What influences farmers’ decisions to adopt introduced agricultural technologies is a central question for international agricultural research projects. Smallholder farmers in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), like many others in developing countries, are facing transformative changes in their traditional agriculture-based livelihoods. With approximately 62% of labour contributing to the agriculture sector, Lao PDR is still highly dependent on agriculture [1
]. However, processes of intensification of agriculture, market integration, industrialization and urbanization are underway [2
Smallholder family farming, understood as a household which combines family, farm and commercial activity, still represents the backbone of the world’s agriculture [7
]. Traditionally, subsistence farming was predominant in Laos, with smallholders dependent on cultivatable land for rice and livestock husbandry, whilst other nontimber forest and river products are used as supplementary food sources and marketable goods [8
]. Some 72% of the total cultivated land area is dedicated to rice production with the traditional glutinous (“sticky”) rice varieties, preferred for local consumption and providing almost 70% of calorie and protein intake [11
]. To improve rural livelihoods, however, the Lao government is encouraging farmers to move to commercial agricultural production, with plans to increase both rice yield per hectare and production of nonglutinous (“white”) rice varieties; those demanded by major export markets, e.g., China. The key decision for farmers is whether to continue traditional production of the “sticky” rice and ensure family sustenance or adopt the production of “white” rice for the market; the latter option potentially bringing substantial financial benefits. The flip side of the switch to white rice is the threat it carries to preferred subsistence food for the family. Decisions on household agricultural practices are being made in the larger context of industrialization and urbanization, with nontraditional off-farm and nonfarming activities becoming integral to the way that households generate income [12
Women are a vital part of the agriculture sector in Lao PDR, contributing to every aspect of agricultural production [16
]. Similar to other emerging economies in Southeast Asia [17
] and elsewhere [18
], the division of labour in smallholder households is gendered, and men and women tend to have different roles and responsibilities. In the rural agricultural context of Lao PDR, data are available that describe the differences between male- and female-headed households, but little is known about the role and contribution of rural women within male-headed households or the decision-making process in such households [22
]. Rapid and uneven economic growth occurring in Southeast Asian countries over recent decades has resulted in new and challenging inequities between social groups and between men and women [23
]. There are many examples of young men and women migrating for wages and remittances [24
], with young migrant women becoming the industrial working class of Southeast Asian cities [23
Understanding specific farmers’ behaviours that would prevent or facilitate the adoption of introduced agricultural technologies is important, particularly in terms of understanding possible future farm management scenarios. Ambitious targets for increasing agricultural production and international exports set by the Lao government are based on the premise that agricultural productivity can be boosted by changed farming practices. Modification of farming practices through the adoption of technologies often occurs at a much slower rate than hoped [27
]. The current low adoption rates of new technologies [33
], including white rice production, suggest that more needs to be understood about how farmers decide on their production goals and how the offered technologies might fit with such goals [12
]. Recognizing the central role of gender in the process of agrarian and also a wider societal transition in Lao PDR, we argue for the need to explore the differences in behaviours between rural women and men.
The adoption of new practices results from a complex decision process involving empirical knowledge and individual beliefs, perceptions and interests, combined with personal or collective assets in relation to the institutional context. Nonetheless, understanding decision-making processes, and the necessary intermediate step of eliciting mental models, is a challenging task. Game-based approaches have become a popular means in the field of social–ecological research to study decision-making processes [34
] and to understand the heterogeneity of mental model constructs [36
]. Garcia et al. [35
] argue that role-playing games can help to elicit mental models and illustrate decision-making through concrete representations of the needs, constraints and aspirations of stakeholders. Games allow participants to grasp information more easily [37
], empower local communities, elicit local knowledge and decision-making processes [38
] and illuminate complex socio-ecological systems [41
]. In addition, games allow researchers to better understand how people devise strategic decisions when confronted with complex, sometimes conflicting and uncertain situations. Sensitive issues, such as illegal activities or corruption, that would rarely be communicated in traditional interviews, can emerge implicitly and explicitly during a game session [36
Games also serve as models of strategic situations, allowing participants to anticipate the consequences of actions or decisions [35
]. By posing challenges and confronting players with complex situations, games can act as a reality check, whereby participants revisit their pre-existing assumptions, preconceived perceptions, values and knowledge regarding how the “system” works currently as well as how it should work or might work in the future [38
]. Games, when carefully facilitated, operate as “safe spaces” where participants can voice their motivations behind the plurality of their livelihood strategies, and the drivers and thought-processes that influence how they react or adapt to changes, without fear of direct consequences or repercussions in the real world [44
Role-playing games have been used in the past to explore agrarian transition and facilitate understanding of farmers’ decision making [46
]. However, this approach has been underutilized to study the impact of gender in agriculture and landscapes changes [50
]. Research techniques commonly used for gender analyses include focus groups, wealth ranking and semistructured or structured interviews [51
]. Villamor et al. [52
] have expanded the methodological repertoire and broken new ground by using role-playing games to analyse gender differences in forestry research. In this paper, we transpose a similar game-based approach to analyse the influence of gender on the adoption of new technologies and farming practices. We report on our investigation of adoption behaviours as complex decision-making processes, using a participatory role-playing game following the Companion Modelling approach [53
]. Central to this approach is the coconstruction of the models or games with local experts and stakeholders through an iterative process.
