The Virtual River Game makes complex models clear to all stakeholders

Researcher Robert-Jan den Haan of the University of Twente developed the Virtual River Game, a physical game board to control models and the Tygron Geodesign platform. He describes this unique project below.

Within the RiverCare research program, co-funded by NWO and industrial partners including Tygron, we have been looking for ways to make models accessible to stakeholders in a serious game. The Virtual River game, the prototype we developed, uses the Tygron Geodesign Platform, but in a way that is not immediately obvious. The Virtual River game is based on a new concept: a physical game board to control both digital models and the Tygron platform. Calculated effects are projected back onto the game board itself and through graphs, diagrams and scores in the Tygron platform.

The Virtual River game with the physical game board with visualizations, the Tygron Geodesign Platform on a touch screen (picture: Deltares).

Models make it possible to evaluate the effects of measures. To manage our rivers, we use hydrodynamic models to predict water flow and water levels during extreme discharges. We use ecological models to predict the biodiversity of floodplain facilities and models to calculate the costs of interventions. During the research project on the Virtual River game we found out that especially hydrodynamic models were perceived as a black box by multiple stakeholders. Something went into the model and something came out of it, but what happens in between? How is such a model used to make decisions?

Modular game blocks

We looked for a way to make a hydrodynamic model accessible and transparent in the Virtual River game. As a concept idea we made a physical game board that represents a fictitious and abstract piece of the Dutch river. The game board is a spatial area divided into equal, hexagonal locations. Each location is filled by two modular type of game tiles: height and land use. There are low stones to form the main channel of the river. Slightly higher stones for together different land use areas such as agricultural use, natural grassland and forest form the floodplains. Even higher stones form the dikes.

The physical game board of the Virtual River game as a representation of a Dutch river segment.

Around the game board we have developed a game table and software that makes the physical game board digital. Through additional adjustments we make the digital board suitable for the Delft3D Flexible Mesh hydrodynamic model, the BIOSAFE biodiversity model and a self-developed cost model. The digital board will also be used to control the Tygron Platform. This way players see the game board as a virtual world on the platform. Where the land use is agricultural on the board, players see cows grazing in the virtual world. Where the land use is forest on the board, players see trees.

Virtual River game interface in the Tygron Geodesign platform

In the Virtual River game players jointly explore strategies to improve flood safety and ecological value of the river segment within a budget. In the game, players are assigned a role and goals that correspond with stakeholders in reality. Players try to achieve both the common goal and their own goals, but does it all go together? Players jointly design, implement and evaluate interventions such as creating secondary channels, moving dikes and adjusting floodplain vegetation by moving game pieces on the physical game board of the Virtual River game.

Transparent and accessible

By linking a physical game board to digital models, the effects of interventions are calculated live. Feedback of the model results is done by means of visualizations projected on the game board itself and in the Tygron Platform that players see on the touch screen positioned above the game board. Players can also use the touchscreen to switch visualizations on the board between height, flow rates (flow pattern), flow resistance of land use (hydraulic roughness) and ownership. This way of feedback allows players to see the effects of change at the place where they made the change. In combination with the physical game board that itself already has height, this makes the model results easier to interpret and transparent. Because players don’t need background knowledge of the models, but control them by simply moving game tiles, the models become accessible.

Different visualizations are projected on the game board (in this case: height).

Meanwhile, we have applied the Virtual River game in multiple sessions, with both professionals and relative laymen regarding river management. We see that the game, through the concept of a physical game board and digital information, especially enables professionals and lay people to work together effectively. The combination is easily accessible, invites experimentation and therefore provides insights into different measures and the models used. Through the information in the game and the knowledge that professionals bring to the table, lay people learn a lot about the complexity of the river system, about the models that are used, and about the roles of stakeholders. At the same time, professionals learn about how other players look at the problem and solutions. We also see that professionals learn specific lessons from the game by giving them a role in the game that is not corresponding to their role in reality. For example, we let a participant from Rijkswaterstaat play the role of nature manager. In short, the Virtual River game and the innovative approach of the physical game board as a user interface achieves the intended goal.

More applications possible

We started developing the game board link to models and the Tygron Geodesign platform within the Virtual River game context, but we have developed the link ourselves as a game platform. The same principle can be applied to other locations and application areas. The conversion of the physical game board to the digital game board and the link with the Tygron Geodesign Platform is ready and immediately applicable. In particular, we see potential to use the platform for games about other environmental systems and urban planning. And we will certainly explore that further.

For more information, mail Robert-Jan den Haan (, researcher at the University of Twente.

The Tygron Platform has already been used in such a project in which game board and software work together. In New York, this was used for city planning where stakeholders could slide around a physical game board with game blocks that corresponded to the parameters. The Tygron Platform calculated the new situations and provided immediate feedback.

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