How playing games can help coral reef conservation

Written by Carla Elliff

Dealing with coral reef management can be a daunting task. From biological information about the species living on the reef to measuring the intensity of risks and threats, there are so many things to consider. One of the most important tasks is engaging stakeholders.

Stakeholders are people or organizations that have an interest or concern about the subject at hand. For coral reef management this encompasses a wide audience. Scuba divers are interested in having a beautiful reef to visit, fishermen need a healthy ecosystem to guarantee their catch, while coastal communities may not even be aware that they rely on the reef for protection against strong wave action, and so on. With such a variety of people, interests will certainly overlap and create conflict.

This is where reef managers and scientists need to get creative!

Over the past years, several serious, but fun games have popped up as environmental conservation strategies. These tackle the challenge of engaging stakeholders and increasing awareness, as showcased in a recent issue of The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management by @OCTO. Below are some great examples of games focusing on coral reef conservation and science:

Reef Stakes ®

This award-winning card game was created in Malaysia but has been played in several countries with great results. It is currently available only in English and is targeted to a general public with ages 12 years and up.

The game was designed to stimulate interactions by mimicking real-life stakeholder relationships. Players are randomly assigned roles as conservationists, developers, fishers, natural resource managers, tourism operators, and politicians. Each one of these has three missions to complete in the game, which are based on priorities that really exist for these stakeholders. By using different Track and Scenario cards, players can reach their goals and create obstacles for whoever is in their way.

The game has been used by universities to teach students, by NGOs to encourage youth leaders and increase awareness, and by the diving industry as a part of diving trip itineraries to educate their customers. Moreover, the format of the game has been so well designed that it is also being used as a reference in the board gaming community, thus reaching beyond marine conservation audiences.

Launched in 2018, Reef Stakes® is now available in its new 2019 edition called Living Coral. Check out their website for more information:

Image 1. Photo of the Reef Stakes game and Reef Stakes in use (cover image) are courtesy of the Reef Stakes development team.


Focused on fishing communities, ReefGame stimulates players to think about collective impacts and livelihood strategies to guarantee long-term sustainability. This game consists of a linked board game and a freely downloadable computer model available only in English. The board shows a grid representing a coastal area. In turn, the computer model is used to calculate fisheries and other outcomes from the players’ decisions on the board.

Image 2. ReefGame being played in a community in the Philippines. Photos courtesy of Deborah Cleland.

While ReefGame was designed and used in workshops in the Philippines, it can be tailored to fit other local realities. The target audience is stakeholders in coral reef management, but the game has also been used in universities to engage students.

With 10 to 30 players per board, several roles are available and allow stakeholders to either represent their own views on scenarios in the game or experience the roles of other parties involved in the issue. The only two roles that are essential for the game are fishers and bankers. Other roles (tourism operators, aquaculture operators, industry, and local government units) add complexity and realism to the discussions.

The objective of the game is to go through each scenario proposed and discuss which are the best solutions to guarantee sustainability. There are four basic scenarios: fishing only, alternative livelihood, household strategy, and management interventions. Additional phases can be used for more discussions (e.g. illegal fishing, tourism seasonality, pollution, etc.).

Check out how ReefGame has been applied in the Philippines:

To download ReefGame go to:


With a citizen-science approach to coral reefs, NeMo-Net (Neural Multi-Modal Observation and Training Network) is a video game currently in development at NASA. The idea is to have players help classify and identify coral reefs from real satellite images. The result will be a global 3D dataset of coral reef maps.

Players first complete tutorials on how to map the boundaries and textures of coral and learn how to categorize and navigate around the reef. Once the player has gained some experience and reaches a good accuracy level, they are able to explore more and even evaluate classifications from other users.

A beta version of the game is currently available for iPhone, iPad and Apple TV to help developers at this stage. More information can be found at

Image 3. Screenshots, pictures, and art of NeMo-Net (Source:

 What other coral reef-related games do you know?

Let us know in the comments below!

To find out more about marine conservation games and resources beyond coral reefs, check out


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