Online gaming for a better, greener world

Climate-proof rural and urban areas

The aim is to let policymakers make better choices by giving them a better understanding of how water, energy, food, land and the climate are interlinked. Photo: Shutterstock

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

How can you show policymakers that apparently simple decisions about water, energy and food can have major, complex consequences for the climate? Wageningen researchers have joined forces with other European scientists to develop a solution: an online game.

As the Roman poet Horace put it, “Whoever mixes the pleasant with the useful gains everyone’s approval.” Utile and dulci. That is precisely what the researchers at Wageningen University & Research had in mind with the idea for SIM4NEXUS: a serious game that combines learning with a fun experience for the players. No sooner said than done. SIM4NEXUS lets anyone who is interested try to make the best choices for a country so as to minimise CO₂ emissions and utilise the available resources efficiently. The underlying aim of the game – which anyone can play for free online – is to let policymakers understand better how water, energy, food, land and the climate are interlinked, thereby letting them make better decisions.


The name SIM4NEXUS is a reference to two concepts, explains climate economist and project manager Floor Brouwer of Wageningen Economic Research. On the one hand it refers to SimCity, a computer game that was launched in 1989. The player was the mayor of a digital city who had to manage all aspects of urban development. On the other hand, it refers to ‘nexus’, a technical concept for the associations between domains. “You need water and energy for food production,” says Brouwer, explaining the nexus of the game, “but water is also needed for energy, and you can produce energy from the food crops. You need land for all these things, and what you do with that land affects the climate. Those interactions soon become very complicated.”

Anyone can try to make the best choices that utilise resources as efficiently as possible

Energy is needed for food and water, making it an important domain for policymakers. Photo: Shutterstock

SIM4NEXUS aims to show people the far-reaching consequences of apparently simple choices in the context of a game. The game scenarios have been worked out for five case studies (policy assignments for Greece, Azerbaijan, Latvia, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom) and five nexus domains. For each case, the researchers developed models that describe that situation and show clearly how choices have a positive or negative impact on the situation.

Wrong choices

For the Dutch case, the player has to try to grow biomass to generate as much energy as possible while taking account of the requirements of food production. You do that by coming up with a new policy every five years. But you have to be careful because if you make the wrong choices, they have adverse effects on food production, the amount of land you need, water consumption and the climate. “The role of water is often forgotten when talking about biomass. If you take that into account, you are better able to decide which plants you grow for human consumption and which for energy production.” There is also a global version of SIM4NEXUS. That is not a proper game scenario; it is a simplified version of reality that is still able to show what dramatic effects supposedly simple choices can have.

Watch this short video explaining the SIM4NEXUS online game.

Converting a case into a game is no easy matter, stresses Brouwer. “You have to check the situation with policymakers, translate it into models that you fill with data, and then get the whole thing running – a hell of a job.” What are known as system dynamics models are used for the complex underlying web of cause and effect. System dynamics is a method for modelling interactions between variables that dates back to the 1960s. System dynamics models were used for example for the famous Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome in 1972. This was the first persuasive account showing that the available land for food and energy would be the limiting factor given the expected growth in the population.

Sessions with 80 participants

When the Wageningen team started on SIM4NEXUS, the goal was to make a real multiplayer game where individual players all over the world would gather digitally to play against one another. That turned out to be too ambitious so the aspirations were scaled down. Now, SIM4NEXUS is a game where just one person logs in and then consults with a group (face to face or digitally) about which decisions to take in the period 2020 to 2050. That technical limitation does not seem to be a problem when using the game: the group as a whole plays it. “We have had sessions with eighty participants divided into four groups, but we also had fifteen students in Lithuania in groups of two or three.”

Brouwer oversees these sessions and sometimes he is surprised by the outcomes. “I’d played SIM4NEXUS many times and had concluded every time that we wouldn’t be able to achieve our climate targets. But when I played the game for the Greece case with PhD candidates from various countries who were a lot smarter than me, we were actually able to achieve a good score. We drew two conclusions: you need to start early and it will be expensive.” According to Brouwer, it is not that important whether the game’s outcomes correspond fully to reality. “You want to show where the openings are and then get people to discuss them. Ideally, your fellow players will be experts in other domains of the nexus. Of course it is essential to actually play the game but the discussions that follow about the solutions are just as important.”

Fantastic project

At the policy level, SIM4NEXUS was used successfully in a session with top civil servants in Greece. They had to try and make agriculture more sustainable in fourteen regions while taking into account the country’s national climate policy and energy targets. The model for this consisted of thousands of lines of software. If they decided to plant more forest, for example, they could immediately see what the effects were on the climate, water, energy, land and food. “We heard from senior civil servants in Greece that the game gives policymakers a better understanding of how the interaction between the five domains works.” In The Netherlands with its biomass case, sessions with the private sector have led to new insights into the complexity of the nexus relationships.

In the game, the policymaker can see what effect their views have
It is essential to actually play the game, but the discussions about the solutions are just as important

Water is needed for food production, but also for energy. Photo: Shutterstock

Success stories like that make Brouwer quite convinced about the result: “It’s a fantastic project!” That pride also lies in the fact that SIM4NEXUS makes a serious attempt to base the game on models that describe the actual situation as accurately as possible. What is more, the use of SIM4NEXUS has helped raise the profile of the concept of the nexus – and therefore the importance of looking at the interaction between the five domains – in European policymaking. For example, the project team organised European events about the game and discussed it with the European Commission.

According to Brouwer, the secret to the impact SIM4NEXUS has had at the policy level is the ‘crucial decision’ to use system dynamics models. “There had always been models, such as our own and the one used by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. But models like those can’t give policymakers an active role; they simply give a result that the policymakers may or may not like. But in a game, the policymaker takes action and can then see what effect their ideas and approaches have.”

New nexus project

Although the SIM4NEXUS project has now finished, the game remains available for everyone free of charge. What is more, much of the modelling knowledge that was acquired is being taken on board in a new nexus project that WUR is also involved in. “Partly in response to a request from the European Commission, we have set up a cluster of projects. This cluster is aimed at sharing knowledge and SIM4NEXUS is an active part of that. We hope this will help incorporate the nexus as a topic in new European research projects.” The game also continues to be used in knowledge sessions, for example in an Erasmus Plus project where the game is played with PhD students from various countries. “And in a few weeks’ time I will be playing it with students in Finland to see what they can get out of it. So one result of the SIM4NEXUS project is that it has generated a lot of follow-up activities.”

European research context

SIM4NEXUS addresses the following European policy challenge: Improving climate policy, achieving a circular economy and sustainable use of resources Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Economic Research Countries involved in Europe: Austria, Belgium Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom

Duration: 2016 – 2020

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