The Role of Gaming in Water Resource Management

BY EDM | 27 MAR 2017
Case study about teaching the principles of integrated water management with the River Basin Game.
Bruce Lankford at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom developed the River Basin Game in 2000 to teach his students about management of shared resources. Dr. Lankford has since traveled to Tanzania, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and India and uses the game to engage community water users and municipal officials in the notion of cooperation in environmental decision-making and equitable water access.

The game uses a large sloped board that roughly replicates a river basin with a number of features, such as irrigated agriculture, smallholder agriculture, livestock and wetlands—all aspects that often compete for limited water resources.

Players play the game in two rounds: in the first round, the facilitator tells players to act competitively; in the second round, players act collaboratively. Players first select a plot on either side of the river. Each plot has a small furrow or waterway that diverts water from the river and a select number of depressions that represent the amount of water needed per plot. Once players have selected plots, they are allowed to place sticks, which act as small dams, to divert water into their furrow for their plot. Finally, the facilitator releases handfuls of glass marbles from the top of the board and allows them to flow down the river into players’ plots. The glass marbles represent shared water resources, and players witness how their individual actions of diverting water affect others in the community.

In the competitive round, players try to divert the largest amount of water to their fields regardless of downstream water needs. In most cases, the player furthest upstream diverts the greatest amount of water, an amount that usually exceeds the plot’s needs (represented by the depressions in each plot). During the collaborative round, players work together to ensure all plots receive water. A facilitator is essential to the game, to ask follow-up questions and then oversee a reflection period for players to discuss their thoughts and conclusions.

The game allows water users to experience the costs and benefits of upstream and downstream decision-making and the impacts on equity and potential conflicts over shared water resources. It also brings water users together to discuss ways to mitigate conflict and make tradeoffs.

In Tanzania, after water users in the Mambi and Mswiswi River systems played the River Basin Game, they realized that water resources would not sustain irrigated agriculture through the dry season without the use of conservation measures. They began aquaculture enterprises to generate income while conserving water. Since the River Basin Game was introduced, the number of fish ponds in Mambi and Mswiswi villages has increased from three to 43 and zero to 31 respectively.

Games can be an effective way to engage a range of stakeholders, institutions, and users of a shared resource such as water, to collaboratively work on problems like flood risk management and make equitable decisions that benefit all users.

For additional information on Bruce Lankford and the River Basin Game, visit:

Watch videos of the game in play:

Part 1: Competition:


Part 2: Cooperation:


Explore additional natural resource management related games:

Games for kids developed by the EPA:

Games for adults about community participation developed by Emerson University’s Engagement Games Lab:

Gaming ideas discussing climate impacts developed by the Climate and Urban Systems Partnership:

Games involving risk, decision making, disaster management and climate change by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre:

Text adapted from the following sources:

B. Lankford et al., The River Basin Game: A Water Dialogue Tool, Working Paper 75 (Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute, 2004), accessed August 5, 2015,

Bruce Lankford and Drennan Watson, “Metaphor in Natural Resource Gaming: Insights from the River Basin Game,” Simulation and Gaming 38, no. 3 (2007): 421-443, DOI: 10.1177/1046878107300671.

M. S. Magombevi, D. Rollin and B. Lankford, “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, no. 8-13 (2008): 873-880.

K. R. M. Rajabu, “Use and Impacts of the River Basin Game in Implementing Integrated Water Resources Management in Mkoji Sub-catchment in Tanzania,” Agricultural Water Management 94, 1-3 (2007): 63-72.


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