Globalization, pollution, scarcity, social inequity, and climate change are issues that demand the attention of researchers and practitioners across various disciplines. There is a growing sense of urgency to implement innovative policies and management strategies, as our global natural resources are facing increasing pressures from population demand and the uncertain consequences of climate change. In response to complexity across natural systems and socio-political domains, there has been a shift from traditional reductionist approaches towards management strategies that integrate both socio-political and scientific dimensions. This is often referred to as “integrated natural resource management” (INRM), [1
]. INRM strategies have evolved to incorporate adaptive management strategies. Adaptive management (AM) demands continuous and purposeful progress through monitoring and adaptation, to address the unpredictability of our natural resources [3
Integrated water resource management (IWRM) offers an approach to management (under the INRM umbrella) that specifically addresses modern global freshwater challenges [3
]. IWRM is defined by the Global Water Partnership as “a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water and land resources, in order to maximize economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems” [5
]. IWRM moves beyond the traditional management approach of “command and control”, which assumes the predictability of stable water sources, as well as that these resources should be manipulated through technological engineering solutions in order to increase supply [3
]. Its principles are based on public participation, economic efficiency, social equity, and ecological sustainability, and a key feature of IWRM is to manage freshwater resources at the scale of the watershed, involving land management, various stakeholders, and transcending administrative and political boundaries. The practice of IWRM has further evolved to incorporate adaptive management strategies that involve the continuous monitoring, learning, and improvement of methods and policies to address a continuously changing environment [3
] (p. 25). Despite a growing popularity of IWRM principles and practice across the globe, key challenges remain that need to be addressed [8
]. Barriers to IWRM implementation are often related to inefficient governance structures, lack of scientific and predictive knowledge, lack of engagement or cooperative action between stakeholders, and the limited capacity of IWRM management organizations [11
]. Other difficulties in implementing IWRM are due to the complexity of coordinating socio-political boundaries with natural resource management that involve multiple temporal and spatial scales [13
]. Scholars (across many disciplines) are exploring ways to address these challenges in order to achieve the fairness and sustainability of freshwater resources.
Collaborative forms of governance, such as IWRM and AM, are considered essential to solving complex sustainability problems and, as mentioned, require the bridging of various physical, administrative, and socio-political boundaries [14
]. Human behavior changes with time, and the advancement of information and communication technologies (ICT) offers innovative means to help span these boundaries and contribute to collaborative solutions to sustainability problems, while fundamentally transforming interactions and relationships between governments, firms, non-government organizations (NGOs), and civil society [15
]. Although the emerging field of ICT-enabled boundary spanning is still in its infancy, there is a general agreement that advanced ICT (e.g., interactive apps, virtual platforms and communities, serious games, and civic hackathons) provide novel tools to expanded collaboration across boundaries [17
], as well as mechanisms to accelerate transformational change in (a) perception and meaning; (b) underlying norms and values; (c) social networks and patterns of interaction; and (d) power structures [18
Serious games (SGs) that combine computer simulations with role-play as an integrated method for complex policy- and decision-making are particularly promising [7
] and will be the focus of this research. Over the last decade, this type of game simulation has become more prevalent [20
] in education, including teaching water management (e.g., [21
]), water governance and policy (e.g., [23
]), and other common-resource management fields (e.g., [25
]). Although the professional and academic debate on the potential of serious games has quite a tradition (e.g., [19
]), there are diverging opinions regarding the impact of such games on policy and decision-making [29
], as well as on behavior change and learning outcomes [30
Gaming technology is increasingly employed to support human learning and foster innovation [31
]. SGs are defined as games that are designed for an educational value beyond entertainment [33
], and are increasingly explored in the context of these modern socio-environmental challenges. From this perspective, SGs are discussed in terms of their potential to address the sustainable governance of natural resources by supporting individuals or groups, as well as providing spaces for collaboration and knowledge co-creation [7
]. SGs have more recently been explored to support social learning and collaboration in IWRM [11
]. The educational goals of IWRM games include the development of both soft and hard skills and can also be used to directly support decision-making. For example, one study developed a game to enhance decision-making skills for optimal water system design problems that resulted in observable improvements in the participants’ ability to identify appropriate solutions [36
]. Alternatively, softer skills in IWRM game design could include policy formulation and conflict resolution in transboundary management, such as in the Shariva (Shared River) game [24
]. Additionally, the balancing of economic and environmental goals in sustainable watershed management is addressed in the Aqua Republica game, which can be played by individuals or groups [12
It is interesting to note how the Aqua Republica game simulation requires its players to address conflicting goals in IWRM decision-making, such as economic prosperity versus environmental sustainability. For instance, short term economic gain, such as building a factory, results in longer term environmental degradation. On the other hand, population increase demands a certain level of economic growth to meet their energy demands. Players are thus challenged to make decisions that optimize both economic and environmental impacts. Here, participants learn policy and technological tools to sustain population growth, while preserving the environment, and are made aware of the negative environmental impacts that result from the sole pursuit of prosperity. However, a key challenge remains on how to promote the pursuit of social equity and sustainability in decision-making beyond the context of the game, in the long-term, across situations. To achieve this, it can be assumed that stakeholders must be continuously motivated to pursue goals beyond their self-interest in real life. These underlying motivations can be understood as values.
