Teams of students from seven institutions of higher learning in Virginia and Maryland played the University of Virginia Bay Game on Friday, Earth Day.
The Bay Game is an interactive computer simulation representing the seven major watersheds of the Chesapeake Bay and the stakeholders in the six-state bay region. It demonstrates to players how their actions and decisions as role players – farmers, policymakers, land developers, watermen – affect the short- and long-term health of the bay, as well as their personal finances and the regional economy.
The tool provides a scientifically sound and true-to-life method to demonstrate the importance of political and civic collaboration in conservation efforts.
The seven participating institutions, each representing a different bay watershed, were U.Va., Hampton University, Old Dominion University, George Mason University, the College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech and the U.S. Naval Academy. (Virginia Commonwealth University also will participate at a later date.) Each team played at their home institutions and interacted via the Internet, a videoconferencing system, Twitter and Facebook. The 19-member U.Va. team played in the Architecture School's Insight Lab in Campbell Hall.
Virginia Sea Grant provided financial support for the event.
One U.Va. player, Saman Ehsan, a first-year student from McLean, previously played the Bay Game in commerce professor Mark White's "Systems Thinking and Sustainable Business" class. She was impressed with how the game demonstrates the interconnectedness of human and natural factors affecting the bay's health.
"A player can clearly see how each decision affects other results and decisions," she said, "including the unintended consequences."
Ehsan said she chose to play in the Earth Day event because it was exciting to play with six other schools.
"You really need a lot of players to play this game right," she said, "and I thought it was cool that we could pull all these schools together."
"The U.Va. Bay Game is a powerful tool that demonstrates how human behaviors and activities are closely connected to the health of the environment and our overall long-term well-being," U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said. "This collaborative project among several colleges and universities on Earth Day is a step toward greater understanding of the ecological challenges facing our future leaders throughout the region and beyond."
Extending over six states and the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is the largest estuary in the United States. It is affected daily by a broad range of individuals, communities and industries within its boundaries, many with conflicting interests. A major factor affecting the future of the bay is population growth in its 64,000- square-mile watershed. Population in the six-state region, currently at 17.4 million, is projected to grow to 20.3 million in the next two decades.
"Competing uses often are in conflict, which results in the great difficulties of managing this resource," said David E. Smith, an environmental science professor in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences.
Smith and U.Va. colleagues in a variety of scientific, economic, education and public policy disciplines designed the game as a dynamic teaching and learning tool to simulate the complex socio-ecological system that is the Chesapeake Bay and the human populations living within its watersheds. The novelty of the approach is that it couples the social and natural sciences into a robust illustration of the effects of emergent behavior with every play of the game.
"The Bay Game is simply the best watershed management tool that exists," said Howard Ernst, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of three notable books on the political challenges of protecting the Chesapeake Bay, whose class played the game during the Earth Day event. "The game demands that students make complex ethical decisions."
"Our intention in producing this unique multi-institutional game play is to establish inter-institutional collaboration on big issues as a normal activity," said Jeffrey Plank, U.Va. associate vice president for research. He added that the participating institutions are planning to form a user consortium to test the U.Va. Bay Game in a wide variety of courses and class formats, and then invite other institutions from throughout the six-state Chesapeake Bay region to join.
"The Bay Game provides a novel learning environment to explore interdisciplinary problem-solving – social, political, economic, scientific – within the context of an important regional issue: the health of the Chesapeake Bay," said Richard C. Zimmerman, professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, whose students also played on Earth Day. "Its emphasis on cooperative learning stems from the basic premise of the game – nobody wins unless everybody wins."
Smith noted, "The goal is to find that sweet spot between creating the conditions needed for a healthy environment and for maintaining strong economies."
The U.Va. Office of the Vice President for Research coordinates development of the game and is partnering with Azure Worldwide, a strategic environmental design, development and marketing company with projects including green site design/planning, ecotourism and new media. Azure Worldwide's co-founders are environmentalist and social entrepreneur Philippe Cousteau and Andrew Snowhite, a U.Va. environmental science alumnus. The partners hope to develop K-12 versions of the U.Va. Bay Game and possibly versions for other watersheds in the U.S. and around the world.
