European research rolls the dice on ‘serious games’

Author: Fintan BURKE

Why some researchers are using ‘serious games’ to engage stakeholders in complicated decisions.

It hasn’t rained in months. The cost of running the local sewage plant is draining finances dry. The population has almost doubled in the past few years, and an upcoming tourist season will add another 20% of visitors. And to top it all off, you’re the mayor. What do you do?

Researchers in Europe have been warning for years about the stress Europe’s water systems are under. This year’s severe drought throughout southern Europe (the worst in 500 years by some estimates) drove the point home for towns and villages throughout the continent.

“Water is the key medium through which climate change is showing its impact,” says Prof. Dragan Savic, CEO of the KW Research Institute in the Netherlands and Professor of Hydroinformatics at the University of Exeter in the UK. “It’s either too much water [creating] flooding or too little water [ creating] droughts.”

Savic is part of the NextGen project, which is finding ways to bring circular economy principles and technological innovation to Europe’s water sector. This involves developing new ways to reuse the water that’s available – for example, filtering household wastewater to be reused in agriculture. “We need to manage both supply and demand,” says Savic. “Usually people focus on the supply only. But the amount of water is finite and we need to manage it better.”

Communicating the complicated choices to be made to decision-makers and affected locals can be difficult – policy briefs and PowerPoint presentations may not engage people for long enough for them to understand the nuanced effects of different decisions.

Instead, Savic and his colleagues in the project took a different route and developed an online simulator game alongside the University of Exeter.“I have realised quite some time ago that using gaming technology can bring very complex situations and projects closer to stakeholders,” says Savic.

In the game, players take the role of a mayor dealing with a water crisis. Players can then adjust different parameters to see their effects on society and the environment. For example, allowing all households to use a garden sprinkler will drive up water demand and the downstream pollution of the local river. This allows players to see and measure the effects of different water technologies on the town’s water system.

“The idea is through that kind of relaxed, entertaining environment to bring those complex concepts [to life],” says Savic. Behind the game is a complex simulation model developed by the NextGen project based on their years of research on water systems. Savic says the game helps to convey the nuances of this model easier. “Quite often in very complex situations you get counterintuitive results. If you get it through the game, it’s easier to accept,” he says.

Using games for education more than entertainment (called ‘serious games’) has been a growing trend in research for some time. As far back as 2013 researchers have described how some European countries (the Netherlands and Germany) have the most supportive policies for researchers to use board games in their work. They even inspired an entire EU-funded project dedicated to studying how serious games affect the players’ behaviour on the given topic.

More recent studies have shown that serious games have become popular among European researchers when engaging stakeholders on topics like climate change adaption, energy governance, eco-industrial parks and cyberbullying. Another study showed that players can transfer the decision-making they used when playing the game and apply it to their own work.

This is a benefit that Savic knows well. He and colleagues previously worked with a village in the UK that experienced flooding twice in a year; once just before Christmas, and once afterwards. They initially thought the water company was not providing enough drainage capacity, or that barrier downstream of the river was preventing the water to flow into the sea.

“They believed the water company should have done something,” says Savic. When his colleagues introduced them to their game, the locals were able to test another idea – that agricultural practices in the land above their valley could have caused water to flow much faster than it would have previously. This later proved to be true.

Savic believes this shows the potential of serious games to help people better understand their environment. “We actually showed statistically how people’s opinions change about the situation and what the potential options are for solving the problem – purely by playing the game,” he said.

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