The deplorable state of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is an unlikely subject for a multi-player computer game, but one developed at UVA just might play a role in efforts to save the bay. The Chesapeake is North America’s largest estuary, with a watershed covering more than 64,000 square miles from New York to Virginia. It affects the lives—and often conflicting interests—of nearly 17 million people. And according to a report released by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in April, its water quality continues to receive a failing grade despite more than 25 years of remedial efforts.

The UVA Bay Game offers a new angle on understanding the problems facing the bay. Researchers from across the University have spent the last 18 months creating and refining the game using 51,000 actual data points about the bay’s watershed. Sure, they hope it’s fun to play. But they also expect it will be an educational and policy decision-making tool with practical benefits.

The game had a public workout in Clark Hall in April when approximately 120 players representing each of the bay’s seven major component watersheds assumed roles as farmers, watermen, land developers, policy makers and bay regulators. With each round played, they learned the individual and collective consequences of their choices and could adjust their decisions.

Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the legendary ocean explorer, Jacques, and emcee for the event, urged the participants to “get into your roles,” pointing out that a workable solution can only come when environment and economics are both considered.

“If you go bankrupt, that’s not a winning formula; that’s not sustainable,” he said. “Everybody—the environment and the economy—needs to win in the game. If you fail at either one, it’s not a balanced approach.”

Will McDavid, an economics and religious studies second-year, made 20 million virtual dollars as a land developer buying infill, or land in already developed areas. In his case, environmentally friendly choices also improved his bottom line.

Yet many found their choices weren’t as clear. Dave Hondula, an environmental science Ph.D. candidate in real life and a cattle farmer in the game, was surprised to see that it was nearly impossible for him to increase profits using sustainable practices. “The farm enjoyed a few good years when we strayed from sustainable practices,” he said, but “I always felt like I was choosing between revenue and our watershed’s environment.”

Libby Engel, a second-year civil engineering student who played a crabber, similarly saw how elusive balance could be. “For a majority of the game, either the environmental quality was high and the economy was suffering, or vice versa,” she says.

However, she also learned the value of cooperation when after a few rounds she started talking to other watermen about strategy and how to influence the actions of the policymakers.

Collaboration is a key element of the Bay Game, both in its execution and in its creation. The game got its start with a question posed by Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research, to a few faculty members interested in the University’s sustainability endeavors. “Tom threw out a challenge,” recalls David E. Smith, professor of environmental science. “He said, ‘What about a serious game?’” The group loved the idea and several professors in different fields imagined that there would be a multitude of useful applications for an interactive simulation game. Before long, an interdisciplinary team that grew to include 11 departments across eight UVA schools was involved in the project. By Earth Day last year, they had a prototype.

“A group of us met every Monday morning,” says William H. Sherman, an associate professor of architecture who designed the game’s logo. “It’s been a huge effort, but one that shows what can happen when people work together.”

The game made the leap from academic exercise to commercial venture in September, when Azure Worldwide, a Herndon, Va.-based environmental consulting, development and marketing company, got involved thanks to Andrew Snowhite (Col ’97), who founded the company with Philippe Cousteau in 2007. The two met as roommates on a research expedition in Papua New Guinea when Snowhite was a third-year environmental sciences major.

The next step is to develop—with the UVA team—a K-12 version of the game, says Snowhite. “What is so important and exciting is that the Bay Game is a platform to cause positive change in the real world,” he says. “Because it is a politically neutral tool, it allows for different bay stakeholders to explore cooperative solutions. It is also a safe environment to test the outcome of policy decisions. To do this through a game is revolutionary.”

And also, say players of the game, a bit of fun.