Water game: playing with urban common pool resources (part 5)

This is the second of a special series of guest posts by Sjors Martens, PhD student researching games and cities at Utrecht University’s departments of Media and Culture Studies and Computer Science.

We asked Sjors to report and reflect on a series of play sessions in which we iterated the Watergame further.


The Hackable City projects consists of multiple parallel tracks. Several of these have been reported on already: self building, metrics, (playful) governance, an academic track, and public dissemination and events.


In this series of blogposts we document how we are developing and testing a game about water. The aim of this track is to explore, try out, evaluate, and reflect on the potential of games to engage people with a complex and abstract issue like urban water resilience, and allow them to contribute ideas and actions. The overarching question of this track is how play and games can be used to leverage the “smartness” of citizens, in order to address complex issues that our cities are facing. Specifically, how can play and games be used to define new collective values around water as a “common pool resource”?


Brainstorm Facilitator or More?

The previous playtest showed that The Neighborhood water game functioned best as a brainstorm facilitator. Players could hypothesize how water could be dealt with in different scenarios. This foregrounded new aspects of water previously ignored. Aspects in the design of the game, such as scarcity of rules and open scenarios, made the current form of the game match such facilitating better than a role playing game for instance. Simultaneously, several design aspects still caused confusion or distraction from this use. The turn based structure for instance gave the first in line the power to set the tone and the problems. The game was also rather individualistic, leaving communal problems to vague calls to external agents such as governments.

To explore further the possible matches of The Neighborhood, more playtests had to be held. These new playtests were scheduled at the City Makers Summit, organized by Pakhuis de Zwijger, in Amsterdam on the 30th of May. During this four day event city makers from all over Europe demonstrated innovative ways of creating more livable, thriving, resilient and inclusive cities through a varieties of talks and workshops. The various city makers present could voluntarily join in a session of The Neighborhood during the event. This made these new playtests have a very diverse audience.


Session 1: Water as Boon

The first session attracted a total of five players, with backgrounds ranging from students of social design and governance to experts in the field of water. Next to different players, this playtest also used a different scenario to test the flexibility of the game. Instead of framing water as a burden or constant threat, this scenario introduced a perspective on water as a boon. The scenario sketches a neighborhood that is characterized by its sustainable use of water. A contest rewarding the most sustainable and communal use of water in the neighborhood must spur the imagination of the players to come up with creative, but also feasible ideas. The second phase of the scenario sees the distribution of cashable vouchers to the winners, forcing the players to actually come up with steps to implement their plans. This more positive scenario allows for a different dynamic between player, possibly foregrounding different takes on water or different forms of play.


Figure 1: Playtest Session 1

Most strikingly in this session was that the mechanics of the game were interpreted differently from before, while the description didn’t change. The players didn’t play as an individual household anymore. They appropriated tracks of land and played both inhabitants and service providers fitting that area, such as schools or a corporation. This way, the players took on the roles of external institutions themselves, turning the game into a role playing game. Sure, the cooperation and projects they imagined followed an ideal mode of interaction but this role playing and personal resource or service focus ensured that there was a) more cooperation and b) more concretized goals due to limits on resources.

This more grounded form of play saw calls for education about water use. The players identified that one of the main missing elements in the debate around water is cross-communication amongst several stakeholders. The players called for a facilitating agency or educational events to enable this and the game could fulfill this role. This form of the game, wherein players played this facilitating role, then grounded the discussion more so than the first playtest – solutions were actually sought.

This first session showed that The Neighborhood as game may have a more lasting potential than an occasion to brainstorm, changing the goal this game matches. Now the game is better suited to let stakeholders negotiate projects and plans with their own roles to channel their actions. This does beg questions about how defined the roles players can take should be? Do you have to obey rules that belong to this role, or can you still brainstorm? Regardless, it shows that with minor changes The Neighborhood can fulfill a different purpose.


Playtest 2: Water as Unexpected Burden

The second playtest, held immediately after, was played by a different set of players. This time their expertise ranged from water management, value development and governance to construction and cultural scenarios. This session was run with the water abundance scenario again – just like the earlier playtest. Contrary to the earlier version however a reflection round was added to the scenario that forced the players to reflect on how they would start the scenario differently, given the experiences gathered during the scenario.


Figure 2: Playtest Session 2

Surprisingly though, the players largely imitated the earlier playtest with the same scenario, regardless of the changes to the game. The players immediately resolved to their individual survival instead of communal approaches or the service role play earlier that day. The players focused on how their individual starting scenario was affected – still creatively thinking out loud with findings such as an air-balloon ferry or slashies cohabitating with refugees in an apartment complex. What contributed to this individual focus was that many possibly communal ideas got lost in the many individual problems. The game could be redesigned to inventory all rising problems, determine how everyone is affected and then come to communal approaches. In its current form this is not yet afforded however.

The reflection round brought forth some interesting insights that the game as brainstorm facilitator can stress. Central in these findings was that the Netherlands has a false sense of security. Given their experience with managing water, from dykes to poldering, many inhabitants believe themselves to be safe. But once a massive breakthrough occurs and water forces its way into everyone’s houses and livelihood, suddenly the course of the water must be obeyed. The players noted this hypocrisy and argued that its paramount that such measures are part of general precautions instead of emergency actions.


Brainstorming and Role Playing

In different playtests The Neighborhood has taken a variety of forms. Depending on the scenario, – boon or burden – and the mechanics, – individual houses or tracts of land – the current game design matches both a brainstorm facilitator and a role playing game that enables negotiation amongst stakeholders. Each goal has different functions, with the former contributing to awareness while the latter can serve as tool in reconciling stakeholders. The Hackable City must determine whether to keep the game this fluid or whether they want to solidify the goal of the game in the final version. What form of play does the water scene need?


Figure 3: The Playing Field