Trouble in Lakeland: This Game Teaches the Impact of the Dairy Industry on the Lakes

Lindy Biller
Field Day Lab
Published in
5 min readFeb 13, 2020


Victor Zavala laughed as he told me about the first time he sat down and played Lakeland, Field Day’s new learning game based on his research.

“I was in there [playing] for about two hours,” Victor recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I need to get back to work!’”

I’d heard a lot about Victor, so his enthusiasm didn’t surprise me. Everyone here at Field Day had been raving about his enthusiasm for sharing his research.

Victor, researcher and engineering professor at UW-Madison, is fascinated by complex systems — especially how we can use models to understand and solve ecological problems. We worked with Victor, his graduate students Apoorva Sampat and Yicheng Hu, and UW researcher and professor Rebecca Larson (Biological Systems Engineering) to design a game based on their amazing research.

“The most memorable thing about the [game design] process was meeting the high school teachers,” Victor recalled. “I get chills even thinking about it . . . It was refreshing to see how committed they were.”

Kids play-testing Lakeland with Jenn Scianna, Field Day researcher.

One of Victor’s research interests is phosphorus pollution caused by the dairy industry. Here in Madison, the issue is hard to avoid. We’re surrounded by lakes, but I don’t take my kids swimming in town anymore. There were days last summer when nearly every beach was closed due to toxic algae blooms.

This issue didn’t pop up overnight. In Victor’s words, when it comes to complex systems, “each part impacts the other.” Kids need to develop their ability to look at the big picture, so that they can understand complex problems and help come up with solutions.

The problem is, complex systems are . . . well, you know. Complex. Teachers already need to balance curriculum requirements, time constraints, and a million other things. It can be hard to find great resources for teaching across disciplines.

That’s where Lakeland comes in. Victor believes that games are the perfect way to introduce kids to complex systems, since games are essentially complex systems themselves.

“The nature of the work that I do is very naturally aligned with games,” said Victor. Going forward, he’s planning to try to incorporate a gaming element in all of his outreach, whenever possible. “It’s so scalable,” he explained. “You can reach so many people that way.”

About the Game

A sneak peek of gameplay: dairy farms, cornfields, and lots of poop.

Lakeland starts with a snapshot of an idyllic lake town: sprawling farmland, blue lakes, cows dotting the hillside, and townspeople playing in the water. Players are given a simple task: Grow your town without destroying your lakes.

Spoiler alert: it’s harder than it sounds. Cows produce lots of poop, and rain washes the manure into the lakes, leading to toxic algae blooms. As players work to balance their resources, they’re introduced to the complex relationship between farming, soil nutrition, and lake pollution.

Events unfold much faster than in the real world, and players can speed up and slow down time. “Research shows this feature is crucial for students to understand environmental systems,” said Jenn Scianna, researcher here at Field Day. “Being able to manipulate time allows students to build causal relationships that are otherwise hidden by temporal distance.”

Lakeland allows players to discover those causal relationships for themselves. If they end up with super-polluted lakes or a graveyard of dearly departed Lakelanders . . . well, that’s what the New Game button is for.

“Failure is an awesome part of learning,” said David Gagnon, Field Day director. “That’s where the action is. In well-designed video games, you’re failing all the time. And when you do succeed, it matters.”

The game was funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at the USDA. NIFA provides funding to make Victor’s work possible. For more about using games like Lakeland in the classroom, check out our free online course here:

Choosing a Focus

Kids hard at work (and play) testing an early version of Lakeland.

For many researchers, the complex nature of their work makes it hard to share with the public. Victor’s work is no exception. If we tried to squeeze all the nuance and complexity of his research into a single game, 1. we would fail, and 2. nobody would play it.

Before you can start designing a game, you need to step back and identify a specific, meaningful topic that will translate into great outreach.

This is an important part of what we offer researchers. We are a research lab at UW-Madison, which means we understand the academic world. We’re also artists and educators and communication experts. We’ll help you break down your research into smaller parts and identify something you can offer the public.

For Lakeland, Victor gave us a crash course on his work and answered a lot of questions. Then we brainstormed together. The goal: to identify a focus that mattered to him and that would make a fun, effective game. Together, we settled on phosphorus pollution.

“There are a lot of environmental issues associated with the dairy industry,” Victor said, “but some, like methane in the air, are harder for people to grasp. It’s more tangible when you see the effect on the water.”

Victor Zavala, researcher extraordinaire, bringing the science.

Lakeland is meant to be a playful introduction, not a crash course. Our design team relied on Victor to make sure that, even though the game is simple, it’s accurate and meaningful.

“I gave the game to my grad students,” Victor said, “and even for them, it was thought-provoking. It has a lot of interesting dimensions.”

Want to visit Lakeland? Play the game and find classroom resources here: