Serious games: five questions and four examples

Playfully learning for professionals in the water sector

‘Are we going to play a little game? Weren’t we going to meet about setting up that new sustainable neighbourhood?’ Serious games are also being used more and more in the water sector; for instance, to let people playfully gain experience in and develop their understanding of issues that they deal with professionally. KWR expert Henk-Jan van Alphen uses five questions and four examples to expand on this.

What’s the difference between a serious game and an ordinary game?

‘In a serious game the players want to achieve a pre-set objective, sometimes individually and in competition, and sometimes as a group and in collaboration. In the process, they need to respect the rules of the game and constrain their behaviour accordingly. To this extent, a serious game looks a lot like an ‘ordinary’ game like Risk, Catan or a computer game. ‘Serious’ refers to the game’s learning objective, such as gaining experience, understanding practical questions, or better comprehending each other’s circumstances and arguments. All within the safe environment of a game, in which your actions do not have any real consequences, so you can try out all kinds of options.’

Example 1: AquaLudens for stakeholder water availability and freshwater provision

‘In the AquaLudens project we are going to set up a serious game for all stakeholders in the water cycle. The game should provide an understanding about the significance of water, how the freshwater provision works, and the impact of different choices on water availability. In area planning processes – in which a variety of stakeholders puzzle out how an area should be organised – we can then use this game to provide insight, accessibly and interactively, into the expected water demand and supply under different scenarios. The stakeholders can then work together on solutions for the regional freshwater provision.’

But is it fun to play such a serious game?

‘Playing serious games produces lots of laughs. The participants playfully learn about a real subject, and do so in a truly natural way: as a child, you learned practically all of your skills while playing. Because the game form allows you to play completely different roles, you can say and do things that you would normally probably avoid. And that can certainly be extremely funny.’

Alphen Henk Jan van

KWR expert Henk-Jan van Alphen uses five questions and four examples to expand on Serious Gaming.

Example 2: Strategic decision-making on integrated asset management in drinking water utilities

‘For the Joint Research Programme with the water utilities, we are studying how serious games can help the utilities in their strategic decision-making on integrated asset management – the management of all operational assets, from abstraction and production installations to the distribution network. We have developed a game in which asset managers (the people in the utility who use and manage one of more of these operational assets) and the asset owners (those who often own several operational assets, usually MT members) need to work together to realise their objectives, just like they do in practice. A problematic element in this collaboration is frequently the difference between the strategic and the tactical perspectives. Strategic managers (typically the asset owners) focus on the long term and the relationship with external stakeholders, including the shareholders. On this basis they formulate the strategic objectives, which are often qualitative in nature. Asset managers, in turn, operate with a medium-term perspective and need to convert these strategic objectives into concrete actions, which frequently have to be quantified in terms of risk, performance and cost. By playing a serious game together, those playing the different roles can learn to better comprehend each other’s basic assumptions and language.’

What should I bear in mind if I want to use a serious game?

‘The most important thing in a serious game is that it have a clear objective. Not only for the players, but actually also for the person who makes the game. Making a serious game is not an objective in itself, it is a means of achieving a specific end. There can be a strong temptation to get the game to resemble reality as much as possible. But this does not usually favour the game’s playability, and there are all kinds of details that can deflect from the actual objective. It is all about reproducing the essence of a particular situation as concisely as possible. What do you want to achieve? And how do you translate that into a game mechanism?

‘Serious games come in a wide variety of forms. The interaction between players with (partially) conflicting goals often lies at their centre. There are also games that actually focus on collaboration, communication and knowledge sharing. Sometimes these call for a game leader, who knows the game and can help the participants learn how to play. A game’s design can be very simple, in the shape of a board game. But complex digital games are also created, with one or several underlying models.’

Example 3: Sustainable integrated water cycles for new residential districts

In exploratory research KWR has developed a serious game with the aim of supporting co-creation processes in the development of sustainable integrated water cycles for new residential districts. It allows municipalities, provinces, Water Authorities, drinking water utilities and project developers to explore different design options for sustainable water cycles. This will clarify and underpin the possible choices for the development of sustainable districts. The project combines KWR’s knowledge of the integrated water cycle, sustainable concepts for residential districts and co-creation, with the development of new expertise and experience in the area of (digital) serious gaming. This game is played digitally and helps participants make specific choices very insightfully.’

What are the obstacles to the development and use of serious games?

‘Not everybody sees serious games as a serious way of working towards a goal. People are also often concerned that the playing can be very time consuming, without producing real results. This can elicit some reluctance in the people who are asked to join the game and by their entourage. In practice, the opposite is often actually true. Serious games can be a very effective means of revealing the essence of an issue.’

What use are the developments in the area of serious games for the water sector?

‘A serious game with a clear objective can help in the exploration of complicated problems, foster mutual understanding and bring stakeholders closer together. This manner of out-of-the-box thinking can be very refreshing and generate new insights.’

Example 4: Planning for the Water Transition

‘Take the three-year Joint Research Programme/WiCE project, ‘Serious game to support Water Transition planning’, as an example. All stakeholders – whether or not they have specialised water knowledge – will, during the course of the game, gain a clear understanding of the significance of water, of how the freshwater provision works, and of the impact of choices on water availability.

‘The serious game makes it possible to engage, together with regional stakeholders, in easily accessible discussions about the challenges of a sustainable water system and possible solutions. This builds support for measures and system choices. The serious game is being structured in such a manner that it can be applied to different cases. In this project it was decided to first develop an application for the case of the Groningen Water Transition, to illustrate the kinds of questions for which the serious game can be used.’