Skip to Content

Thomas C. Skalak

Thomas C. Skalak

Contact Us

P.O. Box 400301
Charlottesville, VA 22904


VP for Research

The UVA Global Water Games Project

Latin AmericaWater supply is an urgent national and global problem.  Many communities and even entire countries are experiencing considerable economic, social, and ecological impacts due to water shortages.  Nearly half of the more than 400 major global watersheds are experiencing severe shortages during some part of the year, potentially affecting nearly three billion water users.  The World Economic Forum recently elevated “water supply crises” to the very top of its list of global risks on the basis of impact and probability. 

Four years ago a multi-disciplinary University of Virginia faculty and student group set out to revolutionize research and teaching about watershed stewardship and catalyze a new national policy conversation about sustainability.  With support and leadership from the Office of the Vice President for Research, this team quickly developed a prototype UVA Bay Game, a computer-based participatory simulation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a complex system of human behavior and natural processes.  Players take the roles of key stakeholders, such as farmers, developers, watermen, and associated policymakers; make decisions about their livelihoods and regulatory authority; and see the impacts of their decision on their personal finances, regional economy, and watershed health.

In our gameplays with university and K-12 classes and with real-world stakeholders players typically begin play as individual actors but quickly form teams and make collaborative decisions to achieve economic and environmental progress.  Changes in information flow motivate behavior change, and it is in collaboration that we see innovative solutions.  Players change the future of the Bay by comparison to projections based on current stakeholder behavior. 

Participatory simulations are ideal tools for multi-sector collaboration because they put scientific, economic, and policy information in the hands of stakeholders for the exploration of innovative solutions to shared problems, including alternatives to environmental policy as government regulation.  According to the National Academy of Sciences, in its America’s Climate Choices (2011), adaptive management institutions are the highest priority for climate change adaptation.

Led by Associate Vice President for Research Jeffrey Plank, the core UVA development team includes faculty members from Architecture (Bill Sherman and Eric Field), Arts and Sciences (Dave Smith), Commerce (Mark White), Education (David Feldon), Engineering and Applied Science (Gerard Learmonth).  Jim Galloway (Environmental Sciences, Jon Cannon (Law), Richard Gurrant (Medicine), and Bob Landel (Darden) have served as expert consultants.  Azure Worldwide co-founders Philippe Cousteau and Andrew Snowhite (UVA ’97) and Brian Richter, director of global freshwater strategies for The Nature Conservancy (and adjunct faculty member in Architecture and Darden) work closely with the UVA team on game development.  The faculty and student team built and tested the UVA Bay Game in a series of linked architecture, commerce, engineering, and environmental sciences classes.  Students developed the algorithms, coded the game, and designed user interfaces that visualize and correlate huge amounts of changing economic and environmental data.  Michael Purvis (UVA ’08, ’09), a graduate student in Learmonth’s systems engineering class when the project was launched, now is chief programmer.

The UVA Bay Game has been hailed by education, business, government, and NGO leaders as “the first of its kind,” “simply the best watershed management tool that exists.”  It has been featured at the inaugural NOAA Games and Simulation Summit in 2011 and at SXSW in March 2012—the first university project ever so recognized at SXSW.

Following more than 100 gameplays with educational institutions and public and private sector organizations here and in Australia, Brazil, and Canada, we designed a generalizable Global Water Games template to support the rapid development of simulations of any watershed on the planet.  In October 2012, at SXSW-Eco, UVA, Azure, and The Nature Conservancy announced joint development of a Texas Water Game that will highlight water conservation and water sharing, including water markets.  With the US Business Council for Sustainable Development we are pursuing multiple watershed simulations with energy, chemical, mining, and domestic other “big water” industry groups.  With a Virginia Tech team, we are pursuing development of a multi-country MeKong River simulation, beginning with the headwaters in China.  We also are applying our simulation technologies for corporate strategic engagement through sustainable supply chain games.   For K-12, participatory simulations of complex systems have enormous potential for improving learning outcomes, integrating SOL requirements, and leveraging the extra-mural skills of the “born digital” generation. 

We welcome new partnerships for any of these opportunities.  For further information, please contact Jeffrey Plank, Associate Vice President for Research, or 434-924-6901.