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Serious Gaming in Water

“Where has the fun around water gone? What happened to the joy that brought us into the sector in the first place?” asks Aaron Wolf, professor of Geosciences at Oregon State University (Workman, 2016). Water is arguably humankind’s most precious resource, consequently bringing conflict in regards to how we should use it. With arising critical issues such as climate change and urbanization in areas with untapped water resources, water scarcity and environmental stress have become inevitable.

For example, one of the most contested and controversial water conflicts in the United States that also has application worldwide was ultimately resolved with thanks in part to conflict resolution and negotiation tactics much like those used in the world of serious gaming. The overarching issue surrounding conflict of the Edwards Aquifer was the uncertainty in how to protect the habitat of endangered species in the lower springs of the aquifer while simultaneously maintaining sufficient water for pumpers across the aquifer (Donahue, 2013). Because conflict over the Edwards Aquifer was irresolute for several years, the future sustainability of the resource became dependent upon negotiation between the many stakeholders. In this case, intervention was a means for negotiation, as the conflict inspired a simulation game for negotiations focusing on groundwater resources (Zerrener and Gulley, 2016).

How can water managers and mediators mitigate conflict over transboundary water resources regardless of the geographic scale? We believe the answer is social learning through serious gaming. Simulation games have increased in popularity in educational settings over the last several decades. The purpose of a simulation game is to combine the elements of a simulation, imitation of a real-life event or activity, and a game, with players, rules, and cooperation (Rusca et al., 2012; Craven et al., 2017). By role-playing as different stakeholders for a shared resource, water users and managers are encouraged to discuss their conflicting positions to come up with a mutual agreement in regards to the use of the resource. These simulation games act as a type of mediation for stakeholders and may help to broaden their scope of understanding. According to Medema et al. (2016), social learning is increasingly becoming the normative goal for water governance as well as the key to addressing transboundary water conflicts. The essence of social learning using serious gaming lies in doubts, commitments, and negotiation (Flamini, 2017).

Along with these issues comes the divide between political and hydrological boundaries of shared water resources. To mitigate conflict and properly manage shared water resources, all stakeholders involved must fully participate and communicate. Serious gaming has proved successful in enhancing skills in negotiations in response to water conflict. It helps bridge the knowledge gap between policy and science and has proved to be successful in bringing scientists and stakeholders in one negotiation table (Craven et al., 2017). Through simulations and role-play exercises, stakeholders are directly involved in decision-making for best-practice water management and learn the importance of negotiating. Mediation through gaming may help to alleviate the petty attitude between parties involved in a water conflict, and provide an outlet to come to an agreement that is best for the people and the resource.

Gaming and Conflict Negotiation

Games are common currency among the many different international academic programs in water policy and management. These games are primarily designed to increase the engagement of participants, break down barriers of communication, develop and practice mediation and negotiation skills and overall create a better learning environment (Evers, 2017). These simulation training tools help to create a free space allowing to escape from real world restrictions (Craven et al., 2017). We found it interesting to learn from Benjamin (2015) about the predominant negotiative approaches and their associated game playing strategies.

While the stated goal of all games is educating about sustainable management of water, each game forces the participants to think about water in many different forms, ranging from the differences in valuing surface water and groundwater, the packaging of water in the form of goods, the benefits from water than can be traded, and the apparent “nexus” of water with food, energy, money, and the environment.

Out of the over 40 water-related games that we discovered during our research (and we are certain there are many games we missed) we played 12 over the course of the past few years alongside fellow students and colleagues. As outlined in Table 1, we played these games in professional workshops focusing on water conflict resolution, water diplomacy, water security, and in college courses in water management, environmental conflict resolution, and business. Our initial research goals were to explore if negotiations differed between conflicts and management of surface water and groundwater. We also explored the relationship between a player’s background and social behaviors that may have shaped the outcomes of their gaming experience.

Some of the games we played are stand-alone role-playing exercises requiring active participation of a couple of participants (see Dueling Expert and Water Message games, Table 1) or many participants (see Indopotamia, Pandal, and Sandus Basin games, Table 1). Some role-plays are paired with board games (see the River Basin Game), while others are paired with computer software such as spreadsheets to facilitate real-time processing of negotiated actions (see Globalization of Water Management – also know as the Water Footprint Game – and Tragedy of the Groundwater Commons games, Table 1). Conversely, some games are strictly board games (Santiago and California Water Crisis games, Table 1) and or solitary digital and web-based games (Aqua Republica and River Balancer games, Table 1). 

