Combining ecosystem modeling with serious gaming in support of transboundary maritime spatial planning.


The Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) Challenge simulation platform helps planners and stakeholders understand and manage the complexity of MSP. In the interactive simulation, different data layers covering an entire sea region can be viewed to make an assessment of the current status. Users can create scenarios for future uses of the marine space over a period of several decades. Changes in energy infrastructure, shipping, and the marine environment are then simulated, and the effects are visualized using indicators and heat maps. The platform is built with advanced game technology and uses aspects of role-play to create interactive sessions; it can thus be referred to as serious gaming. To calculate and visualize the effects of planning decisions on the marine ecology, we integrated the Ecopath with Ecosim (EwE) food web modeling approach into the platform. We demonstrate how EwE was connected to MSP, considering the range of constraints imposed by running scientific software in interactive serious gaming sessions while still providing cascading ecological feedback in response to planning actions. We explored the connection by adapting two published ecological models for use in MSP sessions. We conclude with lessons learned and identify future developments of the simulation platform.

Application in MSP: 
Taken into account in an MSP process
Mineral extraction
Nature protection
Offshore renewable energy production
Oil and gas exploitation
Submarine cables and pipelines
Under water cultural heritage
Type of Issue: 
Coexistence of uses
Cross-border cooperation
Economic aspects
Ecosystem-based approach
Environment aspects
Social aspects
Type of practice: 
Stage of MSP cycle: 
Vision and aims
Analyse spatial aspects
Cross-border / trans-national aspect: 
Coherence with other processes: 
Integrated Coastal Zone Management
Marine Strategy Framework Directive
Strategic Environmental Assessment

Questions this practice may help answer: 

  • What is the MSP Challenge simulation platform?
  • How can the MSP Challenge simulation platform support transboundary maritime spatial planning?


The MSP Challenge and Ecopath modelling approach are open-source, community-based, not-for-profit initiatives. Breda University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands, is custodian of the MSP Challenge Simulation Platform.


To encourage the use of advanced game technology and gameplay for learning how to manage complex systems and natural resources.


The MSP Challenge simulation platform integrates the best available geographic, maritime, and marine data provided by many proprietary institutions (e.g., Copernicus, EMODnet, HELCOM, IMO) with science-based simulation models for shipping, energy, and ecology. These data and models are linked together in a Unity game-engine based interactive platform (Abspoel et al. 2020). The simulation platform allows anyone, experts as well as non-experts, to operate it for planning support such as stakeholder engagement, codesign, interactive scenario development, professional learning, and student education. The current platform hosts three editions, for the North Sea, Baltic Sea, and Clyde marine region.


The authors discuss the lessons learned from the case studies, identify challenges and limitations, as well as assess effectiveness of the MSP Challenge simulation platform.


The MSP Challenge simulation platform, enhanced with the scientific ecosystem models presented in the study, has the potential to serve as a powerful planning support tool and learning environment, revealing ecological complexities and dynamics of marine food webs under the direct and indirect repercussions of planned human activities. Because the platform is built in a highly modular fashion, it can host any sea basin in the world.

Responsible Entity: 

Ecopath International Initiative (EII).

Costs / Funding Source: 

The MSP Challenge North Sea edition and Clyde Marine Region edition were co-funded by the EU Interreg NorthSEE and EU SimCelt projects, respectively. The link between MSP Challenge and EwE and the Ecopath model for the North Sea were partially funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and Rijkswaterstaat. The Ecopath model for the Clyde Marine Region was partially funded by the Scottish Government. EuroMarine funded the scenario building workshop in Sète, France, in 2015, which led to the discussions and subsequent collaborations that produced the MSP-EwE merger.

Contact person: 

Jeroen Steenbeek: