A non-partisan, neutral perspective supporting diversity in the color of water

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Serious Gaming in Water

Serious games are useful because they provide a structured environment in which learning and research can occur.  In his blog, The Consensus Building Approach, Larry Susskind writes “There are various ways games can be used to inform, and even alter,  high-stakes policy negotiations…..but this only works when the actual negotiators take part in the game in advance of undertaking their own "real life" interactions.”

When it comes to training students in water negotiations, I found that everybody likes to play a game. Skills in water negotiations are scalable and require cultural competency. The importance of online competency for water negotiations is that many countries are just beginning the organization of alternative dispute resolution systems. As a consequence, I adapted a multi-media approach to water negotiations training using games.

There are many different types of "serious games" and applications.

One of the tried and true approaches to negotiation training are Role Plays. Nearly every academic or professional training program in water negotiations uses role plays. The Harvard Program on Negotiation offers some for free, or for sale at a modest price. I include David Zetland's All-in-Auction game in this category. Some of these are as simple as a Dueling Expert role play as offered in my book Contesting Hidden Waters. Others are multi-day, multi-party extravaganzas such as the Indopotamia basin offered in Water Diplomacy, among others.

The Prisoner Dilemma Game has many forms ranging from oil pricing to water allocations. The Water Message developed by the conflict professionals at UNESCO-IHE is a classic I have seen used at many high level meetings; I have used it frequently in undergraduate and graduate courses in water resources. I developed a version for groundwater that presents an interesting comparison to how parties negotiate over surface water versus groundwater. (Spoiler alert - groundwater always loses).

Board Games are especially useful in settings where shyness or language skills preclude active skills building in negotiations. Santiago is a surface water allocation game with farms, fleeting fidelities, that fiddles with bribery. It is a huge hit with my undergraduate, graduate, and law students who enjoy learning that bribery, otherwise referred to as "grease payments" is "legal". I have been told to watch my back when playing Santiago with a 10 year old kid.

California Water Crisis Game is a groundwater board game where the winner is the player with the best reputation. This game permits three different scenarios - water rights in the "Bad Old Days" where mining and muckraking ruled the day, the situation before the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act where groundwater mining is the norm, and "Looking Ahead" to the future of California under "Climate Change" and an influx of climate refugees. My undergraduate and graduate students have played the Bad Old Days and the pre-SGMA versions. How does one assess impact? Student comments like the following: “The most interesting things about this game wasn’t just that it was fun and entertaining to play, but that it had real life lessons about water rights, negotiation, and competition/cooperation in the water game today”.

Computer Assisted Board Games come in many forms, sometimes pitched as Decision Support Tools which is a fancy way of sometimes selling software.  The Water Footprint Game is described as a "role play" game, but it is much more. The game is supported by an excel-model, four game boards (one for each country), water and commodity notes, role descriptions, country data sheets. The game is free to any who sign a user agreement. It takes a few hours to play, but is a great negotiations training tool. Be forewarned, it is an expensive game to "make" since the game pieces and boards are forwarded as files that must be printed out and "processed" (cut into game pieces). The setup seen in this photo cost me over $150 in printing costs.

Computer Games – A pioneer in this arena is the Tragedy of the Commons Groundwater Game developed by IGRAC. The game was developed by friend and colleague Frank Van Weert when he was with the U.N. International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC) in Delft. Frank completed an amazing job of integrating the Theis Equation into an excel-model that links economics with easy to understand graphics. I use this in my hydrogeology class to teach the role of interfering hydraulic cones of depression associated with pumping wells and surface water capture. A good review of the game by a University of Arizona geography student can be found here.

Online Games – I use AquaRepublica, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) software program which combines a game layer with water allocation, energy, and food allocation models, to reinforce the notion that Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is easier said than done. This is an interactive, realistic virtual environment in which players attempt to simultaneously ‘juggle’ the various components of the food-energy-water nexus. This game is an important part of my gaming-based research and provides a learning portal to both discover trends and engage individuals in learning about how the food-energy-water nexus all fits together, or doesn't.

The Omaha District of the Army Corps of Engineers recently introduced the fully online River Basin Balancer Game to provide "...insight into an inland waterway and a system of reservoirs, which are operated with a goal for serving each of the benefits, flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife, and water quality, for which many USACE reservoirs were authorized and constructed".  This is an excellent addition to the serious gaming world.

What is missing from this portfolio of serious hydrogames? A "serious" game on greywater! Like the existing serious games, it will be important to make the greywater game as realistic as possible. One approach includes (1) incredibly detailed and conflictive game rules that can be interpreted many different ways, (2) a high cost to purchase entry into the "game", (3) lots of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) in order to place a competitor at a disadvantage, and (4) a strategy where the only "winner" are the person(s) who make the rules.

Unfortunately, these games already exist. Sadly, this "gaming situation" is enough to cause a serious water gamer to drink Greywater Watch Gruit.
* * * 
Why do we play this silly game?
~ Prince


  1. When people are usually talking about methods for saving water then this is something different to talk about. Gaming in water is good for many reasons and it can be bad as well. So, if it can be avoided then it should be done but if it is needed then it is hard to decide.

  2. Reallyfantastic post/resource. I'd add -- without paying ANY of these games -- that *serious* students should be able to explain why some rules are chosen but others are possible and how rules (e.g., diffusion rates or property rights) can have dramatic impacts in games/reality.

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