When games were played as part of a typical ten-week college water resources management course, we used a stepwise approach to integrate games in building negotiation and communication skills, as elaborated further below. Our approach was to play multiple games that stressed different scales of water conflict, different approaches to negotiation—because few, if any, of the participants have formal training in conflict management, resolution, or negotiations—followed by reflexive learning.

The importance of one-on-one negotiation is demonstrated using the Water Message Game where messages are sent to other parties using shuttle mediation. While limited personal negotiation is permitted during different rounds, the interaction is by a lone representative of each group. We experimented with comparing and contrasting water message games for surface water and groundwater by creating a groundwater variation of the water message game directed toward negotiating the change in water levels in a non-renewable aquifer. While the data distribution is less than ideal and limited to just a couple of games played in undergraduate- and graduate-level college courses, as well as professional workshops, we learned that competition for groundwater is much more intense than surface water. We anticipate additional research by water professionals on this strong reaction to groundwater over surface water.

Scaling up and getting personal is the next step where the Dueling Expert game introduces the participants to the knotty problem that not all water science is friendly.  By design, the game reinforces the notion that the smaller the scale of conflict, the more intense the conflict can be. The game also introduces joint fact-finding and the process of scientific mediation as described by Moore et al. (2015) for building competencies in professional communication that come in handy when working through larger scale, multi-stakeholder role-plays such as Indopotamia, the Sandus Basin and the Pandal Basin. Groundwater was not much of a factor in these games. 

We have found that board games are especially useful in settings where shyness or language skills preclude active skills-building in negotiations, given their interactive platform. These types of games allow players to talk to each other as opposed to other types of games such as role plays or web-based games, which are also valuable but have some limitations. Although role plays allow participants to talk, the participants are restricted to follow role descriptions and thus limits successful implementation of potential joint solutions.

The River Basin Game described by Lankford et al. (2004) is an interesting board game that integrates “the race to the best location” and introduces dam placement and construction as a single riparian. We played this game as part of the Water Security training at the University of East Anglia and also observed play at the Sixth World Water Forum. As players with training in groundwater, we recognized that water, in the form of marbles on the board, flows downhill towards regional hydrologic sinks such as the bottom of the board represented by wetlands. We considered the factors of dam placement and timing secondary to location because the marbles that infiltrated or “leaked” from the dams accumulated in these areas, resulting in water wealth for those riparian zones located downhill from the dams. Apparently a groundwater version of the River Basin Game is under development by the University of East Anglia.

Santiago is a surface water allocation game that deals with farms and fleeting fidelities, while also fiddling with bribery. It is a huge hit with undergraduate, graduate, and law students who enjoy learning that bribery, otherwise referred to as “grease payments” is legal in some contexts.  The connection to groundwater in this game is the imaginary spring serving as the source of water for the canals. Players select the spring location at the start of the game, and farm crops in the available plots surrounding the spring. We have not observed any instances in playing Santiago where spring placement dramatically changes the outcome of the negotiations in the game.

The groundwater counterpart to Santiago is the California Water Crisis Game board game. 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 of 2014 where groundwater mining is the norm, and “Looking Ahead” to the future of California with climate change and thus an influx of climate refugees. As groundwater is “depleted”, player reputations change the outcome of the rate of depletion. Reputations are enhanced by “investing” in water-related capital such as reservoirs, ecosystems, water treatment plants, as well as social capital such as schools, hospitals, and transportation. 

With the board games, we experimented with individuals serving as the board facilitator. The board facilitator served as the “one-stop shop” for financial replenishment during each round of play, doling out goods and services purchased by players, and interpreters of game rules when questions arose. In an early review of this paper, David Zetland of Leiden University (personal communication) and designer of the All-in-Auctions for Water game (Zetland, 2012) offered that the facilitators 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 and reality. The skills the California Water Crisis Game facilitators learned could be considered comparable to a water professional serving in a capacity similar to a local, state, or federal water regulator.

Computer-assisted board games come in many forms. The Water Footprint Game is described as a role-play game, but it is much more. The game is supported by a spreadsheet, four game boards (one for each of the four countries), water and commodity notes, role descriptions and 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 negotiation training tool because the participants learn that water can be packaged and traded, and not necessarily just as bottled water.

We used the Water Footprint Game as part of a graduate student research project where we explored the connection between a player’s background and how management decisions and game outcomes are reached. In our research, each player has five demographic characters: age; gender; educational background; highest degree; and country of origin. Some players (American students only) had a sixth character (the U.S. state they resided).

