat 2016, 219).
Students playing a learning game
Students of the Villa Carmen primary and secondary public school during a session of the Game of Chagras, Tarapacá, Amazonas, Colombia, 2015

For us, the key to experimental ethnographies through board games is the ability of such games to represent the decisions of the actors and catalyse cultural performances which make evident the players’ meaningful contexts.  An ethnography communicates an experience which occurred during fieldwork, presenting in legible terms the lessons learned through research.  The experimental ethnography involves trigger presentation of stimuli during fieldwork with the objective of providing a strategic trigger consisting of multiple tactical procedures, ranging from “passive” observation to directly provoking the subjects.  Methodologically, experimental ethnographies recognize that data both exists prior to the study and emerges through interactions occurring during the research process (Castañeda 2006, 82).

Experimental ethnographies embed the subjects (e.g. players, as well as game creators and testers) in performances in which they must make choices according to the paths they wish to follow and the specific set of meanings they wish to project. These choices are the scripts that either precede the performance and are (more or less) revealed by them, or that take form beforehand and are textually reconstructed post-hoc (Alexander 2009, 29).  A game allows for constructing analysis based on the meanings that the players give to their own performances as well as to those of others.  The purpose of the game is to generate subjective meaning in players which allows for convincing performances (Alexander 2009, 36), and to alter the value of what is at stake (McKee 1997, 62).  To reach this point, the structure of the game should bring together and simplify the scripts upon which the plot is constructed.  The players should reach crossroads at which they must make decisions based on values that they may express as moral binaries (e.g. I like this or don’t like it; I´ll plant or not plant).  If the performance is energetically and skillfully manifested in moral binaries through metaphors which catalyse psychological identification, the players´ understanding of daily life can be applied through drama to the particular situation being represented (Alexander 2009, 37).

Possible actions of players
Diagram 1. Possible actions of the players and Units of Effort required

The objective of the Game of Chagras[2] is to harvest, process, and sell agricultural products. This game represents some decisions of Amazonian indigenous peoples involved in planting, harvesting, processing, barter, and sale of the products of their chagras.  Actions of cultivating and food processing are carried out on the game board of each player, and those regarding sales are carried out individually on a single collective game board, where purchase-sale prices are modified as the products are offered by each player in the various sales points. The three possible sales points – store, doorstep, and fair – have different stipulations with respect to type of product and quantity which may be sold.

The Game of Chagras allowed participants to compare and contrast different types of game strategies, and comprehending the pertinence of games in both experimental and participatory research methods. Players made decisions based on meaningful contexts that arise from the personal experience of playing the game. In the game, any player could harvest his or her entire chagra by spending 2 UE; thus, the energetic cost was the same regardless of the quantity harvested.  Similarly, all players could sell some or all of their harvest by spending 2 UE.  Nonetheless, some players did not harvest their entire chagra; rather they left some plants of up to three different species (of the five permitted in the game) unharvested; similarly, some decided not to sell all their harvested produce.

We – as game moderator – initially thought that we failed to make it clear that each player could harvest everything in one turn and sell it all in another.  As the game advanced, the moderator often reiterated this possibility, but the actions of many players suggested that they felt that not all should be harvested in a single turn, nor all sold in a single turn.  If the game did not place any limit in UE on harvesting their entire crop and selling all products, what was establishing that limit? Analysis of dialogues during and after game sessions elucidated that seasonality of planting and harvesting different species, and the idea of sufficiency is closely related with chagra management.  Despite the fact that the game allows for a broad range of liberty in the timing of planting and harvesting and quantity of plants planted, players simulated the real-life seasonality and quantities of chagra species planted.  The results of the game also coincide with the fact that when a grower destines the majority for sale, crop diversity tends to diminish.

