Blog Post

Reflections on playing my first environmental simulation game

Reflections on playing my first environmental simulation game

Do we need more environmental/ecological play? (Besides spending time outdoors)?



Last week in Krakow, Poland I got a chance to participate in Lords of the Valley, a role-playing simulation board game developed by the Centre for Systems Solutions (CRS).
The setting is a river valley, and players take the roles of farmers, water authorities, local authorities, a bank and an environmental NGO.

For the day I got a welcome break from my own data collection, and I got to enter this microworld in which time and space are compressed—an entire river valley fits into one room, the water level and dike height represented by legos, and 10 years go by in the span of about 3 hours.  And I get to be a different person, a hydro-engineer on the local water board.

My job was to contribute to an effective long-term water management plan for the valley, working with all the other players whose own decisions affected the context in which we worked.  The game is supposed to create a “hybrid learning environment”: 

1) learning the ‘content’ – in this case about different floodplain management regimes

2) learning about ‘relational social processes’ – how to interact and collaborate with other players

The game uses a quantitative system dynamics model, combining environmental variables with decisions made by the players to produce a social-ecological system with many feedback loops.  Besides the game itself, the learning environment I found myself immersed in contained a few additional layers:

  • We were being observed by an interdisciplinary team of researchers who furiously scribbled down notes as we acted out our roles
  • The debriefing session that happened after the game where we got to discuss what happened during the game, what we got out of it, and hear from the organizers about the design
  • My own “meta” observations of the facilitators, the players, and of myself as a player/learner/educator 

These many layers made it a complex, unpredictable and fascinating experience.

As I walked home from the event, I realized it had been a while since I’d been so absorbed in something for an entire day in the way the game absorbed me.  During the game and debriefing, I learned in much more intense way (getting emotionally involved) than I would have from a traditional class on water management.

For all the talking I do about creating an active classroom, using technology, AND, for having a degree in environmental sciences, this is the first time I had ever played a game like this. Why is that the case?  How widespread are simulation/role-play games in (environmental) curriculum?  Should they be more available and widespread?

A benefit of combining an environmental systems model with a role-playing game is that the experience can help people learn about complex ecological systems and how various actors’ individual and collective activities can shape them over the short and long term.  This might especially be helpful for environmental issues that for many remain invisible or abstract, like climate change.

More generally, a benefit of games as pedagogical tools is that they can create a safer space to take risks.   They may allow for a shift in power dynamics that may not be possible in “reality.”  Such group simulation/role-playing games are valuable for teaching interpersonal skills.  The skills we definitely need if we’re going to tackle complex environmental issues. 

The game de-briefing illuminated for many of us some of our individual and collective blind spots when it comes to communication.  If we had the opportunity to play again, we may have better regulated our relational, social interactions.  For example, during the game there were 2 ‘community meetings’ during which we could have more skillfully drawn out every player’s ideas.

An article* write up about the game confirms that it’s the relational part that’s hardest.  Most participants end up focusing more narrowly on the technical, problem-solving part—the river management piece.  This reminds me of something a colleague working in environmental policy once told me when we were discussing the physical/human divide in the discipline of geography:  the physical part is the easy part, the social part is hard.

So, do we need more environmental/ecological play?

To what extent are simulation/role-play games accepted as a legitimate pedagogical method in social-environmental  higher ed, beyond military, business or medical contexts?  What would be required for simulation games to be taken up/more seriously as a vital aspect of 21st century environmental curriculum and just plain civic education?

  • Is availability/affordability a main barrier?  Backlash from educators/students?
  • Are games better played “in person,” and in groups, containing both a content dimension and a relational dimension?
  • Does a game need to have a “winner”?  Ours didn’t, since each player/role set her own goals, and those goals also shifted throughout the game.
  • Is a post-game debriefing session necessary to enhance the pedagogical benefits of game-playing?  I found the debriefing session to be extremely beneficial for processing the experience.  One thing to note is that we stayed in our “roles” during the de-brief.  This allowed us to have some distance between our own perceived “mistakes” in the game, to handle others’ comments better, and to be able to constructively criticize other players.  It seems that skilled facilitation is essential to a successful playing-learning experience.


*Stefanska, Magnuszewski et al.  2011. "A Gaming Exercise to Explore Problem-Solving versus Relational Activities for River Floodplain Management". Environmental Policy and Governance. 21 (6): 454-471.








No comments