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Troubled Waters is a crowdsourcing game aimed at developing methods for alleviating wide-ranging severe water stress now and in the future.



Given the enthusiasm and participation in gaming by our youth and the growing gifts of STEM, this interactive process appears to be among our best bets for generating climate concern and recovery actions. The approach could be adapted to other problems of Climate CoLab concern.

If human beings do not drink water for three days, they will die, which can be applied on scale as well to larger and smaller mammals, reptiles, birds, and plants. If a verdant region does not receive rainwater for 100 days it will become parched; few flora or fauna can live there, nor humans without artifices such as pipelines. GRACE^1 satellites have shown that seventeen of our thirty seven major aquifers show significant rates of decline (see image). How can we alter our activities and our water systems to temper this threat to sentient planetary existence? What can be done to improve the functioning of our aquifers?

The 37 major aquifers and the rate at which their water storage is declining (see colorbar).

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” (Ben Franklin)

The objective of Troubled Waters is to design water resource optimizations for implementation within regional hydrological systems, using 3D game programming; these programs would be developed using crowdsourcing connected to a Cloud platform within a technologically sound, and morally and ethically based, game format; one that prepares us with conscientious techniques for healthy life in an endangered future. Hydrological models e.g., GSSHA^2 will be adapted to take input from the game framework, and provide evaluation of the impact of proposed modifications.

Category of the action

Mitigation/Adaptation, Changing public attitudes about climate change

What actions do you propose?

The Troubled Waters 3D multi user game program would be developed on an online platform, emplaced on cloud servers, and played in a crowdsourcing format.

Troubled Waters would begin with an informal learning segment designed to educate users about aquifer depletion concerns.

The pilot game’s players would consist of an advisory panel comprised of scientists, engineers, economists, and administrative experts versed in the field of morally and ethically based conflict resolution. They would work directly with the game builders. Options would be developed and established in terms of what one can do to gain or lose points.

Upon entering the game, players would gain points for improving conditions for others as well as themselves; and would lose points for making these matters worse. Rather than roleplaying, individuals and teams would make game decisions regarding the whole region, considering all parts of the system.

Troubled Waters will be defined within the computer game sub genre of “construction and management simulation”. Different players will have different priorities and part of their task and the experts' task will be reconciling them toward the greater good for all.  Secondly, the game will be extendible so that new aspects of the problem (e.g. endangered species habitat needs) can be incorporated by the players and factored into the solution.

The first pilot game would use a generic hydrological system, to be examined and planned using scientific and technologically based game lesson designs in solving structural problems, examining regulations, trading, and water resource plans. Then professional mediators and game marketers would re examine the material in the context of how individuals and teams can be rewarded for their efforts, adding a cooperative layer relevant to job opportunities, funding, and community recognition, first using the same test pilot and a generic model. Later pilot programs and crowdsourcing could additionally use the game to guide the modification of specific hydrological systems.

The Troubled Waters game is based within the actual ability of users anywhere to build with the use of clicks of the mouse; it is structurally based within a life like 3D Unity^3 format familiar to conventional games such as Populus^4, or Godus^5, with complementary aspects such as those offered by Minecraft^6.

The games would be open to all, and rewards would be based on gaining the greatest social and technological advantage for the most people.

Once the gamers arrange online enhancements such as ground water storage containment capacity, internal channeling, internal placement and engagement of new technologies for desalination, purification, and replenishing water supplies, e.g. graphene and carbon nanotubes^7, solar, and external rain water harvesting catchment systems, these are scored according to evaluations from hydrological groundwater models and moral and ethical merit values rather than the currently in vogue attitude “dam the river and damn the downstream neighbors”.

Gamers could learn how to develop modifications at varying levels of complexity based on age, aptitude and interest. Instruction would be reinforced through cumulative repetition.

Variables such as water trading and water rights would be factored into the games. Water trading is being experimented with in Australia, the U.S. and a number of other countries. The evolving tendency is toward the selling of water entitlements, within the realm of water rights: not only federal and state agency and private ownership but community based water use rights may become prevalent.

Once the expert based pilot game approach has been established, three levels of gaming could be applied toward generic or specific hydrological system modifications: 1) A fun, rudimentary gamer’s version, playing for points based within cumulative, reinforced education; acquiring gains that then motivate them toward tangible, socially and practically responsible rewards, resulting in caring about the resolution of water supply concerns; 2) for those who succeed in solving more difficult challenges, gaming in conjunction with professional conservationists, regulators and engineers, helping them determine what to do; and 3) the best players could work directly with the professional corps of conservation experts, regulators and engineers to develop a physical implementation plan based on successful game results.

The Level 3 team would examine physical, and moral and ethical, ground water system integrity, including science and engineering feasibility, winner access to modification tools, funding, and human resources. Participating experts would be selected from outside immediate political, media, and social arenas in much the same way as court juries, deterring factional preferences and control.

A shared, anonymous “kitty” fund brings the necessary contributions into place. Individual, local, regional, national and global funding would be accepted and employed, given anonymous, untethered contributions.

The game is similar in many aspects to the University of Virginia’s Bay Game^8; however in Troubled Waters gamers do not role play but instead interact as individuals, sometimes based within teams, on a 3D crowd sourcing platform; and, on Levels 2 and 3 of the game with experts who actually operate within relevant fields of expertise, such as economists, scientists, engineers, economists, management specialists, regulators, federal and state agencies, governments, for profit and non profit local, regional, national, internationals and global institutions.

