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Published on: 15/09/2022

As an IRC intern, I had three months (June - September 2022) to answer this question. After searching online, in scientific publications and emailing water, sanitation and serious game experts, and conducting interviews with IRC staff and associates, in the end, I found the answer to be: “yes”.

Example of a mock-up simulation on water, sanitation and hygiene system strengthening aimed at professionals

Example of a mock-up simulation on water, sanitation and hygiene system strengthening aimed at professionals

There is great potential in simulation/serious games already being used by educational experts for learning and to create awareness with the general public in a variety of fields, many with proven positive results. Some educators are convinced that serious games are a more effective way to teach their students, up to the university level.

Watch these TED Talks to see how an 8th grade teacher in Denver, Colorado, Jonathon Best and Andre Thomas of Texas A&M University are using serious games.

Sure, but that is just kids and young adults, what about serious professionals?

Well, the health field is moving swiftly to take advantage of the potential of simulation/serious games: for example, SimGame Medical is designed to train medical professionals. Limbs Alive aids patients of all ages in stroke recovery (with rigorous mathematical modelling to track progress). Re-mission, is a serious game for adolescents and young adults who are undergoing cancer therapy and was found to significantly improve treatment adherence and indicators of cancer-related self-efficacy and knowledge; published in Pediatrics

These games are having a big impact because they have serious benefits, some of which are: 

1. They provide a non-linear/unidirectional interactive motivational learning experience, they: 

  • Are a preferred learning method for visual learners (which is considered the majority of the population)
  • Check understanding interactively (better than a test, right?)
  • Visualise what has been learned
  • Allows you to learn as you play: "Don't tell me what happens, help me understand it"
  • Gives a sense of progress (advancing levels, attaining badges, etc.) which generally motivates the user to play a longer time when compared to other traditional learning methods

2. They provide the freedom to fail, as:

  • Failing in the game allows you to make better decisions in real life
  • Multiple attempts make it safe to experiment

3. They foster cooperation by:

  • Group bonding that takes place
  • International cooperation in open world games, whereby fostering collective action

4. They allow environments/situations which would otherwise not be possible by:

  • Allowing anyone to explore outer space, the bottom of the ocean, inside the earth, take on a role of CEO or president, etc.
  • Allowing professionals (doctors, drivers, pilots, etc.) virtual training through simulations which reduce cost and risk

5. They provide discussion of sensitive issues/taboos, for example:

  • Corruption, menstrual hygiene, etc.
  • Games, much like art, theatre, etc. show reality in a different way which triggers empathetic and critical thinking in the eyes of the viewer/player


So, are they being used in water, sanitation and hygiene?

Non-virtual games are. There are many in-person games made by NGOs for the general public. There are some in-person, role-playing games made by consultants used for the capacity strengthening of professionals on water and sanitation system strengthening (used by Dr. Catarina Fonseca, Dr. Angela Huston, and George de Gooijer, just to name a few). Viva con Agua is developing a board game for training and planning purposes which allows people to appreciate the complexities of water and sanitation service delivery from different perspectives, i.e., government, NGO, community, and private sector.

There are many virtual simulations in the field of water management, sustainable water use, water resource management, urban planning, water contamination, hydrology, stormwater management, etc. What about, more specifically, free games that are available online and aim to build capacity related to water, sanitation and hygiene services? Games that met these criteria were gathered and analysed, finding the following results:

  • All were single players
  • A lot were no longer functional (more commonly PC games than apps)
  • Many are available only as apps (sometimes available on PC but with required download)
  • There is an app compatibility issue: iPhone vs. android apps (some apps are not available for you if you have an iPhone or vice versa)
  • 'User friendliness' is low. For example, some apps do not save automatically and generally feel like low budget games
  • All are for the general public, most are for kids, none are for professionals
  • Most aimed at high income countries for use in their own country or to raise awareness with the general public of realities in low-income countries

Although many consider games to just be appropriate for kids, according to the entertainment software association, the average age of gamers is 33 years and in the serious game that aids in stroke recovery (Limbs Alive), user age was not a problem.

Target audience age

Some may think the reason these games do not exist in low- and middle-income countries is because there may be accessibility and cultural barriers. Well, you might be surprised to find that popular app games like Candy Crush are big in Mali, India and Burkina Faso. In Rwanda, it’s all about the football game apps. What about games for professionals? Well, all of the IRC Capacity Development officers at the IRC country offices agreed that a well-made simulation game on WASH systems would be a useful learning tool. According to the World Bank 2016 report, worldwide, internet is more evenly spread than income. In the words of U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, “of the world’s seven billion people, about six billion have mobile phones but only about 4.5 billion have access to toilets.” It is therefore no wonder that 94% of the WASH Systems Academy virtual course users of 2022 are from low- and middle-income countries (see graphs below).

Graph showing target audience and income per country Graph showing target audience WASH Systems Academy

How about any free games that are available online and aim to build the capacity of professionals working in water, sanitation and hygiene services?

I did not find any therefore kept searching and after being told “no” by serious game and WASH professionals, I received a reassuring reply by Professor Bruce Lankford, of University of East Anglia, “I think you are on the right track.  It is surprising that there is not something along the lines you are looking for. Well done for spotting this!” When compared to other fields, the water, sanitation and hygiene sector is not using serious games to their full potential Aashna Mittal, serious game PhD researcher in agricultural and urban water management sectors at TU Delft University, agrees.

This seems a missed opportunity, ‘low hanging fruit’ waiting to be picked which could potentially advance the field of water, sanitation and hygiene in a big way. This simulation game could address the capacity gap at a low cost per user as although there is a high upfront cost, there is a low running cost which results in a low cost per person trained. It would be accessible for a very large group of people and for people in situations such as COVID, maternity, etc. with a lower carbon footprint (comparatively, you can only do so many in-person trainings).

So, can virtual simulation games be used to build capacities of professionals on strengthening of water, sanitation, and hygiene systems?

Yes, there are even publications which demonstrate that serious games are successful in building capacities of professionals on system thinking (of more than 10 years ago) Pasin and Giroux, in 2011, stated: “Complex interdependencies of systems can be taught by simulation games more effectively than with traditional learning methods”. More recently, in 2019, Arnold et al. stated: “Simulation games offer a safe space to experiment with system models and provide learning experiences about interdependencies and thus, are considered to foster the development of a deeper understanding of systems".

So, IRC is looking for funding and partnerships to develop a WASH systems simulation game to be used for different purposes; linked to the WASH Systems Academy, stand-alone, in workshops, on-the-job support, with donors etc. Linking the game to the WASH Systems Academy would allow for continued use of the game as the Academy is already running with much success. The WASH systems simulation game should be:

  • Low data (for better accessibility in all country contexts)
  • Able to save automatically
  • Accessible on smart phone as an app and as a PC game with and without download
  • Well made
  • With planned monitoring and evaluation for assessment

Do we know enough about WASH systems to be able to create this simulation? We need to remember that all serious games/simulations are a simplification of reality. It would improve with time. It could work towards an open world game which allows people internationally to cooperate, whereby fostering collective action.


List of WASH games


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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