In this paper, we aimed to understand and compare the decision-making process and behavioural choices of men and women in a context of agricultural innovations. To do so, we explored the different adoption behaviours when men and women are confronted with several new farming practices and technologies. The specific technological intervention we used to explore adoption behaviours is the transition from growing glutinous (“sticky”) rice for home-consumption to growing “white” rice (Hom Savanh
variety) for sale to international markets. To explore the viability, possible implications and likelihood of this transition, we developed and undertook tailored game workshops to elicit specific behaviours that prevent or facilitate adoption by smallholder farmers of “white” rice for export to China. Gender-specific workshops were conducted with 72 smallholder farmers (36 females and 36 males) in four villages of southern Laos. The gaming workshop allowed participants to examine possible consequences of selecting a new technology (white rice variety) in a no-risk, virtual manner [54
]. We specifically explored: (1) potential differences in incomes achieved; (2) technical production choice (patterns of adoption); (3) the role cooperation plays in reaching targets or maximizing outcomes.
In the next section, we introduce the context of rice production in Laos, the participants’ profiles, the game elements and the statistical methods employed to analyse the data. We then present the results across three indicators (income, production choices and cooperation) by comparing the male and female game sessions. Finally, we discuss the implications for gender-sensitive studies of adoption of new farming practices and the role women play in regions undergoing agricultural transition.
In the game, the income of both men and women increased over time, but women achieved a higher income than men as the game progressed. Women achieved a higher income due to their higher levels of collaboration, tending more quickly to achieve the production of 29 bags of white rice required for a premium price. Women’s higher propensity to collaborate and cooperate is recorded in the literature, specifically when they are in a female-only environment [67
], and this has also been noted in other experimental game settings [69
]. Some studies, however, suggest that, overall, women and men can be equally cooperative, with sex differences in cooperation entirely context-dependent [71
], whereas other research suggests that the effect of gender on cooperation remains inconclusive [73
]. Nonetheless, it needs to be noted that most of the literature reported are on social dilemma studies that are conceptually concerned with situations involving a conflict between self-interest and the collective interest [71
]. Gendered exploration of cooperation in a specific context of agriculture with the potential neutral-win and win-win outcomes, warrants further study as it potentially carries more relevant policy implications than can be generated exclusively through social dilemma studies.
While there was no difference between men and women in terms of fertilizer use, an important management decision-making difference was that women were more likely to allocate their best plot to white rice. Men were more reluctant to do so as they placed higher value on rice for subsistence. This supports findings from other studies that indicate that subsistence farming is the preferred livelihood strategy for fewer than 20% of men and 10% of women [74
]. This finding indicates that not only is a transition to a modern agricultural economy well on its way in Lao PDR, but women also appear more willing to exit the traditional farming context. Moglia et al. [74
] also reported that almost two-thirds of women in their study opted for maximizing family income through off-farm employment, compared to nearly two-thirds of men who focused on either growing rice for subsistence or income-generation. In this study, we also found indications of income-maximization strategies: in addition to cooperating to reach the target number of rice bags and hence premium price, women were also cooperating by sharing machinery. These actions released additional labour to engage in alternative on-farm and off-farm income-generating activities. This finding is very much in line with other studies that show that nontraditional off-farm and nonfarming activities have become integral to the way households generate income in Lao PDR [12
], as well as in other emerging economies [75
Our findings that women changed farming practices earlier in the game than men might appear contrary to some literature claiming that women are slower innovation adopters. Similar to our study—and contrary to expectations and gender stereotypes—Villamor et al. [52
] found that females were more active and dynamic than men in responding to external opportunities. Using role-playing games (RPGs) in a female-only and male-only group setting, they found that women who played the RPGs approached land-use change in a more dynamic way than men from the same villages, reacting more positively to external investors and possible changes. The game context of our study might have affected certain outcomes. Unlike in reality, women had access to production inputs and information about new practices equally to men. This, however, is not always the case in the “real” world, and an increasing number of studies acknowledge that it is access to inputs and information, not their behavioural propensity, that prevents women from the adoption of new and improved agricultural practices [76
]. Peterman et al. [78
] also found that across different types of inputs, men generally have higher input measures than women and that this input gap was responsible for productivity differences between men and women observed in their study. On the whole, these results from various studies suggest that technology adoption decisions depend primarily on access to resources, including land, labour and information, rather than on gender per se [78
]. If in a particular context, men tend to have better access to these resources than women, Doss and Morris [73
] argue that the technologies will not benefit men and women equally. Policy changes thus may be needed to increase women’s access to key resources rather than necessarily to focus on the motivational factors that might purportedly encourage women to adopt innovations. Of relevance here is also a study by Ogunlana [81