From the result of a statistical correlation analysis for two representative samples, we concluded that some of these characteristics had a stronger influence than others on each of the six game outcomes. To illustrate, the national water footprint game outcome was strongly influenced by the U.S. state variable, while both gender and educational background were the most significant variables that relate to the food supply game outcome.

In short, individual characteristics – age, gender, educational background and highest degree –are relevant variables that marked the player’s game outcomes. A player’s performance was inextricably linked to the game results (Taha, 2017).

The groundwater counterpart is the Tragedy of the Commons Groundwater Game developed by the U.N. International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC) in Delft, The Netherlands. The game integrates one of the fundamental equations used by hydrogeologists, the Theis Equation, into the spreadsheet and is linked to economics with easy to understand graphics. The Tragedy of the Groundwater Commons game is a good companion to a traditional hydrogeology class as it visualizes interfering hydraulic cones of depression associated with pumping wells and surface water capture. While we have not played this game as much as the others detailed in this paper, we observed that the players monitor the hydraulic connection of their wells to a nearby lake much more than monitoring their impact on neighboring wells.

Digital and web-based serious games are an important addition to water negotiations training. Online competencies for water conflicts are important for the many countries that are just beginning the organization of alternative dispute resolution systems. It was discovered that early integration of online negotiation methods into a national dispute resolution framework is important as the process is predicted to be the dominant path toward resolution for all but the most complex and high-value disputes (Jarvis, 2014).

Aqua Republica, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) software program combines a game layer with surface water allocation, energy, and food allocation models (Chew et al., 2015). The game forces a participant to negotiate with themselves using the principles of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). 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 our 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. What many participants learn is that Integrated Water Resources Management and thinking in terms of creating nexuses are easier said than done.

In comparing the role-play games and board games with the computer-based games, the digital world is somewhat solitary and requires taking care of business “at home”.  Enhancing an individual’s personal reputation “at home” is a tacitly implied goal, given the player is entrusted with the well-being of a community in the same way as a government official may be, as opposed to focusing on enhancing competencies in professional communication and building relationships with neighbors.

Reflection on Lessons Learned

Skills-building and learning by playing the games was generally followed by written debriefings or reflection essays where participants describe the game, their strategies, and interpret their experience by reporting the emotions experienced during the game based on what transpired following their actions, and finally by evaluating what they learned personally, interpersonally, and within the bigger picture of the course in water management or environmental conflict-resolution. Powers and Kirkpatrick (2012) refer to this model of reflection as the Description, Interpretation, Evaluation (DIE) Model.

In all of the games we play with participants, a written reflection essay is required that not only addresses the individual game, but also connects the experience to other games played during a workshop or course. Powers and Kirkpatrick (2012) indicate such written reflections have several advantages:

·       It forces students to organize their thoughts and to integrate their game experience with their life experience.

·       It gives shy students the opportunity to express their feelings and thoughts.

·       It allows teachers to hear the feelings and thoughts of all students.

·       It provides private, critical feedback to the teacher, leading to improved teaching.

Once students play water games, they quickly see the value of applying serious gaming to water resources management and often times develop their as part of their coursework (Evans, 2016).


Based on our research and related experience, we have found that serious gaming is a major tool when it comes to understanding conflict-resolution and negotiation over water resources. Educating through real-life examples helps students and major stakeholders alike practice different behaviors in conflict while in a supportive learning environment that promotes best-practice water management. Medema et al. (2016) go as far to say that serious gaming may be seen as a form of intervention that fosters collaboration in watershed management. Evers (2017) indicates serious gaming “forms the basis for a plea for incremental trial and error changes (and experimentation), and for active learning in water governance systems”. However, negotiations expert Lawrence Susskind (2012) points out that role-play simulations can only be used to intervene in real-life negotiations if they are crafted in a realistic way, presented by an instructor who can walk students through a reflection of results, include both general and confidential instructions so participants are more likely to follow the script, and if the simulations are sought out by the real-life participants who want the opportunity to consider all options.

The aspect of social learning in gaming brings common ground between diverse players and stakeholders, who may otherwise be unable to cooperate with each other. Complex, multi-stakeholder conflicts require methodologies that aim to guide and support water managers in their capacity to deal with water-related disputes in order to come to a harmonious agreement. Through serious gaming, we can begin to find the fun around water once again.


