We evaluate the potential for serious games to be used as a scientifically based decision-support product that supports the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) mission--to provide integrated, unbiased scientific information that can make a substantial contribution to societal well-being for a wide variety of complex environmental challenges. Serious or pedagogical games are an engaging way to educate decisionmakers and stakeholders about environmental challenges that are usefully informed by natural and social scientific information and knowledge and can be designed to promote interactive learning and exploration in the face of large uncertainties, divergent values, and complex situations. We developed two serious games that use challenging environmental-planning issues to demonstrate and investigate the potential contributions of serious games to inform regional-planning decisions. Delta Skelta is a game emulating long-term integrated environmental planning in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California, that incorporates natural hazards (flooding and earthquakes) and consequences for California water supplies amidst conflicting water interests. Age of Ecology is a game that simulates interactions between economic and ecologic processes, as well as natural hazards while implementing agent-based modeling. The content of these games spans the USGS science mission areas related to water, ecosystems, natural hazards, land use, and climate change. We describe the games, reflect on design and informational aspects, and comment on their potential usefulness. During the process of developing these games, we identified various design trade-offs involving factual information, strategic thinking, game-winning criteria, elements of fun, number and type of players, time horizon, and uncertainty. We evaluate the two games in terms of accomplishments and limitations. Overall, we demonstrated the potential for these games to usefully represent scientific information within challenging environmental and ecosystem-management contexts and to provide an interactive way of learning about the complexity of interactions between people and natural systems. Further progress on the use of pedagogical games to fulfill the USGS mission will require collaboration among scientists, game developers, educators, and stakeholders. We conclude that as the USGS positions itself to communicate and convey the results of multiple science strategies, including natural-resource security and sustainability, pedagogical game development and agent-based modeling offer a means to (1) establish interdisciplinary and collaborative teams with a focused integrated outcome; (2) contribute to the modeling of interaction, feedback, and adaptation of ecosystems; and (3) enable social learning through a broadly appealing and increasingly sophisticated medium.
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USGS Numbered Series
Serious games experiment toward agent-based simulation