Simulation/Gaming for Learning about Sustainability and the Environment


Markus M. Ulrich

Swiss Federal Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (EAWAG/ETH), Duebendorf-Zurich, Switzerland




Both within the System Dynamics community and the Simulation & Gaming community, numerous tools have been developed that address envi­ron­mental problems and sustainable development. The instruments focus on learning about the complexities of the problems and about the characte­ristics of the dynamic systems involved. A further topic is the exploration of compre­hensive problem-solving strategies. These are critical processes as human behavior in complex systems is very often far from optimal (see for instance Sterman 1995 or Duke 1974). This paper has two main objectives:

     To present selected simulation games for learning about sustainability and the environment, three of them in greater depth (New Commons Game, SusClime, Global Warming). The com­parison will reveal a large variety in specific learning objectives, models and formats.

     To analyze the underlying models, and to provide the link to learning objectives


Experiential Tools for Learning About Sustainability


Table 1 presents selected simulation games that deal with aspects of global warming. This list was compiled based on a survey of all 27 volumes of the journal Simulation & Gaming, searches on the world wide web, and queries on two discussion lists (system dynamics list, GSPE-NL list). Full results will be published elsewhere (Ulrich 1997). Three of the instruments will be presented in greater depth.

The New Commons Game demonstrates the dynamics of the ”tragedy of the commons” (Bredemeier 1995). It takes about 90 minutes, with 6-24 players. Every team chooses privately how to exploit the common resource. Competitive choices maximize individual profit, but destroy the resource, and vice versa. Negotiations and other control mechanisms are provided to optimize the overall performance. The objective is to promote the understanding of the commons dilemma, to illustrate strategies to overcome social traps, and to foster empathy for persons operating in the real world.

The power of the game lies in its ability to create a vivid atmosphere of frustration and alien­ation among participants within a short period of time. The mechanisms of the system are commu­nicated in a comprehensive, holistic way. The experiences during the run serve as an excellent base for debriefing and further discussions on commons. Application to global warming, where the at­mosphere is used as a common sink for greenhouse gases, is easily possible.

SusClime is a simulation game on sustainable development and the greenhouse effect (de Vries, 1995). The transition of a two-region world from poverty, rapid population growth and de­pendence on fossil fuels to prosperity, a stable population and use of renewable energy sources is addressed. The implications of the value system, i. e. egalitarian, hierarchist, and individualist, on the outcome are demonstrated. The objective is to communicate basic insights about the long-term dynamics of a simple world with people, economic production, energy use and emission impacts, and to gain understanding of the key issues in a world which is both source-constrained and sink-constrained.

CO2 - The Interactive Negotiation: Global Warming is a highly abstract 24-person multi-party negotiation exercise whose structure is almost that of a repeated 24-person prisoner's dilemma. It takes about two hours. Participants represent delegations from various nations to international con­ferences. There are no dynamics, except social, and no "science". This exercise has been used about 300 times, in 15 countries. The objective is to learn that the essence of negotiations is manag­ing the tension between individual and collective advantage. This includes coalitions, cooperation, threat strategies, dealing with free riders and leadership.




Despite the fact that all three simulation games deal with global warming, the models that un­derlie these simulation games are completely different.

The New Commons Game employs a simple mathematical formalism that relies on several tables. They display the state of the resource, and the points achieved by different strategies. The dynamics of the simulation game are provided by a simple qualitative (or abstract) model. The numbers generated cannot be interpreted quantitatively. Only the general characteristics of the sys­tems are of interest, and thus the numbers serve as quantitative indicators only.

SusClime is based on a quantitative mathematical model that is directly derived from scientific research. The mathematical equations used therein are claimed to have a (certain) scientific validity, beyond the simulation game, i. e. they might also be used independently. De Vries (1995), for ex­ample, used the mathematical model of SusClime to examine various strategies that could be ap­plied in the simulation game.

In the negotiation simulation game Global Warming, the reference to the real world directly serves as the underlying model. Bilateral and multilateral negotiations and conferences are simu­lated according to the processes in the real-world.




A large number of simulation games are available for teaching about complex systems, and, in particular, about various types of environmental systems and sustainablility. They serve as excellent learning laboratories or “flight simulators”. Simulation games are based on various, fundamentally different model types. Depending on the underlying model, they are suited for diffe­rent learning objectives. The models of the three selected simulation games represent a continuum.