"One of the greatest features of the game is that its circumstances change over time, forcing students to continue to learn and adapt," Ernst said. "It is adaptive learning that ultimately allows students to succeed at the game and that will ultimately allow resource managers to succeed in restoring the bay."
Ammy George, an environmental science master's student who first played the game last fall in Smith's Chesapeake Bay class, said it can be an important tool to allow citizens and leaders to see how their decisions will affect the Chesapeake Bay.
"Our everyday life choices, down to the kind of produce we select – locally organic or conventionally farmed – will have an impact on the water quality downstream," she said.
In a recent article Smith wrote for the Virginia News Letter, a publication of U.Va.'s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service devoted to Virginia public policy issues, he noted that if the region's residents care about the bay, they must recognize that "there is a time when our social systems, including our socio-ecological systems, will need to grow better. The way things were done in the past is no longer relevant and we need to think smarter."
The first step in this process, he said, is to realize just how complex and interrelated the social and environmental system of the bay is.
"Open minds and communication trump partisan bickering," he wrote.
About the U.Va. Bay Game
The game is a large-scale simulation (sim/game) that combines elements of a highly integrated model of the Chesapeake Bay watershed using systems dynamics modeling techniques and an interactive game interface.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed encompasses parts of six states – Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – as well as Washington, D.C. It is represented as a collection of seven smaller watershed regions and the bay itself, divided into north and south regions. The seven watersheds are the Susquehanna River, Patuxent River, Eastern Shore, Potomac River, Rappahannock River, York River and James River.
Players represent farmers, developers, watermen, policymakers and the general public in each regional watershed and the northern and southern portions of the overall bay watershed.
Approximately 64,000 farms throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed are represented, with players making decisions regarding both crop and livestock farming practices.
The land development sector in each of the watershed regions is represented by the number of urban/residential acres and acres that may be converted from agriculture or forest to development. Land development players engage in making decisions to buy and sell land, as well as choices to develop property they own using conventional practices or sustainable practices.
Players representing watermen make decisions regarding crabbing related to the method of harvesting (dredging or potting) and the length of the harvesting season. They also have the opportunity to invest in new equipment that would increase their efficiency weighed against the required cash investment.
Player roles also include those of policymakers, who make decisions on land use, the crab industry and agricultural policy. These players incentivize or curtail the other players' decision-making through the choices they make in their respective areas of authority.
In each region, all players also represent members of the public and enter their feelings about the economy, the environment and their perceived quality of life in the region.
The game template is flexible regarding the period of time over which results are projected. Currently, the game projects possible outcomes over a 20-year period.
The program has demonstrated several things about the complex socio-ecological system of the Chesapeake Bay and its management. These include:
• Initially, not all resident "players" in the bay's watershed fully understand the extent of the area or, more importantly, the role of nutrients such as strong fertilizers in determining the bay's health. This occurs despite the focused publicity on the bay in the region.
• Understanding of the bay's health and the region's economic needs is valuable and useful to most people, regardless of their political views.
• Communication and cooperation among the "players" is critical. For example, communication between the policymakers and the groups that they regulate is important, but so is communication between watermen and farmers, or between farmers in the Susquehanna watershed and the James River watershed.
• Information and data about the bay's health are important for everyone to see to make decisions. Changes in the flow of information among stakeholders motivates behavioral change, most importantly, collaboration that enables innovative solutions. Players change the future of the watershed as compared to projections based on current practices.
• Unanticipated consequences are possible and, in fact, likely. Consequently, adaptive management is necessary to achieve economic and ecological sustainability.
The U.Va. Bay Game development team includes faculty members, graduate students, and research staff from architecture (Eric Field, William Sherman), commerce (Mark White), education (David Feldon, Jennifer Elliott), engineering (Gerard Learmonth, Michael Purvis), environmental sciences (James Galloway, Allison Leach, David Smith), law (Jon Cannon, Leon Szeptycki), and the Office of the Vice President for Research (Jeffrey Plank).