Teaching myself to teach serious game design

I’ve recently come back from IHE-Delft where I was teaching on the third edition of the “Serious Gaming for the Water Sector” summer course. I’m very lucky to be able to spend a week a year having fun with bright, creative people and piles of game bits and pieces and call it “work”!

The course has changed quite a bit since I organised the first edition in 2016. It’s a week-long course aimed at all IHE-Delft postgraduate students, and looks at how to use games to solve water-sector problems – and how to design your own.

The first year (2016), I was quite new to teaching and had a mortal fear of ending up in front of a class with nothing to say. Every hour was planned. Workshops, guest lectures, lectures by me – you name it, it was in the schedule, and had been meticulously prepared with slides and worksheets and cards and activities and and and…

This first edition did go well and I got really positive feedback. However, some participants commented that they’d like to have had more time to work on designing their own games. I took that on board and the second year, I stripped out some planned activities and devoted more time to the “Game Design Challenge” – the game design activity that took up most of the week. However, I got the same feedback again – the participants wanted more time to work on their own.

So, this year I took the plunge and devoted the whole week (bar an introduction and a short theory workshop on the Monday) to the Game Design Challenge, with other small bits of content brought in informally as the game design progressed. I wondered if the lack of theory would hamper the students, or if they’d feel they’d been “thrown in at the deep end”. Well – no! The games from this year were some of the best I’ve seen, and the reflections on game design in general given during the final presentations were also more developed than I’d seen before.

It’s made me realise that most of the content that might be given in a lecture will come up organically during the process anyway, and that when students come up against it on a real project it’s more likely to stick. And I think I might’ve got over my nothing-to-say phobia.

You can read more about the course here.

If you’re thinking about teaching your own serious game design course, I really recommend the Triadic Game Design workshop, the Systems Thinking Playbook (or the Climate Change Systems Thinking Playbook (pdf)), and Spielmaterial.de for building up your game materials collection (no sponsorship, I just really like the site)! Also feel free to contact me if you’d like any pointers.

Reversing serious gaming: letting the players design the games

If your industry was a game, what would it look like? We asked over 100 people from the South African fruit industry this question and gave them two hours and heaps of game components to answer it. By getting industry experts to express themselves through game design, we were able to open up lots of underlying assumptions about the sector that usually go unvoiced. Idea inspired by conversations with Bruce Lankford.

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“Can you keep your crops watered?” at Edinburgh Science Festival

31st March – 4th April 2018. Edinburgh Science Festival, Edinburgh, UK.

In the River Basin Game, players discover what it’s like to live upstream or downstream along a river, as they compete (or cooperate!) with other players to irrigate their farms.

When I arrived in Edinburgh in October 2018 I heard about the Edinburgh International Science Festival and thought the game would make a great drop-in event for kids. It was accepted and so I set about building a portable, child-friendly version of the original game by Bruce Lankford, using an enormous vinyl banner for the base with wooden parts attached with velcro.

Playing the River Basin Game at Edinburgh International Science Festival 2018



When I saw in the programme that I’d be competing with 3D-printed flying robots at the same venue, I did wonder if the kids would be interested in rolling marbles around a table. However, my doubts were wrong and the game was thronged for five days solid, with plenty of repeat customers!

I wish I’d had the time to write down or think about some of the games that went on during the Festival, because every group of players were different and many fascinating things happened. One upstream farmer dammed all the water into his farm, and responded to criticism that he was flooded and everyone else was thirsty with:

“No – I’m going to sell them the water. But it’ll be expensive, because I’ve got all of it!”.

I was amazed, because I hadn’t mentioned a word about money, and that’s quite advanced thinking from a 10-year-old farmer who had only been in farming for about 10 minutes. I fear he might be my boss by the time he grows up!

We also had little farmers who organised the whole basin to get enough water for everyone, and evicted farmers who didn’t play by the rules. I even had to break up the beginnings of a physical fight over water allocations – not ideal for a weekend museum event I’ll admit, but it shows how well the players connected with the game!


In which I discover the River Basin Game

While working at IHE Delft (a water research institute), as a game-y type of person I was approached to do something for children for the Open Day. I also spoke with colleagues who wanted to do something about water conflicts and thought maybe a game would be a good idea. During this conversation someone mentioned the River Basin Game, something I’d never heard of. She took me upstairs and pointed out something which looked like an enormous wooden board leant against a wall.

Turning it over, I saw that on the other side was a river basin with farms made of wood. “Water” marbles roll down the river and the “farmers” can divert it into their farms, trying to get enough water to irrigate their crops without disadvantaging downstream farmers. This game was developed by Bruce Lankford as a tool for working with farmers in regions with upstream-downstream water conflicts in Africa, and he had donated this copy to IHE. It looked a lot of fun so I bought 200 marbles and decided to give it a go.

We showed up at the Open Day armed with case studies and examples ready for a day of serious play and discussion with adult visitors. However, they never got a look in, as the kids loved the game so much!

I realised that day how easily kids can get to grips with complicated issues related to upstream-downstream equality – and how honest they can be. I remember one exchange in particular, between a child and her father. She had the upstream farm in the game, and had diverted the whole river to irrigate her land. It went like this:

Dad: Careful, if you do that you’ll get all the water and there’ll be none left for anyone else.

Child (rolling eyes): Yes, I know. That’s the whole point!