Diagram of products in the game
Harvested products are exchanged for processed products

Reviewing players´ game strategies and commentaries led us to modify the initial hypothesis that due to the lack of a set market, local peasants sell few of their chagra products.  The new hypothesis took into account the ecological particularities of the chagra system and the social relations within which food is produced. Through conversations during and after the game sessions, some variables of chagra management became evident, such as work exchanges through mingas; seasonality of planting, harvesting, and weeding; and the way in which these variables influence local sale and barter of products. When the results of all game sessions had been analysed, they were presented in a meeting with some indigenous leaders.

The game sessions produce performances that lead the participants to compare their daily life situations with the simplified model presented by the game. The Game of Chagras resulted in meaningful interactions which help to understand the dynamics of sale and barter of agricultural products within Tarapacá.  The players´ subjective meanings pointed out aspects of local commerce of chagra products that some players felt were not adequately represented.  The experimental nature of the game lay not only in the possibility of repeating controlled sessions, but also in allowing players to suggest changes to the game rules.

Table of sales prices and products
Left: table of product prices in the store; blue boxes represent the players´ sales. Right: product requisites for each sales point.

The researchers neither assumed that the categories of analysis that emerged existed previously nor that they were new, but rather that they are cultural performances based on the game sessions. The game did not precisely reflect how the actors make decisions, nor did it create situations totally foreign to the participants.  Rather, its value was to catalyse performances that allowed for better understanding a particular phenomenon. The intention of visualizing their daily actions through a game is to induce the players to view their life precisely in a “non-daily” manner. That is, the game as metaphor for reality seeks that such denaturalization of daily life allows the players to enter a space of simulation and experience themselves as performers. Thus, the game metaphorized their experience and diluted some borders between reality and the game, such that narratives were constructed which were abstracted from their daily experience to later be recovered and presented as objectively real phenomena in daily life (Berger and Luckmann 1976, 61).

Rather than an experiment that “controls” and “isolates” variables to analyse decisions, the game is a lived experience – a plot with its texts, scripts, and performances.  It is a performance space, with a juncture, some turning points, and a dialectic that spurs interest, curiosity, and revelations in the players.  The performance is what happens, whether mute or audible, consisting of gestures, laughs, commentaries, and distractions; it is all part of the scene. For anthropology, it is worth elaborating on experimental ethnographies in terms of the lived experience, which occurs upon recreating a real-life situation and experiencing it in conditions that do not place the players´ existence at risk.  This lived experience is essential to establishing the game as an experiential situation in which the players play the game and “play within the play”[3].

References and further reading

[1] Resume from the original article published in Spanish. De La Cruz, P., Baltazar, E.B., García-, L.E., Estrada, E., 2020. Juegos de mesa para la investigación participativa: una etnografía experimental sobre el comercio de productos de la chagra en comunidades indígenas de la Amazonía colombiana. Rev. Estud. Soc. 72. Translated by Anne Green.

[2] Chagras are family agricultural plots in the jungle which are rotated every 2–3 years. After short-period species are harvested, long-period species, such as fruit trees, remain to provide food for families and wild animals.

[3] In dramaturgy, “a play within a play” is a play that is being performed in the confines of another play. The characters watch a play being performed for them. The particular structure of the play within the play has proven a very useful strategy to resurrect forgotten histories or to construct alternative historical visions, contrasting realities and making thought-provoking insights into social and societal processes (Fischer and Greiner 2007, 249).

Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2009. “Pragmática Cultural: Un Nuevo Modelo de Performance Social.” Revista Colombiana de Sociología, no. 24:9–67.

Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1976. La Construcción Social de La Realidad. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu editores.

Castañeda, Quetzil. 2006. “The Invisible Theatre of Ethnography: Performative Principles of Fieldwork.” Anthropological Quarterly 79 (1):75–104.

Eloy, Ludivine. 2008. “Diversité Alimentaire et Urbanisation Le Rôle Des Mobilités Circulaires Des Amérindiens Dans Le Nord-Ouest Amazonien.” Edited by Charles-Edouard. de Suremain and Esther Katz. Anthropology of Food. S4 Modèles (May 2008):12–29.