These groups would interface through the crowdsourcing platform, using analytical and management based methodologies to determine both stylized and specific solutions toward the realization of actual hydrological system modifications, creating fair, economically viable, and physically sound proposals, thereby helping to convince regulators and governments to implement practical environmental incentives and solutions.  An additional difference is that this game has “real life” winners, being those individuals who arrive at a hydrological solution; they receive the wherewithal to accomplish the task, and implement the changes.

Troubled Waters would be made strong and attractive by the cultivation of positive attitudes and behavior based on empowering connections with professionals, and the possibility of real action. Negative attitudes don’t translate into positive behavior. Troubled Waters would be designed as a popular and effective game, a puzzle that directs the player to realize that there is more than one right answer and that these puzzles are open to interpretation. Questions will be posed, tough, ethical questions in addition to questions that require technical smarts. As discussed in “Starting Point: Teaching Entry-level Geoscience,^9 “strategic games based in useful learning provide continuous challenges, leading from one to another, keeping players “hooked”, “setting clear short term goals appropriate to the level of the player and the context within the game. Each challenge should satisfy some kind of learning objective. For example, answering a question, identifying a sample or completing a measurement or a portion of a map could be a challenge, part of a larger game.” Troubled Waters would be designed for projected, or “fantasy” based pursuits, rather than “using the game to escape from their studies, instead encouraging the students to use games to escape into their studies.”  Using many different routes to accomplish a goal also adds to interest. A flexible format where there are many different routes through which to accomplish a goal allows players to work out their own strategy to the endpoint while still keeping the game challenging and achieving the learning objective. Immediate, useful rewards compel and propel the successful players into new capabilities, a new part of the board to explore or even a new task. These are surprisingly motivating, as the point of the game is not just to win it, but to keep playing.  Combining fun and realism is a winning combination.

All of these qualities would be designed into the game programs.


Who will take these actions?

Anyone, anywhere with computer access may participate in this solutions based modeling game utilizing new technologies combined with behavioral and societal shifts, resulting in employment and educational opportunities that will emplace vital changes to hydrological systems around the globe.


Where will these actions be taken?

Everywhere there are hydrological systems

What are other key benefits?

The benefits are ultimately inclusive, holistic and universal in nature, designed to benefit all of Gaia through popular and progressive methods.


What are the proposal’s costs?

We expect to run the program for three years. Budget costs will vary from year to year.

Approximated personnel costs per annum:

1) Game designer                                                                 77K
2) Game programmer                                                           92K
3) Environmental scientist                       ¾ time                   48K
4) Communications/marketing expert      ¾                          86K
5) Economist                                            ¼                          26K
6) Environmental regulator                       ¼                         21K
7) Environmental engineer                       ½                         41K
8) Database administrator                        ¾                         58K
9) Executive Assistant                                                          55K
10) Executive Director                                                        108K
11) Student Interns                                                               30K

subtotal                                                                             $642K

Office space                                                                       $80K

Approximate technological costs:
EC2 – Virtual Server Hosting –                                         $0.7K/server/yr
            storage (1 TB)                                                       $0.6K/yr

Access to the Unity3D game commercial
version: $1500 purchase, $75/month.

Total                                                                               $726K /yr

N.B. While the project is gathering ideas and approaches for improving water supplies, we would like to transfer these to the conservation officers and engineers in the relevant communities. 



Time line

Over the period of three years, we should be able to develop the following: 1) a strong basic program with a pilot prototype in place after the first year with a preliminary game structure; 2) test it in view of whether there is too much benefit to one party, and rebalance it so that more benefit goes to others; 3) trials of the interface; and 4) in years two and three, transferring to the cloud and general roll out.

Review of the work of the University of Virginia Bay Game would be part of the assessment: viewing the theoretical and current analyses and their effects on usage patterns within hydrological systems achieved so far; and how it is different from this crowdsourcing strategic building game for gamers based within a 3D format.


Related proposals

Rainwater Harvesting is an example of the sort of topic that could be developed using the Unity3D or other similar game programming methodologies; it would ideally be implemented as (part of) a regional program with larger harvesting sources, as well as or instead of home based units, which latter would leave out people who cannot afford to implement them independently.

Desalination Hopscotch: Bringing Clean Water to an Aquifer Near You could be related. However, Troubled Waters focuses on avoiding increasing carbon footprints. Instead, modifications to aquifers and their hydrological systems would be designed to require minimal, primarily nontechnical, maintenance once any major changes requiring drilling, etc. are in place.

The Troubled Waters gaming format could be a vehicle for the Climate CoLab’s integrated regional and global proposals, mentioned by Tom Malone at the MIT Climate Symposium earlier this year.



^1 Richey, A. S., B. F. Thomas, M.-H. Lo, J. T. Reager, J. S. Famiglietti, K. Voss, S. Swenson, and M. Rodell (2015), Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE, Water Resour. Res. 51, 5217-5238, doi:10.1002/2015WR017349.
^2 Downer, C.W., and F.L. Ogden, 2004, GSSHA: A model for simulating diverse streamflow generating processes, J. Hydrol. Engrg., 9(3):161-174. See

^7 Examples of new technologies that might be applied are from MIT Water Club “Water Night” poster presentation winners in the Water Chemistry and Nanotechnology category: Brendan Smith "Nanoporous Membranes for Water Filtration" and Bianca Chaves "Synergy Effect in the Oxidative Degradation of Organic Compounds using Ozonation Combined with Carbon Nanotube Electrochemically Active Filters"