In April of 2008 Wired magazine published an article by Matthew Power called “Peak Water: Aquifers and Rivers Are Running Dry”. It’s an excellent overview of the global demand VS supply of water and how three areas, Arizona, London, and Australia, are all coping with drought. I’ve lived in Arizona for about two years now, and witnessed the non-stop expansion of housing and retail in all directions of the Phoenix Metro area. Perhaps the one upside of the economic crisis is the constraining effect is has on real estate development, which may allow policy makers time to address the sustainability aspects of water resources for that area.
One of the hurdles to changing water consumption and influencing legislation lies in public perception of water availability and individual behavior in terms of water allocation. How does one make an informed decision when choosing between a golf course, farm, or housing development? Scientists that specialize in analyzing historical precipitation rates use vast amounts of data to create sophisticated models that estimate future flood or drought scenarios, yet the average citizen lacks the ability to engage in a dialog at this level. One remedy for this comes from a blend of social science and gaming. Yesterday I had the pleasure of testing an interactive water resource allocation game developed by the WIDCORP Group and Deakin University of Australia. While still in beta form, the game succeeds in presenting a complex issue in terms understandable by the target audience – older generations of rural Australians that are living in areas severely affected by drought.
Three elements – Footy (land designated for recreation, like football), Flow (natural water systems like lakes), and Fields (farming and livestock) are represented as gauges in a vehicle, an environment familiar to the game participants. When water is available, the gauges can be turned up to represent the distribution of water, but when water is scarce, participants must choose based on their values where water should be allocated. These choices are reflected in the visuals that appear in the driver’s view. The final component of the game gives a glimpse of sophisticated predictions based on historical data. The intended result is to demonstrate how certain lifestyle choices impact water resources, and open a dialog about the impact these choices have.
I can appreciate the work that goes in to an application like this, having participated in the creation of another water resource simulation at Arizona State University. Phoenix draws its water from three main sources, the Salt River Project, Central Arizona Project, and underground reservoirs. The distribution of this water goes to residential, farming, industry, and recreation. In the event of severe drought, sacrifices to some if not all of these consumers has to be made. This is a difficult decision that needs public input yet is complex and burdened by bureaucracy. The idea behind our system was to mediate this complexity with an interactive game that simulated cause and effect of water allocation. Multiple players could aid or adversely affect based on their decisions.
Here's a video link of the system in action:http://blip.tv/file/862446
To conclude, as frustrating as complex issues like water resource allocation might seem, the use of games to distill the essential information can be a great way of engaging groups that would otherwise be absent from discussions and decisions.