Aqua Republica: Water Strategems

By Chengzi Chew 9 May, 2013

Play games to learn and build capacity in integrated water resources management with Aqua Republica

Aqua Republica focuses on water resources management for food, energy, people & businesses
Allows players to learn local issues in depth with real-life data with insight to managing water

If we take a big picture view of the world in terms of water, there is a lot of focus on how we could better use our water resources and definitely no shortage of opinions on the importance of water and how we should use it sustainably. In fact, according to the 2012 UN Water Status Report on the Application of Integrated Approaches to Water Resources Management, 82% of countries are implementing changes to their water laws for a more integrated approach for the use of water resources. That is great news but what is appalling to me is that according to the same report, only 35% of countries have sufficient training programs for integrated water resources management. That is a massive gap between the will and the capacity to solve water problems.

If we do not know how best to use water resources in an integrated way, how could we make the right changes to our water laws? It is obvious that we need to narrow this gap but how do we that? Capacity building programs and training programs have been going on for many years and education is a continuous process, nevertheless we need to find a way to make it more efficient and scalable if we are to make serious progress.

Learning by playing

My professor once told me that when we encounter a problem, it is always wise to go back to the fundamentals. That valuable advice leads me to a quote from Confucius, a Chinese philosopher who once said “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” The keywords are doing and understanding, but how could we do or practice integrated water resources management?

Imagine a virtual world that mimics the complexity of the real world, in terms of water environments. A virtual world which allows us to test out development plans, test out new regulations, visualizes the potential impacts, make mistakes and as a result learn through personal experience. This is the concept of serious gaming.

Serious gaming is not a new concept; serious games have been used since the early 1900s to educate and train people. Nowadays serious games are used in military training, health-care training, and safety training and so on, so why not in water? Serious games that are well designed yield “meaningful play”, a condition very much like learning. According to Salen and Zimmerman, meaningful play is when the relationships between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernible and integrated in the larger context of the game. Serious games also shift the focus of control in learning from the teacher to the player and create an environment that stimulates learning, often resulting in an increase in self-learning and knowledge retention.

It seems like serious games could be a good solution to make capacity building more effective. I feel that having an online serious game could furthermore help scale up capacity building. One of the most straightforward ways of using serious games is to allow anyone to go online at any time, access the game, play it and learn about integrated water resources management. Aqua Republica is then born.

Aqua Republica

Aqua Republica is a DHI and UNEP-DHI Centre project that focuses on the development and promotion of a not-for-profit serious game in collaboration with a number of partners. Our aim is to promote sustainable water resources management by sharing knowledge, raising awareness and building capacity in some of the most critical issues in water resources management through serious gaming. This is achieved through a computer-generated virtual environment called, “Aqua Republica” where participants can experience making decisions in managing a catchment in an interactive and engaging way, and in doing so learn about the connectivity and importance of water resources, as well as the need for careful management. While the world of Aqua Republica is fictitious, the challenges of sustainably managing a limited supply of water resources in a situation of growing demand between multiple users and uses are very much based on real life scenarios.

The Aqua Republica game is designed to be a powerful teaching tool, which uses a reward system to encourage learning and desirable behaviour. It is designed to engage people and increase both their knowledge and their interest in water-related issues. The ambition is to continuously develop Aqua Republica in multiple versions which have both broad and very specific appeal to a wide range of people and contexts.

Screenshot of Aqua Republica’s interface

Game play and applications

There are many ways of using Aqua Republica, such as a stand-alone tool to promote integrated water resources management or using it as a supplement to existing training programs or workshops. Depending on the uses, there are also different ways to play the game.

For a stand-alone tool, one example is that you are in charge of all the developments of a part of a river basin with multiple stakeholders. Your area initially contains a river, a small urban area that includes some businesses and light industry, a few farms and a small power station. Your aim is to create prosperous living conditions for the population in a healthy and sustainably managed environment. As time moves on, drivers such as population growth, climate change and trans-boundary developments, force you to adapt to survive and thrive. For example, you may need to decide to clear a forest area to open up land to expand industry or an upstream neighbor uses too much water and you need to start to negotiate and react. However, developments are costly, take time to implement, use water and impact the environment. How would you balance all the developmental needs while taking care of the environment?

Other uses of the game are only limited by your imagination; you can play it alone or with a group of people, assign different people to play different roles and the list goes on.

The game mechanics also revolve around real science. Scientific computational models (MIKE BASIN from DHI) are used in real-time to generate a realistic game environment especially in terms of allocation of water resources and hydrology. Imagine having a version of the game which uses real-life water data, real-life spatial geographical data and real-life scenarios of water and environment challenges in, for example the Yangtze River Basin, players play to learn to how to tackle those challenges and while doing that learn about the principles of integrated water management. Using that game in training and workshops will also allow you to learn the local issues in much greater depth.

Partnerships and benefits

Our partnership model is simple. Partners typically have an interest in developing a specific version for a specific use, also called a unique version. This specific version can involve changing different geographical layouts, different water demands and catchment data as well as different learning goals. The unique version is based on the core version of Aqua Republica which forms the basic game platform.

For the players, they stand to gain insights to best practices in sustainable water management and gain knowledge by playing. For the organizations, they can obtain a direct feedback on players’ progress with scores and achievements, share most important messages and provide a cost effective, efficient and flexible learning environment. Using Aqua Republica also brings about greater engagement in workshops and training courses through friendly competitions and more active discussions.

Are you game to join us?

Chengzi Chew
Author: Chengzi Chew
Chengzi runs the serious gaming unit in DHI, an international not-for-profit research and consulting company specialising in water environments. He focuses on using serious games together with scientific numerical models, real life data and scenarios to solve water problems. Chengzi started his career in the consulting business, providing solutions in the coastal and marine sector and designing software solutions for the management of water data. He holds a Master of Science in Hydro-Informatics and Water Management from the Erasmus Mundus Master Program, EuroAquae.
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