U.Va.'s New 'Bay Game' Launches on Earth Day

The U.Va. Bay Game was conceived, developed, and tested at the University of Virginia.

By Melissa Maki
students playing the Bay Game

Students in Mark White's class discussing their Bay Game decisions.
Photo by Melissa Maki

University of Virginia students took on the roles of farmers, policy makers, land developers, watermen, and concerned citizens this month in the first large-scale testing of the U.Va. Bay Game—a unique sustainability simulation based around the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

On April 22 – Earth Day – the Bay Game was unveiled to the public in the Harrison Institute auditorium.

The U.Va. Bay Game was conceived, developed and tested at the University – all within the past six months. A large interdisciplinary group of faculty members contributed expertise to the project.

"Collaboration is the theme here," said Gerard Learmonth, research associate professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering. "Faculty from different disciplines came together with students to bring the game together rather seamlessly and in a short amount of time."

Game Development

Learmonth took the lead in the Bay Game's development, working with a consultant and systems modeler to pull together the many complex pieces of the simulation, which incorporates 43,000 mathematical equations. Graduate students in Learmonth's department worked on the game's interface and an undergraduate student advisory group also influenced the development process. Faculty members from 10 departments in seven schools contributed the expertise and data for the back end of the simulation, including real statistics on variables such as crab population and pollution. This type of comprehensive collaboration is difficult to achieve except at a research university.

Because the bay's watershed extends over six states and 64,000 square miles, a diverse set of stakeholders is involved. Players in the Bay Game make decisions based on an assigned stakeholder role. Farmers make decisions about whether to leave land fallow or apply cover crops to their fields, for instance, and land developers decide between regular and sustainable development.

The game will serve as an educational tool for students at U.Va., but the eventual plan is to release it to a wider audience.

Environmental sciences professor David Smith was involved in game development and testing. "My hope is that through this game we will generate a whole new generation of environmentally literate people," he said. "That is, people who understand the science, but also the social aspect of how the environment is affected. We want them to have the ability to take the scientific information and convert it into an informed management decision."

Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research and one of the game's founders, anticipates that the results of the Bay Game simulation will inform future public policies, private investment trends and societal behaviors in ways that enhance human health, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability.

"The success of a complex system simulation in helping to save the bay is unique in the world," Skalak said. "We expect this powerful approach to complex systems to be transferable to other societal problems, such as economic predictions to help our nation's financial system."

Game Testing

Some 144 students tested the game during the week of April 6. Student participation was critical to test the principles of the simulation and provide feedback to further refine the model.

Students in two classes taught by Mark White, associate professor of commerce, participated in the testing of the game, including those enrolled in "Global Business Citizenship," a required course for commerce majors.

White said he is a firm believer in experiential learning, and thinks the Bay Game is a great way to illustrate the "tragedy of the commons" occurring in the bay. That is, if all stakeholders act in a self-interested manner, this precious common resource deteriorates.

"There are multiple policy and economic solutions to get out of the commons problem, but we are not sure which one is right for which situation ­– there is no one-size-fits-all solution," White said. "If we are to educate responsible businesspersons, they need to understand what the consequences of their policies and actions are."

Commerce student Oriana Hargrove's personal connection to the bay influenced the way she played the game. Hargrove's family has owned a farm in the Northern Neck for the past 150 years. She has witnessed the decline of the area firsthand, noting that even over the past couple of years the erosion of the shoreline has been dramatic.

"It's increasingly difficult to make a living in the area," Hargrove said. As a waterman in the game, Hargrove played with more concern for the bay than for profit. She is hopeful that the game will be used in Virginia and elsewhere in the watershed to inform policy decisions.

"We have brainstormed ways to increase student involvement, to instill a vested interest in the success of this project in the student body," Clark said. "We also have brainstormed ways to make the gaming experience an enjoyable one."

The involved faculty and students expect that an interdisciplinary class will evolve for the game that involves commerce, environmental science, engineering, public health and law students, with curriculum integrated from all of these different areas.

"The way a businessperson might address this problem is perhaps different from an engineer or lawyer or an environmental scientist," Smith said. "One of the things that this simulation allows us to look at is the underlying forces that drive people's decisions depending on the perspectives they bring to the table."