The research was conducted over a period of four years using funding from the Water Resources Research Act 104(b) program provided to Oregon State University from the US Geological Survey. The authors thank Adam Shapiro, Environmental Specialist with the City of Oceanside, California for initiating our research on serious gaming in water resources and Frank Van Weert, formerly with the International Groundwater Research Centre (IGRAC), for providing a copy of the Tragedy of the Commons groundwater game.


Benjamin, R. 2015. Game Playing in Negotiation: Part 2, An Inventory of Strategies and Devices. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Craven, J., Angarita, H., Perez, G. C., & Vasquez, D. 2017. Development and testing of a river basin management simulation game for integrated management of the Magdalena-Cauca river basin. Environmental Modelling & Software, 90, 78-88. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Chew, C., G.J. Lloyd and E. Knudsen. 2015. Capacity Building in Water with Serious Games. In: Subconscious Learning via Games and Social Media, Gaming Media and Social Effects, O. Sourina et al. (eds.). Springer Science+Business Media, Singapore, pp. 27-43. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Donahue, J.M. 2013. Anthropological Insights into Stakeholder Participation in Water Management of the Edwards Aquifer in Texas. In: The Social Life of Water, J.R. Wagner (Ed.). Bergahn Books, New York, pp. 278-297.

Evans, V. 2016. Reflections on MSc Water Security and International Development game assignment. Water Security Research Centre Newsletter, Summer 2016. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Evers, E. 2017. Playing Ravilla: When the game gets serious. Flows – The scientific blog of the Water Governance Chair Group at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Flamini, A.C. 2017. Water Utility Management is (not) a game: Consensus in Uncertainty. . Flows – The scientific blog of the Water Governance Chair Group at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. Available at Accessed March 23, 2018.

Hoekstra, A. Y. 2012. Computer-supported games and role plays in teaching water management, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 16: 2985–2994. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Isaak, M.T. 2012. Tragedy of the Commons Game. Arizona Water Resource Newsletter. Winter 2012. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Islam, S., and L.E. Susskind. 2012. Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks. RFF Press, Abingdon, Oxon, UK.

Jarvis, W.T. 2014. Contesting Hidden Waters: Conflict Resolution for Groundwater and Aquifers. Earthscan, Abingdon, Oxon, UK.

Lankford, B., C. Sokile, D. Yawson, H. Levite, H. Sally. 2004. The River Basin Game: A role-playing board game for initiating discussions on visions and strategies of water allocation. Paper for Water Resource Management For Local Development Workshop: Aventura, Loskopdam. South Africa. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Medema, W., A. Furber, J. Adamowski, Q. Zhou and I. Mayer. 2016. Exploring the Potential Impact of Serious Games on Social Learning and Stakeholder Collaborations for Transboundary Watershed Management of the St. Lawrence River Basin. Water 8(5): 1-24. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.  

Moore, C., T. Jarvis, and A. Wentworth. 2015. Scientific Mediation. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.  

Powers, R.B, and K. Kirkpatrick. 2012. Playing With Conflict: Teaching Conflict Resolution Through Simulations and Games. Simulation & Gaming 44(1): 51–72. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.  

Rusca, M., J. Heun, and K. Schwartz. 2012. Water Management Simulation Games and the Construction of Knowledge. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 16: 2749-2757. DOI: 10.5194/hess-16-2749-2012. Available at . Accessed May 17, 2017.

Susskind, L. 2012. Can Games Really Change the Course of History? The Consensus Building Approach. Blog available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Taha, F.A.M. 2017. Globalization of Water Resources: Examining Social Learning Using Serious Gaming. MS Thesis. Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon.

WaterNet, CCR, ISRI, Catalie, UNESCO-IHE Delft and UZ for UNESCO. 2003. Conflict Prevention and Cooperation in International Water Resource Handouts. Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential Publication Series. No. 27. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.   

Watson, J.E. 2015. Beyond Cooperation: Environmental Justice in Transboundary Water Management. Dissertation, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Wolf, A.T. 2010. Sharing Water, Sharing Benefits: Working Towards Effective Transboundary Water Resources Management – A Graduate/Professional Skills-Building Workbook. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Paris, France. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Workman, J. 2016. Games about frontiers: Building skills to negotiate the politics of water. The Source Magazine. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Zerrener, A and Gulley, R. 2016. Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration, Collaborative Governance Initiative, Syracuse University. Teaching notes available at Accessed May 17, 2017.

Zetland, D. 2012. All-in-Auctions for Water. PERC Research Paper No. 12/15. Available at Accessed May 17, 2017.


