18 Apr 2008

Water Games?

RH asks:
Do you know of any games (preferably board games, but I'm also interested in card games or video games) that center on water and embody at least some important aspect of economics in their gameplay?
Interestingly, there are a number of "games" on the web that purport to teach about the environment, trade, etc. Unfortunately, most of them look boring ("good for you" games a bureaucrat would like). Here are some water games I found:

You are poor and want to collect aid money from the EU (really!) to fix your water supply. (from an NGO)

You are a drop of water. What happens in your "cycle"? (from NASA)

Those suck. Let's step back and consider what we want in a game (and what RH is asking for): What is it about economics and water that we want to see in a game? Assume that water is scarce. If economics is the science of scarcity, then a game about water (or similar resource) should help people manage scarcity, either alone, against others, within a group, or against groups.

Many games use points, money, etc. to keep score of who is winning. Points and moeny are scarce, but these games are zero-sum, i.e., take more money from Vegas than Vegas takes from you. Zero sum games are not about conserving resources and tradeoffs as much as beating the house.

So you want a game that rewards patience and good management of the resource -- trading consumption now for consumption later or investment now to reap bigger rewards later from an individual perspective. Stock market games are not really good for learning about the environment because it's more fun to take big risks, win or lose, and then do another game. If you cannot die in the game, it's not giving you a good lesson in economics. (And they call it the dismal science :)

Group games have far more potential. Dismissing games that plunder others (capture the flag, football, etc.), group cooperation games can be a useful way of building teamwork that will conserve and manage resources. I use the "tragedy of the commons" game to teach students about problems of open access (everyone can take, nobody can stop anyone from taking).

Here are the basic rules:
  1. Two periods of timed length. "Endowment" spread on the table in front of standing players, e.g., fish or water = candy bars or pennies
  2. Rules: No talking. Whatever is left at the end of period one is doubled for period two
  3. Let players harvest during period one. Usually, they wipe out the resource in period one and there is no period two.
  4. Replay with variations (no hands allowed, teams, property rights (territory for each player/team)) and then see how much is left at the end of period two.
This game give almost anyone a fast and clear lesson about resources and institutions. It can be used with 6 year olds or graduate students. (The no talk rule is to stop the "clever" ones from telling everyone to keep their hands in their pockets.) The lesson learned can be turned into more education about managing resources, which happens to involve a lot of economics.

Great question. I will be posting more responses to your questions and ideas over the next few days. Keep 'em coming.

Please comment if you have your own ideas or know of games that help people learn about resources and economics.

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