Simulation games based on qualitative, highly abstracted models have a great potential to communicate in a holistic way the gestalt of a system and its behavior. Such simulation games do not claim quantita­tive validity of their results. Simulation games based on quantitative models can be directly or indi­rectly linked to real world data. They may be evaluated in-depth to learn more about specific rela­tions in feedback loops, delays and other processes in a given system and serve in this way as powerful learning laboratories. Extensive arguing about numbers and the underlying model, how­ever, may lead to missing the objective of the game. This is especially critical when working with scientists. The model type should be carefully chosen and should reflect the particular learning ob­jectives.

Both the field of System Dynamics and of Simulation and Gaming contributed substantially to existing simulation games on environmental issues. Increasing exchange and cross-fertilization between the two related disciplines should therefore be fostered for the sake of the best possible simulation games.




Bredemeier, M. E. 1995. New Commons Game. Simulation & Gaming 26 (1): 113-115.

Duke, R. D. 1974. Gaming, the Futures Language. SAGE Publications, John Wiley and Sons, London/New York.

Frank, A. I., and R. D. Duke. 1995. SEIDL - Ecosystem Philosopy Game - A Generic-Specific Game. College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA. Internal Report.

Mastik, H., V. Peters, R. Scalzo, G. Vissers. 1997. TERRA NOVA - A game on the social surroundings of the environment. In Proceedings of the 27th Annual International Conference of the International Simulation and Gaming Association (ISAGA), July 96, Lielupe/Riga, Latvia. In press.

Parson, E. A. 1996. A Global Climate-Change Policy Exercise: Results of a Test Run, July 27-29 1995. IIASA Working Paper  WP-96-90. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg/Vienna, Austria.

Proctor, Ch. M. 1997. The Design for Environment (DFE) Game. In Proceedings of the 27th Annual International Conference of the International Simulation and Gaming Association (ISAGA), July 96, Lielupe/Riga, Latvia. In press.

Robinson, J., and J. H. Ausubel 1983. A Game Framework for Scenario Generation for the CO2 Issue. Simulation & Games 14 (3): 317-344.

Sterman, J. D. 1994. Learning in and about complex systems. Systems Dynamics Review 10(2-3): 291-330.

Ulrich, M. M. 1997a. Addressing Environmental Problems with Simulation and Gaming: Current Approaches, Examples and Underlying Models. Gaia. In prep.

Ulrich, M. M. 1997b. Sustainability at a local level: The computer tool INES (Interactive Energy Scenarios) and EMS (Environmental Management Simulation Game) as instruments for the reduction of energy consumption at a research institute. In Proceedings of the 27th Annual International Conference of the International Simulation and Gaming Association (ISAGA), July 96, Lielupe/Riga, Latvia. In press.

de Vries, B.  1995. SusClime - a simulation game on population and development in a re­source- and climate-constrained two-country world. Global Dynamics & Sustainable Development Programme. GLOBO Report Series no. 11. RIVM Report no. 461502011. National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), P.O. Box 1, 3720 BA Bilthoven, The Netherlands.

Table 1





New Commons Game

The participants exploit a common resource and experience the “tragedy of the commons”

Bredemeier 1995

Terra Nova

Participants from five countries develop strategies for sustaining the quality of human living conditions

Mastik et al. 1997

Beer Distribution Game

The participants act in this simulation game as beer distributors and experience the dynamics in a complex system with delays and feedback tool/instr.html


Simulation game on sustainable development and the greenhouse effect representing a two-region world

de Vries 1995


Participants, acting as the ministers of a country, try to implement a sustainable development

Global Warming

Multi-party negotiation exercise with participants acting as delegates at international conferences

Global Climate-Change Policy Exercise

Participants negotiate climate change agreements during a 3-day exercise supported by integrated-assessment models

Parson 1996

Global Change Game

Each of the participants becomes one hundred million people on a world-map the size of a basketball court. gcg/index.html

Framework for CO2 Issue

Participants negotiate on strategies to reduce CO2 emissions within a loose framework

Robinson and Ausubel 1983


Participants of different country teams negotiate by computer links agreements on e.g. the global environment icons/icons.html

EMS - Energy Management Simulation Game

Participants act as members of an academic institution and develop energy saving strategies for their institution.

Ulrich 1997b

DFE - Design for the Environment

Participants run three competing companies and develop strategies to lower environmental degradation while remaining competitive

Proctor 1997

SEIDL - The Ecosystem Philosophy Game

Participants manage an ecosystem and have different clues on the system behavior that have to be shared for successful management.

Frank and Duke 1995