Table 1. Summary of Water Games reviewed by Authors

Game Name Type of Game Surface Water/ Groundwater No. of Players Scenario More Information
River Basin Game Board game & Role Play Surface water Up to 30 “Catchment” and “wetland” are table-top board of wood or cardboard. Marbles simulate water. Sticks simulate diversions. Holes in board simulate irrigation. Played at Water Security Workshop at the University of East Anglia.
(Lankford et al. 2004)
Video of game:
Indopotamia Role Play Surface water/Minor
Eight groups and mediator Eight stakeholder group representatives convened for development strategies using Water Diplomacy Framework. Played at Water Diplomacy Workshop at Tufts University.
(Islam and Susskind 2012)
Basin map and the confidential instructions are available for purchase from the Clearinghouse of the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School;
Sandus River Basin Role Play Surface water/Minor
and mediator
Basin proposals are based on geography and water sector using Four Worlds Framework. Played at Water Conflict Management and Transformation Natural Resources Leadership Academy at Oregon State University. 
(Wolf 2010)
Pandal River Basin Role Play Surface water Five
and mediator
Basin proposals are based on geography and water sector using Environmental Justice framework. Played at Effective negotiation for international transboundary waters: A skills building course for the Mekong River Commission at the Mekong River Commission, Laos, and undergraduate courses in International Water Resources Management at Oregon State University
(Watson 2015)
Dueling Experts Role Play Groundwater Two parties
and mediator
Groundwater protection boundaries dispute using Scientific Mediation. Played at University of Oregon Law School, Environmental Conflict Resolution Course and UNESCO-IHE, Delft, The Netherlands.
(Jarvis 2014)
Water Message Game Role Play Surface or Groundwater Two or more groups and mediator Water allocation dispute using Prisoner’s Dilemma framework. Played at Water Conflict Management and Transformation Natural Resources Leadership Academy, and undergraduate courses in International Water Resources Management at Oregon State University. 
(WaterNet et al. 2003)
Globalization of Water Management Role Play
Computer Assisted
Surface Water Four or more parties and facilitator Interactive learning about water footprint and virtual water trade water while maintaining the environment. Played at graduate course in The Business of Water, undergraduate course in International Water Resources Management at Oregon State University, and used for graduate research at University for Peace, Costa Rica.
(Hoekstra 2012)
Tragedy of the Groundwater Commons Role Play
Computer Assisted

Ten to 30 parties and facilitator Interactive learning about capture of groundwater and surface water, collective action, externalities. Played at undergraduate course in Hydrogeology at Oregon State University and workshop at the University of Arizona.

(Isaak, 2012)

Santiago Board Game Surface Water Irrigation using Groundwater Three to five parties; optional facilitator Landowners must bid for plantations and canals. Bribery helps canal placement to build plantations. Played at University of Oregon Law School, Environmental Conflict Resolution Course, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, The Netherlands, and undergraduate course in International Water Resources Management at Oregon State University.
Developed by Claudia Hely and Roman Pelek. Available for purchase.
California Water Crisis Board Game Groundwater Ideally three parties, two player option; optional facilitator Find solutions to California’s drought based on past, present, and future scenarios. Three regions have different resources, weaknesses, and strategies. Best reputation wins. Developed by Alfred Twu with Firstcultural Games.
Available for purchase at

River Balancer Game Online
Surface Water Player against computer Manage an inland waterway and a system of reservoirs. Developed by The Omaha District of the Army Corps of Engineers
Available at
Aqua Republica Online Game Surface Water Player against computer Learn about the food-energy-water nexus in real time. Decisions involve developing urban infrastructure and agriculture based on water supply of the local river. Played in graduate course in Optimization in Water Resources Engineering at Oregon State University. Developed by DHI and UNEP-DHI Centre
(Chew et al., 2015)




Fatima Taha

Fatima A.M. Taha is a graduate student at Oregon State University in the joint program “Water Cooperation and Diplomacy”. The program takes place in three universities; IHE Delft in the Netherlands, OSU in USA and University for Peace in Costa Rica (UPEACE). She is a certified civil engineer and appointed… MORE >


Shelby Hockaday

Shelby Hockaday graduated in 2015 with a BS in Earth Sciences: Geography from Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR. She served as an undergraduate research assistant with the Institute for Water & Watersheds before graduating. She worked for the American Red Cross as an AmeriCorps in Seattle, WA before accepting a… MORE >


Todd Jarvis

Todd Jarvis is a Certified Mediator and faculty member at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon. MORE >

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