Playing Ravilla. When the game gets serious
by Jaap Evers
On the first three days of February we played one of our serious games with the students of the Water Management and Governance MSc programme. Since several years we play Ravilla, a transboundary river basin management role play, within the module of Water Economics (although the game is not focusing on water economics specific). Ravilla is one of the many games we play in our curriculum, and to get a bit of an idea on how we use games, here you can find a recording of the symposium “How serious gaming” organized to celebrate the retirement of Jetze Heun, a front runner in serious game development at our institute (and co-developer of the Ravilla game).
Ravilla country – making sense of what happened after year 1
First, why do I think serious games are relevant in studies on water management governance? Let me start with that I consider any game that serves a serious purpose (learning, planning, simulation activity, or decision making) as a serious game; e.i. role play games, simulation games, online single player games, strategic board games, etc. etc. But that’s not the point for this blog post. What I like about role play games (like Ravilla), is how it incorporates human behavior in decision-making or management activities, and how the players struggle with making sense of the knowledge (information) they have and not have (or not see) about their environment (the game system + the other players). It is not our complex excel based simulation model that makes it realistic, but the players themselves. The game forces integration naturally – water economics, water demand, water efficiency, communication. Just like in reality the players have to make decisions based on incomplete information. They don’t know the exact efficiency of the supply network, it is unknown what the exact amount of water is supplied by the water authority, or how much wastewater will be discharged untreated by the city water utility. Let alone all the uncertainties farmers have on the effective rainfall and supplementary irrigation. Somehow this makes making calculations extremely complex for our participants and they tend to develop calculated outcomes with three decimals. – Give me numbers and I will calculate them! – For me, and in this game, water management is absolutely not an exact science and the amount of uncertainties pushes the participants to make quantity assumptions and to guesstimate. It is trial and error: Add a little more for dealing with uncertainties. See what happens after the simulation and then tweak and turn on your simulation inputs (your decisions, raising a bit in the water price, ask for a little more water, etc), rather than to start recalculating from the start. Playing the game shows that developing functional water systems is a step-by-step incremental approach of mistakes and learning. And not all players are learning equally fast, and some will keep stubbornly to their earlier calculations: “they have to be correct, it should work!!! Why isn’t it working!?!”.
Gamina country – discussing what to do next
On day one, in the middle of the learning process to understand the actual game system, I had an interesting discussion with one of our players, resulting in a further discussion on how water management and governance is process of failure, learning, and small steps. She was playing the farmers’ association and she just managed to make a calculation on how much water for irrigation she had to request from the water authority. Next she realized that, to be able to set a water price for the farmers, she needed to know what she would actually pay to the water authority. So, she asked me? I explained her she was at the wrong desk, in the game I represent the national government, or an investment bank (to give loans to the players), but I have no idea on the water tariff of the water authority, I advised her to pay a visit to the water authority. The price was 6.000 Rp/m3. Now she could choose, will I charge the farmers volumetric, or based on their farm size. Now she started that she learned that volumetric pricing of water was better and easier, better because volumetric pricing would result in more efficient water use (influencing farmers’ water demands by the economic incentive of volumetric pricing), and easier because she would just charge the farmers the 6.000 Rp/m3 as the water authority charged her (she was aware that the farmers’ association was not established to make a profit). I said to her: “Well, if you set the price on 6.000 Rp/m3 you are sure to make loss, due to your inefficiencies in the canals.” In between I also questioned her if in practice it would be easier, as volumetric pricing requires water meters, water meter readers, etc. At the same time a farm size based tariff system would require a proper land registration system. She –rightfully- remarked that the latter would not be fair as people who would produce crops with a low water consumption would pay the same for water as people who would grow crops with a high consumption. I asked her if this is different in a water scarce or water abundant environment. We not further discussed this as I walked away to another student.
At least 15 minutes later I came back to her as I was curious on how much she had put the irrigation tariff. She was very busy calculating. As time was near for the players to submit their decisions I told her to just make it 7.000 Rp/m3 and see what happens in the simulation or from an equity perspective make it 8.000 Rp/m3 for the richer farmers in area 1, 7.000 Rp/m3 for the farmers in area 2, and 6.000 Rp/m3 for the poorer farmers in area 3. “But how do I know this is good”, she asked. I said: “you don’t, but you will be able to improve it in the next round.” In the end, it is a game, nobody is harmed (one of the beauties of gaming). “But you do know that you are paying 6 (thousand) to the water authority and that if you would ask 6 from the farmers it would be insufficient, due to water losses in the canals, your losses are between 10 and 20 percent, so your price should be about that much higher.” She asked me how in reality water prices are set. I said I did not know, but that I am sure that in some cases there is very detailed calculations behind it and in other cases it is a matter of trial and error, and incremental changes (like we did). I shared with her that I would be surprised that in some rural irrigation systems where tariff collection happens in cash you would find very detailed prices, as it would be an extreme hassle for the collector to repay everybody with small cash returns, let alone that rather with paying with cash it would be paid with labour (for maintenance).
