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The Bay Game: A simulation of the Chesapeake's health

  • Virtual stakeholdersLyndsey Funkhouser '12 (left) and Caitlin Broznak '11 participate in the Bay Game, a computer-based simulation of the pressures and challenges of maintaining the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay. Based at the University of Virginia, the latest running of the Bay Game included participants from seven Virginia schools.

    Photo by Courtney Wickel

    Virtual stakeholders

How would the health of the Chesapeake Bay hold up if the watershed were managed by students?

Students in William & Mary’s Watershed Dynamics class convened in the basement of Tyler and assumed the virtual roles of stakeholders —land developers, farmers, watermen, and local regulators—to simulate the challenges inherent in Chesapeake Bay management.

William & Mary was one of seven Virginia universities participating in the University of Virginia’s Bay Game. The UVA Bay Game is a computer simulation designed to provide players with feedback on how their decisions as role-players influence the economy, the environment and the quality of life in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. During each round of the game, individual players make decisions: Farmers decide whether to cultivate their crops sustainably or not. Developers decide where they want to build. Watermen decide how often they crab. All the while, regulators are incentivizing and limiting the kinds of actions that can be taken.

Randy Chambers, professor of biology and director of the Keck Environmental Field Lab, believes that the game raises the right kinds of questions.

“As role-players, you have to make decisions. You obviously want to make money, and you obviously want to protect the environment,” Chambers said. “How do you trade off those different things in the context of a Bay with declining water quality?”

“You definitely have to strike a balance,” explains Megan Kobiela, a biology graduate student at William & Mary who was involved with an earlier version of the Bay game as an undergraduate student at UVA. “You also have to pay attention to what you’re doing. You might lose money in the short term farming sustainably, but, if the policy makers change their incentive regime, you might end up better in the end.”

Decisions are input to a server in Charlottesville where 52,000 equations are run simultaneously to project how water quality is affected with each round of game play. Unlike the real world, players are provided with instantaneous feedback on how their decisions have affected a variety of factors, including crop prices, urban sprawl and bay health. Players can see how their actions have affected the Bay area before making subsequent decisions.

Lyndsey Funkhouser ’12, played a crop farmer and wrestled with the very realistic problem of how to balance her desire to be environmentally friendly with her need to keep her farm in operation. “I realized the effect of supply and demand, as well as taxes and incentives, has on whether or not individuals will attempt to farm sustainably” says Funkhouser. “It isn't an issue of the personal desire to help the Bay, it’s an issue of the personal means to be able to do it.”

Perhaps the most compelling part of the game occurred as players and regulators struggled to compromise conflicting interests. “There is some really neat interplay between groups that happen, and you get to see how they happen with every round of the game,” comments Chambers.

 “The game opened my eyes to how complex it is and how many stakeholders are involved. It’s not just as easy as ‘Okay, you can’t allow any more fertilizer into the Bay,’ because that really impacts the other people’s livelihoods,” Kobiela said.

Ultimately, the UVA Bay Game emphasizes the interdependency among the various stakeholders. As Chambers says, “Either we’re all gonna win or we’re all gonna lose.”