From the discipline of social psychology, values are relatively stable cognitive constructs that guide an individual’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors, and that transcend situational boundaries [37
]. The study of values may give insight into the potential learning outcomes of SGs that address important IWRM challenges. First, as values guide behavior and perceptions in a way that is not situation-specific, influencing a participant’s values from game play could potentially result in tangible changes, beyond the context of the game. Moreover, human values have been shown to be predictive of cooperative attitudes and behavior, such as pro-environmental and charitable actions [39
]. Also, values are thought to be invoked when reflecting on difficult decision-making that involves trade-offs or novel decisions [43
]. Furthermore, values are tied to emotion, an important and often neglected variable when studying human perception, decisions, and actions, especially relating to issues of risk, uncertainty, and the management of natural resources [44
]. For instance, it is argued that effective behavioral change (specifically in the context of adapting behaviors to mitigate the effects of climate change) should involve methods that invoke more personal and emotional responses [46
]. It should come as no surprise then that values, shared values, and cooperation have already been studied in the context of game design [47
]. Notably, a fundamental difference in values has already been recognized as a constraining factor in learning from SGs play for natural resource management [12
Values can be evaluated through the perspective of many disciplines, such as philosophy, anthropology, economics, and management [43
]. Therefore, it is helpful to review the theory of values from a selected discipline. There are several benefits to focus on for the social psychological study of values, which will be the focus of this discussion. The psychological perspective is particularly relevant in understanding the complex dynamics by which humans interact and shape their environments. This is best described by Bandura, as follows:
“Psychology is the one discipline that uniquely encompasses the complex interplay between intrapersonal, biological, interpersonal, and sociostructural determinants of human functioning. Psychology (is) best suited to advance understanding of the integrated biopsychosocial nature of human and how they manage and shape the everyday world around them” [50
As values have been extensively studied in the field of social psychology, it is possible for researchers to empirically test them [43
]. Therefore, game designers could potentially validate the effectiveness of their games in promoting certain values. For instance, changes in values from game play could potentially be monitored throughout the iterative design process by accessing well-tested psychological tools (i.e., Schwartz’s Value Survey). Moreover, an important social psychological theory on values, Schwartz’s “Theory of Basic Human Values”, identifies specific values that have been empirically validated across 82 countries [37
], and its methods of measurement have been tested in diverse cultures across the globe [49
]. Therefore, these tools can potentially be used to assess the effectiveness of IWRM games that involve participants from different socio-cultural backgrounds. This is especially important when considering how cross-collaboration across socio-political boundaries are core to the practice of IWRM. All in all, the social psychological study of values may offer tools for game designers to iteratively monitor the effectiveness of their games in promoting IWRM principles, and involve a diversity of participants from different nations across the globe.
Interestingly, the development of certain values has already been presented as an important learning target for the IWRM audience. For instance, a more explicit deliberation of the underlying values (a “values approach”) of governing water resources has been argued to ensure that the management outcomes are actually socially and environmentally sustainable [52
]. However, even if one diligently pursues the IWRM principles, in practice, values often conflict [56
]. For example, the increased pressure from population demand and urbanization can make it difficult to balance social equity and sustainability, as it can be difficult to supply the demand without investing in infrastructure that leads to long-term negative impacts on the environment [7
] (p. 90).
