Serious gaming: Helping stakeholders address community problems

By Nagesh Kolagani

Nagesh Kolagani (biography)

Citizens are increasingly coming together to solve problems that affect their communities. Participatory modeling is a method that helps them to share their implicit and explicit knowledge of these problems with each other and to plan and implement mutually acceptable and sustainable solutions.

While using this method, stakeholders need to understand large amounts of information relating to these problems. Various interactive visualization tools are being developed for this purpose. One such tool is ‘serious gaming’ which combines technologies from the video game industry – mystery, appealing graphics, etc., – with a purpose other than pure entertainment, a serious, problem driven, educational purpose.

Such gamification is an opportunity for participatory modeling approaches to embed models and simulations of complex processes into games and to attract the stakeholders. These game-like simulation tools help stakeholders to deal with uncertainties intrinsic to many models by trying out various scenarios. For example, they can choose different futures based on their desirability and not necessarily their likelihood and then work backwards to identify ways that might lead to them. This enhances their understanding of various dynamics and the trade-offs involved.

Games can also be used to bring together diverse groups of stakeholders who ‘play out’ their intentions and interact with each other promoting sharing of knowledge among them. They can also be used to incorporate indigenous knowledge into models and teach decision-making skills to the stakeholders.

Several advanced technologies, such as stereo glasses, 3D and immersive environments, models linked with virtual geographic environments, and mobile applications, are being incorporated in game development. Apart from use of such technologies, design and development of games requires creativity and involves several stages, such as conceptualizing characters, their visual design, linking models and testing prototypes, before eventually deploying.

Despite its immense potential as a visualization platform for stakeholders, especially for those who are ‘ordinary’ citizens, gaming is yet to become a mainstream tool in most participatory modeling exercises. For this to happen requires tools to simplify game development. Towards this goal, several gaming conferences, such as the ‘serious games conference’, are held every year.

Even simple games can be powerful. For example, we were able to successfully use a simple water mining game to make high school children in villages understand that the main cause of their ground water crisis was not so much due to decrease in rainfall as to over-exploitation of ground water by the villagers. Before they started playing the game, the children mapped the wells and farms in their village using a mobile GIS (Geographic Information System) application and overlaid these maps on a satellite image of their village. As part of the game, each of them started ‘digging new wells’ or ‘deepening existing wells’ based on their perceptions and economic background. They quickly realized that they were all sharing a very limited ground water resource and that over-exploiting it in the short run meant they would have much less of it in the long run, especially when they needed it most eg., in summer for meeting even their drinking water needs.

If you have any such examples to share, we would be very pleased to learn from them and maybe use them in our setting.

Biography: Nagesh Kolagani is a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Chittoor. He teaches IT systems and IT workshop courses and carries out research projects on participatory GIS, modeling & simulation, gamification and crowdsourcing. Prior to that, he was a Principal Scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras developing and demonstrating simplified open source mobile and web GIS software for use by school children and farmers in villages. He spent about eleven years in a village practicing and promoting organic farming, traditional medicine and afforestation, and exploring use of participatory GIS and modeling in these activities. He also worked for seven years in the software industry both in USA and India. He is a member of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in February 2016 of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Action-Oriented Team Science through Syntheses of Practices and Theories funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

6 thoughts on “Serious gaming: Helping stakeholders address community problems”

  1. Great example of how these games can help people see the implications of their actions and consider different responses. I took part in an exercise like this linked to sustainable development, through my involvement in the Local Agenda 21 group in St Helens (UK) in the 1990s – I have no idea what the game was called though!

    The participants were split into different groups, equating to the type of departments found within local authorities, and each round we had to make decisions on how to allocate our budget. We could see the impact of our decisions at the end of each round, and after a few rounds began to realise that our decisions were far from optimal. The ‘growth’ team were attracting so many residents and new businesses to the area that our infrastructure couldn’t cope and both pollution levels and resident satisfaction became worse.

    Unsurprisingly we didn’t do well in the game. Participants who took part on other days realised early on that it was best to try to pool budgets, and to discuss plans with other groups, to make sure that decisions balanced out – slower, but much more effective in the long run.

  2. Very well written post. I am happy to know about WAG and ISAGA. I am exploring the area of agent based simulations and this will help me.

  3. Hello Nagesh,
    Thank you for sharing this thought on games.
    There is a game kit called Wat-A-Game: a methodological kit on catchment-area management, developed by colleagues of IRSTEA in France. WAG is a simple method and tools kit to represent, design and simulate the management of catchment areas with stakeholders in order to address community problems. Designed and improved since 2004, WAG has been used over 50 times in operational and teaching contexts in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Central America (We are currently using it to address drought problems in Costa Rica). The basic version can be played without a computer, where the dynamics are visible and the conflicts of use are physically represented. A computerized version enables to design and run simulations more quickly. More information is available there:
    There is also the International Simulation and Gaming Association organizing the ISAGA conferences, with 40 years of cooperation between the Journal S&G (Simulation & Gaming) and ISAGA:

    • Dear Pierre,
      Thanks for pointing out. Coincidentally, I have recently reviewed a paper on ‘Wat-A-Game’ (WAG) for a session we are organizing at iEMSs (International Modelling and Software Society) 2016 conference in Toulouse, France during July 10-14 (see In their presentation, they will be discussing their experiences of using WAG open source toolkit for participatory simulation of water management in more than 30 locations over last 8 years. They will also be discussing the resulting models, difficulties in their calibration, etc.

  4. Very thought provoking and interesting approach. Taking a well understood social phenomenon – gaming – and using it for highlighting causes like groundwater depletion is very innovative indeed.


Leave a Reply to Pierre BOMMELCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: