• Curt Gervich

That moment you realize you're the subject of a satirical story in The Onion.

The fake news mag, The Onion, recently published a droll story under the headline: Explanation of Board Game Rules Peppered with Reassurances that it will be Fun. This was the moment I realized I was the main character in a satirical news story.

You see, I love serious gaming. Serious games are designed to educate users about social ills like poverty and economic inequality. Serious games are built on common game platforms-- they may be board games, role plays, card games, or digital and online games, among other varieties,-- and they use the principles of gaming to raise awareness about serious issues. They also give participants opportunities to experiment with novel solutions to the grand challenges they address.

I’ve created serious games like Toxic Release!,

an environmental governance and conflict simulation based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory and I’m currently teaching a class for the Redcay Honors Program at SUNY Plattsburgh titled “Game Design for Wicked Problems.” I teach a similar class at the Middlebury School of the Environment.

For me, serious games can be a good way to give students the chance at experiential education when true field experiences are difficult to obtain. For example, I can’t let my students practice their conflict management skills in the middle of an active community debates about hazardous waste or contaminated drinking water. “I’m just learning” and “practice makes perfect” are simply not acceptable excuses for failed dialogues between angry community members and lawsuit averse industry managers. Well-crafted games and simulations however, can offer training grounds for developing conflict management and negotiation skills so that environmental leaders are prepared when they find themselves in real-life deliberations.

At their core, the games I use in classes represent complex social-ecological systems. They are generally collaborative in nature, and they incorporate concepts from environmental science and policy, ecology and economics, to name a few of the fields these games draw upon. Prior to using a game in the classroom I assign theory readings that describe the complexities of problems represented in the game-world. For example, before playing Toxic Release! I ask students to read about the Environmental Protection Agency’s “community right to know” program and explore different theories about community environmental advocacy as offered by Si Kahn in his book Creative Community Organizing: A guide for rabble-rousers, activists and quiet lovers of justice. I follow each game with case studies that highlight the relevance and urgency of the wicked problems presented in the game scenarios. With Toxic Release!, for example, we use National Public Radio's Poisoned Places series and the EPA’s EJ Screen. EJ Screen is an environmental justice and hazardous waste mapping tool that students use to explore environmental risks in their hometowns. Generally speaking, the games I use are excellent tools for learning objectives related to systems thinking; data analysis and evidence-based decision-making; collaborative learning; conflict management; leadership and negotiation.

I’m always on the lookout for new serious games (and some not-so-serious games) that offer opportunities to teach about wicked environmental problems. Here’s what I’m playing now and how I’m using them in classes:

Mercury Sim

Creator: Leah Stokes; Dr. Noelle Selin; Dr. Lawrence E. Susskind

For Purchase: Harvard Negotiation Project. $3.00/person.

Participants in Mercury Sim adopt the roles of international negotiators at a United Nation’s rulemaking summit. In this game negotiators are brought together to discuss new science related to mercury contamination and to develop a new set of regulations for reducing global mercury emissions. The sim is produced by the Harvard Negotiation Project. Like most of the sims produced by HNP, it focuses on the negotiation skills and strategies outlined in Ury’s classics Getting to Yes and Getting Past No, as well as the work of Larry Susskind and others. The Harvard Negotiation Project produces dozens of sims in the environmental arena, but I like this one because it is more scientifically demanding. Many HNP sims allow participants to fulfill their roles by referring abstractly to concepts of environmental science without actually interpreting scientific data. The Mercury Sim, however, demands participants do their homework and be able to communicate the scientific rationale behind their positions. The data included in the game is real, and as a result this entire project has a stronger dose of realism and urgency than other HNP role plays. Additionally, this sim includes a facilitator's role, which allows students to practice and discuss the processes of guiding collaborative decision-making processes. In addition to practicing negotiation skills, this sim opens space for discussions about environmental justice; inequality among the global north and south; health risk assessment; and common but differentiated responsibility. Mercury Sim fits well into courses about environmental policy, justice and political ecology.


Creator: Timber and Bolt.