Conflicting values that arise between stakeholders are being discussed as key water management challenges [56
]. In practice, conflicts may arise between different applications of water usage (agriculture versus fisheries or energy) and competing groups (transboundary conflicts) [3
]. Importantly, the development of shared values is an important outcome for social learning processes [12
], known as “transformation”, where a collection of individuals formulate a common purpose and work towards a shared goal [59
]. Social learning refers to the process of learning through others in social settings (that is, of outsourcing information to others, or to a cumulative cultural repertoire of skill, knowledge, and attitudes) [60
], where learning outcomes may result in changes in the understanding for a small or large group [61
]. Social learning outcomes can also be categorized as cognitive enhancement (such as gaining knowledge) or moral development. The desired “normative” outcomes of social learning involve developing a sense of solidarity with the community (43), synonymous with “cooperative values” or “shared values”, where the well-being of the group is being prioritized over individualistic aims. Changing values is seen as an important outcome of the social learning processes, both at the individual and societal level. Value change is an important potential outcome of social learning processes, namely “double and triple loop social learning”. Double loop learning involves challenging values on an individual or societal level, while triple loop learning involves a change in governance systems as a result of changing values [12
]. In other words, triple loop learning includes double loop learning and expands this into a transformation of the governing system.
Evidently, values are already being discussed in the context of IWRM learning and capacity building. However, values as a term or concept can be alluded to from various perspectives. Within the study of social psychology, which specific values would be desirable learning outcomes to incorporate in the design of SGs for IWRM? As seen in the IWRM definition, IWRM aims for the pursuit of social equity and environmental sustainability. Social equity aims to protect the welfare of all human beings, and environmental sustainability ensures that the welfare of future generations are also protected (thus, sustainability pursues intergenerational equity, which is social equity that spans generations). Within this field, the term “transcendental values” specifically refers to values whose underlying motivations are beyond self-interest [51
]. As stakeholders are required to make decisions that pursue goals beyond their self-interest in order to align with IWRM principles (social equity and environmental sustainability), we argue that the promotion of “transcendental values” is a desirable learning outcome for SGs. Therefore, the following discussion reviews how the study of values in psychology contributes to the understanding the mechanisms and constraints involved in the promotion of transcendental values. This first requires understanding the theory of values, how values can be changed or influenced, and whether or not transcendental values can be promoted (see Figure 1
below for an overview of the structure of the discussion).
5. Recommendations for SGs Design
A recent study by Aubert et al. [20
] provides an in-depth review of 43 SGs on water-related issues, and categorizes these games according to the level of technology used (i.e., from no low-tech to fully immersive high-tech) and the degree of verisimilitude (i.e., from modeling complex reality, using scientific models and real-world data to not using any scientific models or real-world data). These 43 serious games span purposes ranging from the following: (a) SGs that broadcast a message to teach and raise awareness on water related issues; (b) SGs that present direct or indirect exchanges of information (e.g., data, knowledge and worldviews); and (c) to SGs that reproduce a real-world situation with accurate reality, to provide a training experience for professionals. Direct (i.e., two-sided information) exchange games involve simulation games, often played in a workshop format with a scientific game facilitator, that aim to structure problems or develop scenarios while informing a scientific model, as well as allowing participants to develop an understanding of other players’ perspectives [25
]. Indirect exchange games allow for learning or awareness raising as well as data collection. The focus of this study is on what Aubert et al. [20
] refer to as “hybrid games”, which combine role playing games with computer simulations, and allow players to experience the impact of their decisions or actions over time, while developing an understanding of the complex interactions of social, environmental, and economic factors. These types of games enhance discussion and learning among players, thus enhancing social learning, and generally require a facilitator or game leader to introduce the game context and rules, encourage collaboration, and facilitate a debriefing phase [19
Based on the psychological mechanisms and constraints of value change discussed in this paper, there are several factors that could be incorporated into the design of these “hybrid” SGs for water management stakeholders. Such design elements could potentially lead to the improved application of social equity and sustainability in IWRM decision-making through the enhancement of transcendental values. Of course, there is considerable research that remains to be conducted in terms of its potential effectiveness. The recommendations made here are preliminary, yet are thought to warrant further exploration and research. The concluding remarks will be organized by relating the key features of values from social psychology, and then relating them to SGs design. These relationships are discussed in Table 2
(SGs design opportunities) and Table 3
(SGs game design constraints).
