Games about frontiers: Building skills to negotiate the politics of water

Aaron Wolf, professor of geosciences at Oregon State University © AW

Virtual and role-playing games build real skills to negotiate the high-stakes politics of water.

By James Workman

In the summer of 2000 at Stockholm Water Week, a half dozen high-ranking panellists sat on the stage discussing the grim statistics of rising demand and falling supplies. In sombre tones, each warned that water wars would ensue unless basin states learned to cooperate.

Among them was Aaron Wolf, professor of geosciences at Oregon State University, who smiled. “Where has the fun around water gone?” he asked. “What happened to the joy that brought us into the sector in the first place?”

The predictable reaction was dismay and anger. Didn’t he realise water had become a grave issue? Didn’t he care how many lives were at stake?

“Over the years, I’ve been involved in war games with security folk over shared waters, used  ‘mock negotiations’ to get riparians talking about sensitive issues, and seen many models of  what people are calling ‘serious gaming’,” says Wolf.

He’s far from alone. Water NGOs have developed games to solve common pool-resource problems like open-access aquifers or irrigation diversions. The Harvard Program Negotiations featured Water on the West Bank as a seven-person game about drilling a new well in the Holy Land. Anton Earle of the Stockholm International Water Institute has used games to build consensus with African river basin commissions while water lawyers Richard Paisley and Gabriel Eckstein have employed role-playing games for their FAO raining on International Watercourses. Other supporters of games are Shafiq Islam and Larry Susskind at Tufts University who use a multi-day role play game as part of water diplomacy and the University of East Anglia’s Mark Zeitoun, who employs both simulation and physical board games, upon which twig dams divert marble water.

“Negotiation skills are no longer just for diplomats or those steeped in business as the new generation of water managers must serve as first-line conflict preventers,” said Todd Jarvis, Director of the OSU Institute for Water and Watersheds. When contacted for this story, Jarvis had just come back from “teaching at UNESCO-IHE in Delft, where of all things, we played board games, online role plays, and face-to-face role plays related to water resources”.

Todd Jarvis, Director of the OSU Institute for Water and Watersheds © TJ
Todd Jarvis, Director of the OSU Institute for Water and Watersheds © TJ

These games take people out of their comfort zone and allow them to inhabit the outlook of others, including antagonists. Customers become utility CEOs. Well owners become state regulators. Palestinian irrigators become Israeli engineers. And vice-versa. Actors engage with each other in a kind of improvisational theatre, a play adapted to local circumstances.

It’s also contagious across time and space. One of Jarvis’s undergraduate students played one of the board games in early April, 2016 and wrote: “The most interesting thing about
this game wasn’t just that it was fun and entertaining to play, but that it had real life lessons about water rights, negotiation, and competition/cooperation in the water game today”.

Today’s student of water conflict becomes tomorrow’s teacher of peaceful resolution.

The art of the water deal: games people play

The Water Message Game: a form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma where mediators ‘shuttle’ between parties wrangling over surface water allocation or groundwater depletion. The game simulates water negotiations at high level such as those between diplomats and state departments. Players: undergraduates or Mekong River Basin water managers.

Santiago: a board game for coalition building and negotiating skills. Each farmer buys plantations at auction, and the winner is the one who acquires, irrigates, unites and connects the most plantations to enlarge holdings and avoid desertification. Bribery can be used to direct canal placement.

The water footprint game: a computer-supported board game for negotiation skills in trading ‘virtual’ water, a concept developed by Stockholm Water Prize laureate J. A. ‘Tony’ Allan. Part  of Oregon State University’s “water MBA” course, The Business of Water.

AquaRepublica: A UNEP software program combines a game layer with water allocation, energy, and food allocation models. Under interactive, realistic virtual environment, players simultaneously juggle the different components of the food-energy-water nexus. The game provides a learning portal to both discover trends and engage individuals in how the nexus fits together.