], who argued that female farmers easily adopt innovations that enhance their economic status. In other words, a low participation of women in agricultural innovation adoption is caused by lack of information about the advantages of the innovations. Such findings have important policy implications because they suggest that ensuring the more widespread and equitable adoption of improved technologies may not require changes in the research system but rather the introduction of measures that ensure better access for women to complementary inputs, especially land, labour and agricultural extension services. Therefore, in order to predict whether the new technology will be adopted successfully by women as well as men, it is important to examine both the technology itself as well as the physical and institutional contexts in which the technology is implemented [76
Improved communication of innovation benefits [81
] may also be a significant factor. Furthermore, the aspect of gendered power dynamics on the farm, noted in the previous paragraph, is of relevance here. Importantly, enhancing the economic status of the farm is by no means the same as enhancing the economic status of women
on the farm. As Doss [82
] argues for African women farmers, who are typically reported as less likely than men to adopt improved crop varieties and management systems, studies too often concentrate on how gender affects technology adoption and not on how the introduction of new technologies affect women’s well-being. Our results suggest that once women have access to assets and information equally with men and understand the potential economic benefits of proposed actions, they might be faster adopters of improved technologies and practices than men. On the other hand, such a result might be due to differences in the farming experiences, risk aversion and other characteristics of males and females. In the case of Laos, as Moglia et al. [69
] report, women have less emotional attachment to existing agricultural lifestyles, which might result in their greater propensity for adoption of new technologies. That said, however, if considerable risks are associated with adoption, women are more likely to move away from agriculture altogether [69
]. As this finding is of significant policy relevance, we strongly recommend further studies.
The gaming approach methodology that was used was well received by both local experts and farmers. The approach allowed stakeholders to explore complex interplays and elicit specific behaviours. Gaming is a research methodology that combines community engagement and data collection and is particularly useful for exploring the potential consequences of strategic decisions in agriculture [54
]. Overall, the game was perceived as engaging and educational. During the debriefing discussions, farmers indicated that, for them, the game tool had an educational effect because it demonstrated the concepts of strategic resource allocation of farming systems and the potential benefits of longer-term planning horizons. It also resulted in a mind shift for local agricultural officers, who started playing the game with the focus on “technology”. Over time, however, they started to appreciate and tried to better understand the actual potential users of the technology—farmers—and their needs and motivations.
As reported elsewhere in the literature, gaming afforded farmers the opportunity to conceptualize their livelihood options and gave them insight into decision-making factors. It also engaged local communities and had a capacity-building effect [38
]. Moreover, games provided the farmers with an opportunity for observing the implications of their decisions on their livelihoods. Villamor and Badmos [34
] found that the game was instrumental for eliciting the players’ subjective perceptions, goals and expectations within the specific context described but were limited in facilitating social learning in terms of changes in values and norms. The gaming in our study was somewhat confronting to research teams and stakeholders present at the gaming sessions (extensionist services/local agricultural services) as it provided instant, strong and visual challenges to deeply rooted assumptions and myths. For stakeholders who played their own roles as extensionists, it generated new insights by enabling them to explore the potential and gendered consequences of strategic decisions in agriculture. We suggest, in line with Ogunlana [81
], that promoters of new technologies, whether governments or donor organizations, need to better understand the economic advantages of the proposed innovations in the specific context. Our findings indicate that communication of economic advantages of innovation, and not the mere availability and access to innovations per se, is of policy importance in terms of encouraging greater levels of adoption by women. We advocate that game-based approaches can be considered when trialling new technologies/practices in the complex context of village and household decision-making. It enables potential beneficiaries to see how scenarios play out and can help counteract risks that are sometimes revealed during initial research activity phases of a project intervention.
To avoid potential shortcomings of the gaming approach, games need to be representative so that the virtual village situations developed by a core team of scientists and targeted stakeholders correspond to the local social–ecological context [38
]. Game authenticity, that is, the level at which it is similar to the actual context of the phenomena under study, is thus an important consideration when developing the game. This, in turn, requires comprehensive preparation, several rounds of crash-testing and fine-tuning and team capacity building. Gaming sessions generate comprehensive sets of data and insights; hence, they require a lengthy interpretation process. In line with Fisher et al. [54
], we found the game-workshop capable of enabling the exploration of complex issues within a limited timeframe. The approach enabled the identification of information needs for farmers in a specific region. However, this specificity makes games more difficult to extrapolate to different geographic and temporal settings, as different market conditions, prices, availability of inputs, etc., might change outcomes. It is, therefore, not so much the specific decisions per se, but the decision-making process
and behavioural choices
, that are the key learning factors of the game approach. Important to the understanding of gendered decision-making, games highlight the decisions that can be made on-farm, even in a highly simplified set-up.