Eloy, Ludivine, and Francois Michel Le Tourneau. 2009. “L’urbanisation Provoque-t-Elle La Déforestation En Amazonie ? Innovations Territoriales et Agricoles Dans Le Nord-Ouest Amazonien (Brésil).” Annales de Géographie 3 (607):204–27.

Fischer, Gerhard, and Bernhard Greiner. 2007. “The Play within the Play: Scholarly Perspectives.” In The Play with the Play. The Performance of Meta-Theatre and Self-Reflection, edited by Gerhard Fischer and Bernhard Greiner, 41:477. New York: Rodopi.

Fontaine, Laurent. 2002. “La Monnaie, Une Modalité d’échange Parmi d’autres Chez Les Indiens Yucuna d’Amazonie Colombienne.” Association Française Des Anthropologues, no. 171–188:1–13.

De La Cruz Nassar, Pablo Emilio. 2015. “Ferias de Chagras En La Amazonia Colombiana, Contribuciones a Los Conocimientos Tradicionales, y Al Intercambio de Productos de Las Asociaciones Indígenas y de Mujeres de Tarapacá.” El Colegio de la Frontera Sur.

Magnat, Virginie. 2016. “Conducting Embodied Research at the Intersection of Performance Studies , Experimental Ethnography and Indigenous Methodologies.” Anthropologica 53 (2):213–27.

McKee, Robert. 1997. El Guion. Sustancia, Estructura, Estilo y Principios de La Escritura de Guiones. ALBA.

Peña-Venegas, Clara, Augusto Valderrama, Luis Eduardo Acosta, and Monica Pérez. 2009. Seguridad Alimentaria En Comunidades Indígenas Del Amazonas: Ayer y Hoy. Bogotá, D.C.: Instituto Amazónico de Investigaciones Cientificas, Sinchi. Ministerio de Ambiente, Vivienda y Desarrollo Territorial.

Yagüe, Blanca. 2013. “Haciendo Comestible La Ciudad : Los Indígenas Urbanos de Leticia y Sus Redes Desde La Soberanía Alimentaria.” Universidad Nacional de Colombia Sede Amazonia Leticia.

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Pablo De La Cruzis an enthusiastic academic, artist, husband and father, passionate for travelling and nature. He was born in Bogota Colombia. Since he was a sociology student at the National University of Colombia he has been interested in studying the relationships between social and ecological systems and its frames in anthropology, ecological economics and political ecology. In 2009, He started working with Sinchi Amazon Institute of Scientific Research, a national agency from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia. Pablo participated in different projects concerning agrobiodiversity value chain, indigenous wellbeing indicators, and the protection of traditional knowledge in the Colombian Amazon. Since 2014, he became part of the interdisciplinary research team “Valuation of Traditional knowledge” from the same agency, where they have published research articles in index journals.

Their research has taken place in the southern part of the Colombian Amazon, on the Putumayo River and in the estuary of the Cotuhé River, with different ethnic groups such as Tikunas, Uitoto, Bora, Yagua, and Ocaina people. Through their research, Pablo has focused on social and cultural mechanisms for developing innovative long-range proposals, regarding traditional knowledge, that would commit government agencies and indigenous organizations to carry out specific actions regarding territorial management. In Amazonia, he has integrated participatory research with the design and implementation of socioecological board games to promote local common agreements for the sustainable use of natural resources.

He has a PhD in Science in Ecology and Sustainable Development and Mg. in Science in Natural Resources and Rural Development at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur.
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  1. Fascinating! A play within a play…Thinking about Brecht’s erosion of the theatrical 4th wall…I suppose that wall disappears when one is observed playing a game…if no audience does the wall rebuild itself automatically? Did your participant farmers also play the game privately without your presence? And, if so, did their choices change?

    • Hi Sarah, I just saw your message seven months later. I don´t think farmers played this game by themselves, but I could hypothesize they would change their choices because choices are also affected by audiences, and players. The play within the play is also a metaphor of intersubjectivity, is an antirealistic description of what could be real in a given moment.

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