Gaming has always been an integral part of human culture. One of the oldest forms of social interaction and communication, games have enabled civilisations to bond and thrive as communities.
In his book Homo Ludens, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga argued that playing games is older than culture, and it is actually a necessary (yet not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture. For example the Royal Game of Ur, a wooden board game with ornamental, shell plagues, was discovered in the Persian Gulf and dates back nearly 5000 years.
Today, many aspects of our digital world have been gamified; whether it’s accumulating followers on social media, to earning bonus points through online shopping apps. The fact the video games have overtaken the film industry to be worth a staggering $200 billion by 2023 is testament to how our thirst for games continues to grow.
While the primary function of many of these games is entertainment, serious gaming meanwhile has developed with the primary goal of education and learning. Serious gaming facilitates interaction between people by creating a safe environment with rules, structures and goals. Participants are taken out of the everyday context and play a role with the freedom to make decisions which won’t impact real world assets. Ultimately, the goal is to bring learning into practice.
Serious gaming in the context of water
Serious gaming has a lot of potential as a tool to facilitate interaction, communication and learning. For example, raising stakeholder awareness and learning about water supply and demand in a certain region. In the context of water utilities, it can enable organisations to interact internally to better understand their own operations, and externally with their customers and stakeholders, to build understanding and consensus on water uses and allocation.
By using gamification, stakeholders in the water supply chain can get a better understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. Let’s take the area of asset management as an example. The three roles of asset owner, manager and operator are tasked with very different yet connected responsibilities and historically may have struggled to understand each other’s priorities.
Suddenly, an asset owner gets to play out a ‘day in life’ as an asset operator, and vice versa. By taking the perspective of others, players better understand the choices of their colleagues in the real world. This ultimately can support strategic decision-making on, for example, asset maintenance or replacement priorities in the utilities. One example of this includes KWR and the Dutch drinking water utilities which are developing a serious game where asset managers can play out the roles of their colleagues.
Connecting the nexus through Sim4Nexus
Serious gaming has also been used to support integrated, sustainable management of resources. One example is the four-year, Horizon2020-funded Sim4Nexus project that finished in 2020. The project investigated bio-physical and policy interlinkages across five nexus domains: water, land, food, energy, and climate, facilitating learning and design of policies within the nexus.
The game shows the impacts of resource use and relevant policies on the nexus through a model-based analysis that uses real data from selected case studies at regional, national and transboundary scale. A total of 12 case studies were included from 26 partners across Europe, with the ambition to develop serious games in each of the regions.
One of the case studies is the South-West region of England. The project partner, utility South-West Water, developed and now uses the Sim4Nexus serious game to help planning decisions as part of its business plan for the next five years. Elements such as socioeconomic, or cost assessment, were embedded into different decision options in the game.
The future of serious gaming within the water sector
Looking ahead, serious gaming will inevitably become more prominent in the future. Droughts are here to stay and we need to find engaging ways to show all stakeholders that water demands go beyond their own needs. Through a serious game environment, regional water authorities can use predictions of future demand and supply to foster discussion and come to an agreement with stakeholders on how we distribute and manage water most effectively. There is also enormous potential for serious gaming when it comes to circular water solutions, by integrating energy, agriculture, food production and the water sectors.
As water scarcity bites, we must find better ways to work together and use this valuable resource.
Serious gaming is one tool that can help to make everyone understand the interdependencies of our complex world and the priorities of others in a collaborative and safe environment.