Games design students use tech to tackle water security

by Dr Lachlan Guthrie

In academia, the question “how do I get the most impact from my work” is not an easy one. Often we work so hard, producing excellent findings and recommendations that go into reports and publications that are only read by a handful of people but for the most part sit on a shelf gathering dust (and in this digitised aged not even that happens anymore). I remember on the first day of my PhD one of the academics told me “If you’re lucky, four people will read your thesis, yourself, your supervisor, and the two reviewers. If you’re unlucky five will read it, that means that it has been sent to a third reviewer!” What an unsatisfactory end to my six-year journey!

At the IWC we are critically aware of this, and are always keen to try new methods for disseminating our work. We constantly hold webinars and forums, sit on panels, write blogs and newsletters, and bring our cutting-edge research into our capacity development programs. But another medium that we are beginning to explore is the world of serious games.

In every new game you learn, you keep improving your knowledge every time you play. Learning is not done for the sake of learning, it is done to get through the game, to increase your enjoyment. What if we could harness this to teach people about our research? What a powerful tool that would be, opening up our work to a whole new audience.

This is exactly the challenge I recently had the opportunity to pose to a group of Griffith’s game design students. I set them a task to use a game to convey the trade-offs and interdependencies of water security, and the creative responses to that challenge blew me away.

In the first game you were the water manager of three cities in a single catchment. You needed to spend money to build infrastructure that would improve different elements of water security. At the end of each turn, your level of water security would impact the economy and public and ecological health in the catchment. Further, natural disasters would happen every few years with the impact different depending on the levels of water security. The aim was to reach the highest possible level of water security.

The second game was based in a post-apocalyptic world where you controlled a robot. As you complete several mini games, you would find documents and old newspapers. These documents would expose a part of the story about how the city came to ruin, eventually revealing that poor water security was the reason. As you gathered parts of the story, you would learn about different decisions that were made and how all of them combined to create a perfect storm leading to the city’s abandonment.

Playing these games, I was so engaged I needed to pull myself away from them so I could get back to work. I don’t think anyone has ever been that engaged while reading one of my old dusty reports!

We are all excited to continue working with Griffith’s serious games designers to further explore what we can do in this space.

The Serious Games subject at Griffith Film School is led by Dr Tim Marsh and sessional lecturer Sean Fitzpatrick. Dr Marsh is one of the pioneers of ‘serious games’, which blur the line between filmmaking and games design.

“Serious games have the potential to alter behaviour, raise awareness, and affect real change,” he said.

“This is about broadening the audience and providing a deeper experience – these are really games for non-gamers.

“The technological and artistic innovation in serious games and gamification is creating new ways to play, interact and experience.”

Student Ainsley Brooks-Webb was part of the team developing a game to educate school-age students about the challenges of water security.

“It was definitely a challenge – we had to create the game from scratch in just eight weeks,” she said.

“Game-based learning is a growth industry, and the skills we learned on this project will help us break into the games industry.”