How game-playing created a sea change for one bay’s stakeholders

Green enterprises are constantly challenging the conventional wisdom that environmental regulation impedes profitability, but a group of innovators are now turning the challenge into a game. The Global Water Games, a collaborative initiative of the University of Virginia and Azure Worldwide, co-founded by Philippe Cousteau and UVA alumnus Andrew Snowhite, has developed a computer-based simulation to demonstrate the interrelation of human activity and natural processes. Taking the roles of key stakeholders, game players make decisions based on their livelihoods or regulatory authority, experiencing real-time the economic and environmental impacts of their actions.

“The game format provides a way for citizens to engage with these issues as critical decision makers,” said Jeffrey Plank, Ph.D., associate vice president for research of UVA. “Initially, players rely on themselves, but then they learn that only through collaboration do solutions arise. This game is a powerful change agent for multi-sector stakeholder engagement. This template is the first of its kind.”

Environmental regulations have been controversial since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring put industry in an uproar 50 years ago, and the debate continues. From banning plastic bags to subsidizing renewable energy, proposed regulations can be vague in terms of costs and benefits, and misunderstanding leads to gridlock. In certain cases, environmental health benefits for all parties are clearer, such as when Chesapeake Bay was polluted by excess nitrogen and phosphorus, causing the fishing industry to suffer. Twenty years of real-world cleanup make the Chesapeake Bay rich subject matter for Global Water Games’ first computer-based prototype simulation, UVA Bay Game.

The game presents a microcosm of the issue multi-sector groups face everywhere: How do you get stakeholders with seemingly divergent interests to find common ground? By enabling participants to visualize environmental issues such as nonpoint source pollution as economic threats — and giving them the opportunity to walk in each other’s shoes — the technology has the capacity to turn adversaries into allies. The ensuing dialogue can revolutionize policy-making and environmental education, leading to rapid development of win-win solutions to problems that have long divided regulators and business. “What has taken us 20 years of trying to get through to people,” said one game player, “can now be demonstrated in two hours.”

A Watershed Moment

“I remember being with my grandfather, Jacques Yves Cousteau, in New York City,” recalled Philippe Cousteau, Jr. during a press conference at SXSW ECO in Austin, Texas. “He was 79 and I was 9. I was playing a Game Boy, the one sold with that huge add-on magnifying glass. He turned to me and said, ‘What about that Game Boy?’ I lit up. He saw it as a tool not just for entertainment, but also for education.” The world famous explorer and scientist recognized the opportunity to leverage the power of games to help people understand the commitment to the environment. Philippe Cousteau — social entrepreneur, CNN correspondent, and explorer in his own right — is carrying on his grandfather’s legacy by using his own platform to commercialize the new game-based conservation technology.

“Water is the defining crisis of the 21st century, and this game is an interesting and fun way to help people understand the complexity,” said Cousteau. “When people first play the game, they focus on an individualized pursuit. When I saw them play over a period of time, I noticed they moved out of their bubble. By the third and fourth session, there was this ‘aha’ moment when they began to reach out to each other. After the sixth or seventh try, they started to see themselves as working together to solve the problem.” (For more on gaming and the environment from Philippe Cousteau, listen to the podcast.)

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