“But can you just do that?” Referring to setting a price without too much calculations, “would that be fair?” “Yes, no, maybe,” I said. “But is it fair to spend a lot of money and time on setting a price exactly while you can also do it roughly in a second and better in a third round. Plus, you are now calculating your price based on your information from others and what happens with the fairness if at this moment the others are changing prices and affecting you? Is it fair that you, as a farmers’ association, try doing your best in setting a fair price for your farmers, which is actually passing on your costs on them. While you actually are not questioning if the level of the water authority’s price is fair. You are now assuming they calculated it well and fair, but what is constituting the price of the water authority? You now only think about if the farmers can afford the price, and keep being able making a profit. But you cannot say that the ability of the farmers to pay is a measure of fairness of the price. In the end, that I can afford to pay 15 euro for 1 apple, doesn’t make it a fair price. It would be a scam. So, don’t question if the farmers will pay a fair tariff but if you are paying a fair price to the water authority.” Of course the water authority was also struggling with setting a “good” tariff, and after the data was put in the simulation it appeared they made way too much profit for a public organisation. Only when they realized that, they lowered the price, to be more fair, this was then possible to be calculated down to the farmers.
Ravilla and Gamina representatives sign transboundary agreement
This is just one of the many discussion I had with our students while playing. It shows how a game can support integrating various aspects of water governance systems. In a single discussion we connected basic financial administration (cost-benefits) with principles of equity, and coordination and participation. We can do that because integration is natural in real life systems, and serious games we can simulate this, forcing the players to reflect on their own choices in the middle of the decisions of others; (re)action = reaction.
As relatively autonomous decision-makers we are playing incomplete information games (without referring explicit to game theory but as a metaphor to the serious game playing), which results in dealing with uncertainties about our problems, our solutions, and the impact of our combined actions. I would say that this forms the basis for a plea for incremental trial and error changes (and experimentation), and for active learning in water governance systems.
The above makes it difficult to incorporate economic theory in the game. Economic theory as far as presented to the players in the module of Water Economics deals with economic rational actors. Simple theories might fit, when the costs of pollution are higher than the costs of treatment (incentives can be created by charging untreated wastewater) water utilities will start treating their water. The game offers sufficient information for this rational economic analysis. Our players however are motivated by other reasons then economic. I actually think that most of the time they are not even taking the economics (maybe finances is a better word here) into account when deciding on treating their waste flows. Many of them are intrinsically motivated to treat the wastewater, because it’s good. But actually only start with it after both countries had made a transboundary agreement, including to keep the water quality index above 0.8 (the game uses a water quality index indicator, 1 = unpolluted water, 0 = total polluted water). I think this is more about making it explicit and agree with each other that they are going to work on this, rather than that they are living up to a new rule. In the beginning they are just too busy with other things and forget about the water quality, when they remind themselves to do something about it, they are doing it (just like some self organizing sector agreements are quite successful). Nor are the players taking the notion of allocating water to the highest economic value into account, but that is possible because there is no severe water shortage in the system. What the players do, is struggling, muddling through, interact, and deal with the complexity by learning and building upon earlier decisions.
As all years, observing the students playing the game is great in understanding again a little better that water management and governance is people at work, with all their positive attitudes to make the best of it, to understand their environment, their flaws, their intelligence, and their fun and laughter!
If you are interested in serious gaming for water management please check our website, as we will likely organize a summer course on this topic again this year (July 2017).
For some online serious gaming please check the following (but don’t limit yourself in further searching and gaming 😉 :
www.ecogamer.org This website offers links to a wide variety of serious online games, from space engineering to farming simulations.
Alberta Water Quality Awareness Day A game to learn how to do water quality testing
Aqua Republica Sustainable river basin management
Darfur is dying An awareness game developed in 2009 to raise awareness on the challenges of fetching water for people living in refugee camps in the Darfur region in Sudan
The Fish Game on sustainable management of natural resources.