Bruce Lankford

Systems- & people-centred water and irrigation

Serious gaming and deliberative tools

The River Basin Game and Rapid Games Designing

the river basin game


Serious games, via metaphor, create exploratory portals to address competition and co-operation as well as user understanding of natural resources.  (See Lankford and Watson metaphor river basin game 2007). I explore this via the ‘marbles game’ (river basin game) (see photo above and below), role-playing Excel spreadsheets and ‘Rapid Games Designing‘ (below).

The River Basin (Marbles) Game

A full explanation of how the marbles game can be played is given in this IWMI Working Paper.

YouTube: Two videos of the game played by water officers at a training session can be found here (competition round) and here (cooperative round).   A short video of farmers in Tanzania using the game can be found here.

The River Basin Game (RBG) is a two-day workshop designed around a board game to help resolve conflicts over water. The game is a role-playing tool for promoting dialogue and decision-making over water resources where irrigation is present. The RBG is a physical representation of a catchment (or small river basin) as seen in the photos. The board has a slope and uses glass marbles to reflect upstream-downstream flow of water. Upstream abstractors/users of water are favoured over downstream abstractors and users of water. This difference often gives rise to inequality in water access for rural people—which can result in conflict. The game allows local users to reflect on the distribution of water in various situations and to strategize accordingly by taking up roles such as ‘advantaged upstream abstractor’ or ‘disadvantaged downstream abstractor’. The game then asks players to act both competitively and then co-operatively, and in doing so, helps contrast these responses. This generates discussion on ways to identify wasteful usage and then how manage water more equitably.

There are four ways of using the River Basin Game:

  1. With students and researchers of water management to teach common property management of water. This has worked well with both undergraduate and postgraduate students. The game has also been played with a group of scientists in order to discuss the nature of gaming in natural resource management.
  2. With local resource users (farmers, livestock keepers, domestic drawers, etc.) of water to facilitate local decision-making with regard to the allocation of water. This type of game also allows external researchers to observe current problems and proposed solutions.
  3. With higher-level decision-makers to reveal the issues facing local users, and the beneficial & negative outcomes that their actions might have on them.
  4. With both higher-level institutions and local resource users to generate a comprehensive picture of how mutual collaboration, flexibility and support is required to manage water at the basin level.

The benefits of the game are optimised if it is kept simple, and is employed with the aim of comparing outcomes of competitive individualistic behaviour against co-operative collective responses. The game is not designed to quantitatively help users allocate water – this stage comes afterwards in the discussions held.  Players call upon with their own experiences to discuss issues, and do not need any specific prior training. In a relatively safe and sociable environment, the game creates a ‘space’ that utilizes serious play to demonstrate various dimensions of irrigation, water-based livelihoods and river basin management at the local level. The game verifies simple linear and spatial relationships between upstream abstraction and downstream water shortages (these relationships may seem obvious to outsiders, but often one would hear the upstream users saying that they did not realize the consequences of their actions on users some 50 km away). The game elicits many suggestions regarding solutions such as adding canals and using short season varieties, and revealed to users that they hold the key to managing water rather than relying on external agents and solutions (although timely suggestions from attendant technical experts were well received by participants). Consensus-building is encouraged by the game, particularly on agreements to start catchment-wide meetings to share water. The game demonstrates how the different organizations working in the basin could work with water users to remove constraints and to facilitate the new agreements generated at the games workshop.

For further publications on how the marbles game has been played and received see below:

  1. Magombeyi, M.S., Rollin, D., Lankford, B.A. (2008). The river basin game as a tool for collective water management at community level in South Africa, Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C (33): 873-880.
  2. Rajabu, K. R. M. (2007) Use and impacts of the river basin game in implementing integrated water resources management in Mkoji sub-catchment in Tanzania. Agricultural water management. vol. 94, 1-3, pp. 63-72

Rapid Games Designing

Working with Joanne Craven, ‘Rapid Games Designing’ utilises games materials to allow participants to create and part-test games.


An abridged version of our paper’s abstract is given here: ‘Rapid games designing’ (RGD) is a short format for constructing dynamic metaphors for complex systems and related concepts (e.g., the resilience or sustainability of a catchment/agricultural marketing system). While this format gives rich and detailed games that potentially could be played in an extended version of the workshop, we did not go ahead with this step. Instead, we devoted the limited time available to supporting participants in designing, comparing and discussing their games and to exploring the concepts and meanings of a given complex system, even if the latter was initially deemed by participants to be abstract and “academic”. Key benefits to participating individuals, the whole group and workshop organizers include (a) the highly productive and creative use of limited time; (b) an inclusive group exercise that draws everyone into the process; (c) rich discussion of pluralist viewpoints through the comparison of the remarkable variety of games generated, including their differences in purpose, players and rules; and (d) observations on how the games construct a dynamic metaphor for the system and its properties, leading to deeper insights and knowledge building regarding system concepts and components.  We argue this format offers an option for the ongoing evolution of games about complex human, natural and socio-ecological systems and that it generates considerable creativity, learning, discussion and insights amongst all participants.