The list of research publications where SGs have been used and reviewed for IWRM is considerable and fast growing (e.g., [15
]). A few studies stand out as providing experimental evidence of the ability and means through which SGs may facilitate behavioral changes. Vegt et al. [107
], for example, demonstrate how, by changing the rules of a game, the players can be directed towards either competitive or collaborative behavior. Another example is a study by Kampf and Stolero [108
], which highlights the value of serious games in enhancing players’ empathy for the perspectives of others, encouraging players to critically reflect on their own position, and provide a forum where parties can develop a relationship by interacting in a safe environment. Tipton et al. [109
] emphasize that learning happens during a serious game, while players observe the impacts of their decisions and receive feedback on their actions, but that a debriefing phase after the game is essential as a way to draw lessons and critically reflect on the game process and outcomes.
Despite a growing interest in serious games for water resources management, novel approaches towards serious game design from a sociological or psychological are still lacking [110
]. Linehan et al. [110
] stress the importance of better understanding the spectrum of relevant social and psychological processes acting on both the designer as well as a players of serious games. They state that to increase the potential benefits of SGs, a deeper understanding is required of the processes through which players are incentivized to behave in a productive and sustainable manner, answering questions about how to measure, understand, predict, and guide people’s behavior. Overall, several important recommendations can be derived from exploring psychological perspectives and the potential of value change for IWRM stakeholders through SGs play, namely:
SGs design should target values systematically, as individual changes in values also result in changing non-targeted values.
SGs design should involve many value conflicts that are faced in real life water management decisions, so that players are not only forced to prioritize values, but also learn to recognize how their values are involved across many water management situations.
As values are often supported by emotion and water management decisions can be complex, having players engage in the conscious reasoning behind the values involved in decisions represent important potential learning mechanisms. Reasoning about values has been shown to cause values to change, and this could potentially be incorporated in SGs play. Importantly, this requires time for reflection about one’s values, where time for reflection has already been recognized as a constraint in IWRM games [11
]. Notably, a similar concept is being applied in SGs for clinical medical ethics, involving the conscious deliberation of deontological ethics (ethics based on principles rather than consequences) in clinical decision-making, to foster virtuous medical professionals [111
] (p. 99).
Intergroup conflict in water management represents an important barrier to value change, both within and beyond the game context. Intergroup conflict is a complex phenomenon between in-groups and out-groups, and SGs can address this issue either by enhancing group conflict to explore their dynamics, or by mitigating conflict to promote cooperation between out-groups. Moreover, the relationship between intergroup conflict and universal versus benevolent value prioritization in water management decisions warrants further study. Water management decisions may involve conflict between universal and benevolent values, even though they share the underlying motivation of self-transcendence. Such relationships can potentially be explored through SGs play. Notably, in order to explore such dynamics, it may be more interesting to have team players that can compete or collaborate in person (rather than interact online or with computer models).
Whether or not players’ values change (in the short or long-term) can be tested using SVS during the iterative SGs design process. Values are primarily based on emotion, and individual differences in the capacity for affective empathy constrain value change for certain individuals. In addition to considering how values are involved when designing SGs, Schwartz’ value survey can be used to examine the prioritization of values for participants engaged in existing water related serious games. Interestingly, the researchers involved in this paper have been administering the SVS survey to subjects both before and after participating in a number of game simulation events. The results and insights from these events and the resulting surveys will be used to determine whether playing the SGs had any effect on participants’ values.
All in all, this discussion attempts to address a significant challenge for SGs design, and whether it can have an impact on the underlying belief systems of water management stakeholders. The importance of this challenge is illustrated by some of the responses of the actual game players in this context. For instance, in her exploration of SGs for marine spatial planning and water management, Zhou found the following responses from interviews (interviewee No. 18), “Experience shows that it is very hard to change players’ belief by playing games...they don’t really relate the game to their real world problems or seriousness” [7
] (p. 105), and (interviewee No. 20) “Policymakers look for excuses not to learn from the game. Gaming is not the thing to change the behaviors of individuals” [7
] (p. 10). Despite this obvious challenge, the current understanding in psychology behind changing values provides insight into the mechanisms that can be incorporated into SGs design. Moreover, the empirical testing of values and value change, followed by improving SG design, could move beyond addressing SGs design challenges and provide some insight into important psychological phenomena. Further, studies for both psychology and SGs design could look into the impact of reflecting on values in groups compared to interaction with a computer or online game. Also, individual differences in the ability to embrace transcendental values could be studied. Finally, more effort could look into how to effectively communicate about values in groups or other mediums (such as ICT), and how SGs could provide a space for formulating policies aligned with values in complex water management decisions or dilemmas.