The Skimmer interviewed three practitioners about their experiences developing and using serious games to educate stakeholders, professionals, students, and the general public about aspects of the conservation and management of coastal and marine ecosystems. Learn about:

One striking commonality of these stories is the ability of games to engage a wide variety of audiences – oftentimes even wider audiences than those for which they were developed – in discussion and learning about the conservation and management of marine ecosystems.

Reef Stakes®: Simulating the complexity of multi-stakeholder decision-making processes

Editor’s note: Edmund Lau is part of the Reef Stakes development team, a four-person team with backgrounds in marine science and conservation. He is also a program manager with Reef Check Malaysia.

The Skimmer: Can you tell us a little bit about your game and the target audience?

Lau: Reef Stakes is the first marine-themed role-playing card game in Malaysia. Designed by four young professionals in the conservation workspace, the game mimics real-life stakeholder relationships, introduces some of Malaysia’s most iconic marine species, and highlights threats to coral reefs. The game goes along two tracks – nature and development.

To begin, each player chooses one of six roles (conservationist, developer, natural resource manager, tourism operator, politician, or fisherman) at random. Each role is assigned three specific missions to achieve in the game, all of which correspond to real-life priorities. For example, all three of the conservationist’s missions are related to nature while the tourism operator is interested in both nature and development. The building up of the game revolves around a “rock” card where players build in either the nature track or the development track (Level 1 to Level 4). To win the game, players have to play all three specific mission cards (Level 5) on the board. However, since some missions overlap, players have to communicate, work together, or even sabotage each other to (literally) play their cards right.

The game is targeted to the general public ages 12 years and up. Although we specify a minimum age because of the science involved, we have found that some younger players under the age of 12 have been able to understand and play the game well.

The Skimmer: How has Reef Stakes been used to date?

Lau: The team has been using this game for educational purposes and fun engagement sessions.

Since our launch in late 2018, we have produced two editions: the limited-edition pilot deck and the 2019 Living Coral Edition. During the launch, we donated 50 copies to various environmental NGOs, educational institutions, and scuba diving companies to be used in their marine education activities. Some of the environment NGOs include Reef Check Malaysia, MareCet, WWF, Save Our Seahorses, and Turtle Conservation Society.

Since being in the market, we were thrilled to discover stories of how Reef Stakes® has been used for different education efforts by organizations. For instance, a lecturer at University Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) has had her Coral Reef Ecology students play Reef Stakes to help them better understand the roles of different stakeholders in conservation. This is part of an innovative effort that uses gamification in teaching.

Additionally, the environmental NGO Ecoknights successfully used Reef Stakes® in their recent #RespectOurCoast Festival in conjunction with the Ombak Festival. Ecoknights used our game during the July 2019 festival to share messages about marine issues. Reef Check Malaysia, another environmental NGO, has been using the card game during their survey trips, playing with volunteers and marine park officers to educate them. On another occasion, Reef Stakes was featured at Glean Fun Day 2018, an event where eco-friendly interactive games are used to encourage youth leaders in local communities to take action on environmental issues, such as public waste management and conservation.

In addition to the usual academic institutions and NGOs, our card game has also been used by other industries. One of the dive centers, Duyong Dive Centre, has included Reef Stakes gaming sessions in their diving trip itinerary as a way to educate their customers about marine ecosystems. The board gaming community in Malaysia has also referred to the procedural gaming concept of Reef Stakes as well as how it has educational value within a game.

To sum it up, Reef Stakes is not only being used for communication and education in marine conservation but in game design as well.

The Skimmer: What outcomes have you seen from that use?

Lau: We believe Reef Stakes has increased awareness of the marine realm and threats to marine systems. Players have responded well to the game and always ask questions about elements of the game, ranging from building processes to threats. In our many gaming sessions, we have personally observed players learning something while playing the game. On one occasion a player expressed that he did not know that bottom trawling could be highly damaging. We have even encountered players referencing the roles in the card game in their conversation after the game.

