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A serious game

At World Water Week in Stockholm, a role-playing game helped attendees better understand stalemate in water services financing for small towns and rural areas.
October 17, 2018

Deadly water, sanitation and hygiene crises are no game. So, you could excuse attendees who struggled to grasp the concept of “Mission: Funded,” a role-playing game that attracted a capacity audience at World Water Week in Stockholm this past August.

“When I went to the session I didn’t know it was a game,” said Delia Sánchez Trancón, Integrated Water Resources Management Consultant at AguaConsult, a United Kingdom-based consulting company focused on water supply and disaster risk reduction. “However, it was refreshing to have a more active session.”

The game, developed and cofacilitated by Stanford Program on Water, Health & Development Director Jenna Davis and Deputy Director Rachel Cardone, had the serious purpose of helping NGOs, development project funders, government officials and other stakeholders better understand the complexities that make it hard for small towns and rural areas to plan and finance water services. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation sponsored the event.

The funding stalemate for rural water services is a product of obstacles such as an urban focus within the development finance world, private investors’ wariness of perceived risks and returns, domestic public finance prioritization of other projects, and philanthropy and charitable aid organizations’ preference for one-off projects over government strategies to achieve universal coverage. While user finance can help cover basic operations and maintenance, it is rarely enough to cover capital maintenance needs or investments in new infrastructure.

Participants in the role-playing game explored these obstacles and the space where organizational incentives and behaviors cohere –  or collide – with generally agreed goals, as they raced to allocate resources in the hope of delivering universal water services to every district in a fictional region by 2030.

First, participants were randomly assigned one of seven roles, such as an engineer in a district water office, an in-country health officer and a philanthropy program officer, and character types such as a leader, creator and everyman, each with its own goals, fears, values and a risk profile between 1 and 5. The game master, in the role of a regional government minister, gave a speech offering an overview of the water sector in his district, and the wider context. Participants then had to allocate their resources on a map of the district, according to a few investment choices. As the results were tabulated, participants were invited to time warp to 2023. This included a few disco lights and a nod to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

When the group arrived into 2023 they faced a drought, a regional conflict and an influx of refugees, plus changes in the political scene with potential to threaten political will and progress. Participants were updated from their bosses about what had changed in their organizations as they geared up to invest a second round of resources. They allocated; they time warped, and the group arrived into 2028, just two years before the 2030 goal.

After the final round, the district government minister gave a postmortem from 2030. Participants had time to reflect on and discuss decisions they made. They explored rationales for changing bets, alternate paths they could have taken and the balance between role constraints and organizational limitations.

Angela Huston, a program officer at IRC asked if the organization could replicate the game for a workshop in Uganda. “It forced participants to face realistic constraints they may often overlook, and showed the need to emphasize sustainability issues and face realities of population growth,” Huston said. She added that the game could be a particularly eye-opening experience for international NGOs frustrated with donor demands and constraints, academics who think problems could be easier to solve if only decisions were more data-driven, donors who want to see quick results and politicians and technocrats who engage in strategic planning. “It’s helpful to see the same details from the perspectives of others – a key competency for systems thinking and change.”

Davis expressed hope that participants came away with a better sense of the effect of incomplete information, and interpretation of data, as experienced by different actors all operating towards a common vision. “We also learned – to our delight – that our sector colleagues are good sports and are willing to throw down some dance moves, even at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

Contact Information

Michelle Horton
Communications Manager