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.)

When I got my chance to demo the game, about 40 of us were seated at workstations with our laptops. Philippe and several UVA professors walked around answering questions about the relatively user-friendly prototype of the simulation game. They also filled us in on facts about the Chesapeake, a watershed extending over six states and 64,000 square miles. Playing the game, we began to see how everything we do on the land—including the use of automobiles, fertilizers, pesticides, toilets, sewage, water and electricity—affects the streams, rivers and the bay. It was our job to balance economic with environmental interests to maintain bay health, on which we all depended.

Representing the 27 million residents in the watershed, each player is assigned a stakeholder role. Farmers make decisions about whether to leave land fallow or apply cover crops to their fields, for instance, and land developers choose between regular and sustainable development. I was assigned “Bay Regulator,” and I confess it was a power trip. With the stroke of a key, I could regulate the fishing season without restraint. (The shorter the dredging season, the better the environmental health of the bay; the longer the season, the more days the fishermen could fish).

Initially, greed and power ran amok, as agriculturalists tried to max out their profits and regulators remained rigid. Before long, we could see the results of our decisions on the main screen. The overall health of the bay began to decline steeply due to runoff from cattle farms, which ended up affecting the crab yield and ultimately the economy. Going into it, I admit that my interest was in protecting the bay first, industry second. But sitting across from a “cattle rancher” stakeholder, I got another point of view. “They want me to make $500,000 in improvements,” he explained, “but the incentive is only $600.” Suddenly, it became very clear how regulation could become uneven and counterproductive.

By the fourth try, players started getting up and walking across the room to sit together, working toward a common goal: clean up the bay or risk further economic and environmental damage. All over the room, participants discussed the merits and drawbacks of their actions, possible incentives, and suggestions for achieving consensus. In under two hours, we managed to restore the bay back to health, walking away wiser, more experienced, and I daresay, as friends.

What’s Next for Global Water Games?

At SXSW ECO, the team announced a partnership with The Nature Conservancy to develop another iteration of the game called the Texas Water Game. “Water is a fixed asset,” said Nature Conservancy Texas State Director Laura Huffman. “The amount of water hasn’t changed, but we’re moving from 7 billion to 9 billion people in the space of a few decades. Texas is a great laboratory for water conservation because we have 25 million people now and we’re projected to add at least 10 million more by 2050. We are going to have to learn to solve other people’s problems. The game shows the benefits of working together and the drawbacks of not working together.”

Since the launch of the Global Water Games, research collected from players suggests new directions for research in behavior change and policy development. The pioneering, interdisciplinary team continues to introduce the technology to classrooms and multi-sector stakeholder settings all over the world. While the subject matter is about conservation, these innovative, participatory simulations are also turning out to be phenomenal tools for teaching systems-based thinking. And that’s a good thing, because as much as we humans are changing our environment, we’re going to need to change our thinking even more.

Photo of Chesapeake Blue Crab by Christopher Parypa via Shutterstock.