We have also prepared additional content about these elements that is easily accessible on our website For instance, in conjunction with 2019 World Oceans Day and Coral Triangle Day, we ran a month-long education campaign with social media postings describing the elements of the cards in Reef Stakes® to promote and highlight issues as well as relevant organizations that are contributing actions and solutions.

We were also honored to be featured by Creative Culture project in UNIMAS, a Newton-Ungku Omar funded project on gamification in education where we were given the opportunity to showcase this locally produced game.

The team believes that the game is gaining momentum within the Malaysian marine education and gaming community. We have received suggestions and requests to teach how to facilitate a game session to deliver more educational value. Hence, we organized a Reef Stakes masterclass event in October 2019 in conjunction with the Kuala Lumpur Eco-Film Festival (KLEFF). The masterclass taught participants the basic elements of the game and gave them an introduction to how to facilitate their own game session. The participants are now able to bring the game to a wider audience.

Recently, a group of students has engaged us to use Reef Stakes in a case study to investigate whether playing the game changes participants’ behavior after the game. This is the first such collaboration that has arisen since Reef Stakes debuted.

The Skimmer: Have you learned any lessons or has anything really surprised you from seeing the game in action with participants?

Lau: During the beta-testing of the game, the feedback from participants – from both marine and non-marine backgrounds – helped to refine the game to the version we see today. As a result of the feedback we received, we created a more balanced mix of building cards, added more disruptive elements, and related these elements to issues unique to Malaysia. This last point is one of the strengths of our game. We feature local issues such as fish bombing and bottom trawling without disregarding international issues such as marine debris and oil pollution.

Aside from this, Reef Stakes has been played outside Malaysia in Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Germany. We have been both surprised and relieved to see that international participants have no trouble with playing the game – surprised that they caught on to the concepts so easily and relieved to know that our game can transcend cultural and geographical boundaries.

Another unexpected surprise is that the board gaming community has referenced the mechanics of our game – its logical procedural process and the fact that is objectives-driven – as a means to end a game.

Learn more about Reef Stakes.

Ocean Limited: Enabling players to take on stakeholder roles and negotiate interests in marine resources

Editor’s note: Stefan Koenigstein is a research scientist with the Sustainability Research Centre at the University of Bremen (Germany) and the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz (US). Lisa-Henrike Hentschel is an environmental educator with Ocean Philosophers in Neumünster, Germany.

The Skimmer: Can you tell us a little bit about your game and the target audience?

Koenigstein: Ocean Limited is a role-playing, tabletop board game for groups of 10-24 players ages 14 years and older. The game was developed for use in high schools and environmental education groups. However, we have found it is also interesting for other audiences, including university students and the general public, because many aspects of the game are open to interpretation and there are different levels of complexity in how the game can be played.

To play Ocean Limited, people take on the roles of different ocean stakeholders – fishers, shipping companies, energy or aquaculture entrepreneurs, environmentalists, scientists, and many others. Each character has a different goal, makes use of the ocean in different ways, and impacts others directly or indirectly.

During the game, the players are confronted with the impacts of human uses and climate change on the ocean. They experience increasing pressure to negotiate their interests with each other, and hopefully find compromises and sustainable solutions to conserve the services of the ocean for everybody. Our philosophy during game development was to create an educational tool in which environmentally friendly behavior is not ‘dictated’ but should emerge from the insights of the students themselves and the social influences among the players.

The Skimmer: How has Ocean Limited been used to date?

Hentschel: We developed Ocean Limited over the course of almost three years and have played the final game primarily in schools (grades 7 and higher) and environmental education courses in Northern Germany. We have also presented it at marine science conferences, outreach events, university seminars, and game festivals. We partner with several environmental NGOs that use the game in their work and public events. The original game is in German, but we produced an English version in 2019 and are planning translations into additional languages.

The Skimmer: What outcomes have you seen from that use?

