November 2009, Vol. 21, No.11


Waterline - Game Simulates Health of Chesapeake Bay Watershed Based on Players Decisions

It may not have caused eager teenagers to line up outside local electronics stores, but the first run of the University of Virginia (UVA; Charlottesville) Bay Game was no small feat. Professors and students tested their UVA-made computer simulation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in classes last April.

The simulation, sponsored by the UVA Office of the Vice President for Research, will be used for research, education, and outreach to both the public and policy-makers, according to its Web site.

“We also see the game as a laboratory for research on policy options, including unconventional policy options that might combine regulation with private-sector innovation,” said Jeffrey Plank, associate vice president for research at the university. Plank managed game development.

During the weeklong test, 144 undergraduate students took on various roles, including farmers, land developers, watermen, policy-makers, and concerned citizens. The simulations consisted of 10 rounds, each covering a 2-year period, in which players made decisions based on their roles and saw outcomes of other players’ choices, such as unemployment rates and the health of the Chesapeake, which was measured by the size of the ”dead zone” created from nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agriculture and development.

The game also divided the bay into seven smaller watersheds, as well as northern and southern regions.

The results of the test run were, in a word, optimistic. According to a summary of the project by the Bay Game Team, students with farming roles generally moved from high-yield techniques toward organic practices, and land developers also made sustainable choices. This decreased nutrient levels in the bay, enabling watermen to enjoy a bountiful harvest of crabs.

However, members of the Bay Game Team noted that lack of actual business experience as farmers and developers gave students an “unbridled enthusiasm to ‘do the right thing’” instead of earn a living.

The program took 6 months to build under the combined efforts of faculty and student representatives from seven departments at the university. “Each of these faculty members knows a piece of the bay watershed, and a project to demonstrate the power of pooling expertise was very attractive,” Plank said.

“The interaction among and between the different groups — the faculty group, the graduate class, the undergraduate students — strengthened the game, and we believe it added a new dimension to the teaching and learning process,” Plank noted.

UVA brought in Chris Soderquist, a software development consultant, to help with the project. Soderquist previously helped author a similar modeling game of the Florida Everglades.

The team demonstrated the game for the public on April 22, Earth Day. This summer, the team made several changes to the game based on the test results, including changing the “dashboard” to make information more accessible to the players. The team recruited new faculty to contribute and also is looking to update the models based on recent regulatory changes, such as U.S. President Barack Obama’s executive order for Chesapeake Bay cleanup, according to Plank.

The game will be used in several UVA classes during the academic year. Eventually, Plank said, the game should be available for elementary through high school student use. “We’re keen to improve it and then disseminate it broadly,” he said.

More information can be found on the game’s Web site,