For Purchase: $25.00

Marshall McLuhan is right: “there are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.” Spaceteam take place on a broken down rocket with the participant-astronauts hurtling through space toward eminent death. It’s a creative setting for a card game. In order to get the ship running again the astronauts must fix their equipment, which is accomplished by solving a series of puzzles. Malfunction cards dictate which parts of the spacecraft must be fixed, as well as the proper tools for fixing them. But where are the tools? The crew must work as a team to sort the tools, figure out which are needed for each puzzle and put them to use… before the ship’s oxygen runs out (the game includes a five minute timer). Sound easy? Anomaly cards pop-up at the worst times, distracting players from their jobs and throwing the team’s

progress off course. At it’s core Spaceteam is about communication, listening and organization--all key skills for

collaborative problem solving. When I first pitch Spaceteam to my students they question its relevance to environmental problem solving and sustainability. Then we listen to Carl Sagan narrate Pale Blue Dot and explore the Spaceship Earth website. These activities remove the veil from the analogy of the game: the spaceship is Earth, the crew is humanity. I stretch the lessons of the game to a conversation about social and collaborative learning for sustainability. This dialogue is a segue for reading and discussing single and double

loop learning, and developing strategies for reaching the evasive third loop. All that from a five minute card game.

Fishbanks, LTD.

Creator: Dennis Meadows

For Purchase: MIT Sloan, $200.00

There is no better way to teach the principles of Garrett Hardin’s classic, Tragedy of the Commons, than through Fishbanks. Participants operate fishing companies that compete for fish in a shared marine fishery. Game play takes place in rounds, which represent annual business cycles and the seasonal changes of the marine ecosystem. Each year the teams make decisions about how and where they will fish. Those decisions are entered into a computer model which provides annual reports about how each team fared. As companies buy boats to increase their catch they begin to impact the regeneration rate of the fish, and subsequently the overall fish population. Tensions rise as fish stocks decline. Competition among fishing companies becomes fierce. The game includes a board, fishing boats, instructions and the software program that generates details of each company’s earnings and population dynamics of the fish. Fishbanks renders the concepts of systems thinking, common pool resources, and mechanisms for averting the tragedy of the commons beautifully explicit. In classes, Fishbanks can be so powerful that it becomes a central-point of discussion and learning over many weeks. Students never tire of the game’s lessons and enjoy connecting it to other learning experiences. I’ve been using this game in the college classroom and with community groups for 20 years and it never seems dated. There is an online version on the Fishbanks website, however I believe the real teaching power of the simulation is in it’s ability to nurture high-impact social learning through face-to-face play. Fishbanks holds teaching power for many courses, including environment and society, environmental policy and management, and environmental economics.

Sheriff of Nottingham

Creator: Arcane Wonders

For Purchase: Amazon, $22.99.

Sheriff of Nottingham is a tabletop board game about black market trafficking. Players attempt to sneak contraband into Nottingham Market by hiding and disguising their items, and lying about them to the Sheriff. At first glance it seems a frivolous game (the illustrations are light and fun), but when accompanied by readings from Wildlife Watch (National Geographic’s series on wildlife trafficking), Raab and Milward’s “Dark Networks as Problems” (2003, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory), and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, it takes on real impact. In Nottingham, players assume the roles of black market merchants attempting to exploit the weaknesses of the Sheriff’s security apparatus in order to sneak silk, pepper, mead and crossbows into the village. For the sneaky traffickers, the risks are high but the rewards are higher. For the participant playing the sheriff, determining who to search becomes a complicated task. Limited resources and penalties make it impossible to search everyone who enters Nottingham Square, but knowing whom to trust is impossible. Because the game takes place in Nottingham Market it offers an opportunity to talk about the economics that drive supply and demand for black market wildlife and animal parts (or other black market environmental goods like gemstones, protected timber, corals, nuclear waste, CFC’s, etc.). The merchant roles allow participants to experience the economics that encourage wildlife poaching while the role of the Sheriff illustrates the complications wildlife and customs agents face when cracking down on trafficking networks. Lies, deception and bribes all enter the equation, and as a result it may not be in the Sheriff’s best interest to stop all contraband items from passing into Nottingham Square. Sheriff of Nottingham works well for environmental policy courses and others that address large scale environment-society challenges. Follow up readings from the Environmental Investigation Agency and National Geographic’s 4 part documentary on the ivory trade provide excellent follow-up activities for a module on environmental black markets.



SUNY Plattsburgh

Center for Earth & Environmental Science

Hudson Hall

Plattsburgh, NY 12901



T: 518-564-4030


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