Koenigstein: It has been a lot of fun to play the game and watch how students get personally engaged in ocean matters, and we get good feedback from students and teachers. I think the game makes most players realize how many people and activities around the world use and depend on the ocean; how huge but fragile the ocean is; and how their personal behavior, consumption, etc. relate to pressures on the environment. That last part is the most important outcome for me. We have already looked into player interactions and decisions for a scientific article. We now want to further investigate how cooperative and sustainable behaviors emerge in the game and how it can be used to train environmental decision-making in a group setting.

The Skimmer: Have you learned any lessons or has anything really surprised you from seeing the game in action with participants?

Hentschel: It is really surprising how emotional the players get when they get into their role. It is a game of talking, trading, and convincing other people, and teachers are also often surprised how active and engaged students become.

In addition, after the first few rounds of a game, the ocean gets busier and more crowded, especially in coastal areas. It is very interesting to see how economic interests and environmental considerations get balanced. Sometimes the “green” characters (e.g., environmentalists and scientists) feel that they have no power against all of the economic activities that take place. But I often observe strong collaborations develop that limit uses and promote sustainability. The way the game goes really depends on the personalities of the players – it is always different, and the way the players act and interact is often very surprising. With groups that have more preparation and environmental background knowledge, discussions and negotiations within the game become much more detailed.

Learn more about Ocean Limited.

Fishing in the Food Web: Introducing players to complex marine ecological concepts and stimulate discussion about how marine ecosystems work

Editor’s note: David Galván is a researcher with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) at the Center for Marine Ecosystem Study (CESIMAR) in Argentina.

The Skimmer: Can you tell us a little bit about your game and the target audience?

Galván: We named the game “Fishing in the Food Web”, and the initial target audience was kids from 8 to 12 years old. We designed the game to introduce children to the concepts of species vulnerability based on trophic position and body size.

To create the game, we made a set of magnetized pictures with different sizes and weights per species. The list of species includes the sevengill shark, three reef fishes, small crustaceans and mollusks, macroalgae, and microalgae. All of the species selected are common on our coast, the Patagonia coast of Argentina. The game set also includes a scale and magnetized fishing rods. The game has several steps and follows a PowerPoint presentation. The game ends with a group discussion of relationships among the different concepts. As of now, the game needs to be facilitated by a biologist, but we would like to turn it into an activity that teachers can do without much assistance.

The Skimmer: How has Fishing in the Food Web been used to date?

Galván: The game was initially designed for the “open house” of the research institute where I work (CESIMAR – CCT CENPAT CONICET). Then the club of recreational anglers of our city – Puerto Madryn, Argentina – requested the game for their “school of anglers” as well as several primary schools. Although Fishing in the Food Web was designed for kids, we have also played it with teenagers and adults. And surprisingly it always works!

The Skimmer: What outcomes have you seen from that use?

Galván: We (teachers and our science staff) are always surprised at how easily kids understand the theoretical concepts. After one hour of playing with magnetized figures, scales, and tiny fishing rods, kids discuss ideas of macroecology. Relating trophic pyramids with individual body size and accumulated biomass in the context of human activities is a topic of discussion in top journals. With teenagers, the game quickly attracts their attention and helps explain our work as scientists. Recently I was invited to give a training workshop for park rangers. In that case, I used Fishing in the Food Web as an ice-breaker to create an atmosphere of knowledge exchange and introduce ecological concepts.

The Skimmer: Have you learned any lessons or has anything really surprised you from seeing the game in action with participants?

Galván: We have learned several lessons. First, we planned the game with simplified trophic relationships: one top predator, one prey for each intermediate predator, etc. But we found that kids were not satisfied with this and claimed that reality was more complex – that the shark fed on multiple types of prey. On one occasion they even asked us to include what amounted to intra-guild predation among the reef fish.

With teenagers and adults, it was easy, they accepted our simplified rules. But we learned that an ingenious and funny game is a good way to show that you have something interesting to communicate that deserves their attention.

Photo credits: Images of Reef Stakes, Ocean Limited, and Fishing in the Food Web were contributed by the relevant development teams.