Facilitating the Biodiversity Collage and reading more about serious games in teaching about sustainability

Last week I had the pleasure to work with “real” students (“real” in contrast to the teachers that I typically work with) and it gave me so much energy* to meet such wonderful young people (wow, I feel old). But it’s true! I facilitated the Biodiversity Collage and that gave me new motivation to read some more articles on how other people use serious games in teaching about sustainability.

Today, I am reading from the “recommended reading” list of our upcoming teaching sustainability seminar series.

Let’s start from the start: With the Ouaruachi et al. (2019)  entry in the Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education, just because that sounds cool and reminds me of the red encyclopedia we had when I was a child, and life pre-google (for some reason, I remember looking up something about chicken and see the image of a chicken and a rooster vividly in front of me). Wasn’t it nice when all the relevant information seemed to be in one place in half a meter of bookshelf (but then what was in the other kilometers of bookshelves? Never mind…)?

In the encyclopedia entry, they start out with a list of synonyms, and two specifically jumped at me: “persuasive games” and “social impact games”. While the latter resonates with me, the former sounds a bit … brain-wash-y? We do want to persuade our students to do the right thing, but we also want them to become independent and critical thinkers that might be able to spot new and different ways of doing things, and where things we teach might be not good enough, or wrong.

Then, as you would expect from an encyclopedia, they provide a nice definition: “Serious games can be defined as those games that are designed with a purpose that goes beyond pure entertainment. These games are intended to convey ideas and values, facilitate learning, and practice skills. They have the purpose of influencing thoughts and actions in real-life contexts, therefore exceeding the scope of the game itself.” They summarize typical goals as raising awareness, increasing knowledge and understanding, and encouraging action.

The way encyclopedias do, the origin of serious games is traced back all the way to Plato, who seems to have said something along the lines of how playing a role as a child will lead to playing that role as an adult (which is why every child should have access to a play kitchen and a train set, but I digress…), and to Piaget, who likes reinforcement through repetition. And to military training through computer simulations (which makes me think of Sheldon Cooper learning to drive, and the “hit you in the face with a cushion” simulation of an airbag…). They then present a bunch of examples of serious games.

What I found surprising is the focus on online games, when my own experience is mostly in-person table-top games. So this was eye-opening! Although maybe not really surprising, since many of their synonyms were already about e-learning and digital games, which I, however, found weird when reading them before reading the full entry. So here we go, this was the encyclopedia.

Now on to Hallinger et al. (2020)’s literature review of simulations and serious games (SSGs) in teaching for sustainability. Their research questions center around setting up an inventory of games, focussed on which topics, are out there; where they are being used; and how they have been researched. For that, they look at almost 400 published documents, of which more than half are commentary-type manuscripts. They find 152 of those games dealing with “environmental impacts” of some sort, and many different modes of delivery (online, board game, role play, …).

What I find most interesting (although not surprising) is that many of the articles that claim to report results of experiments did not use research methods that support that claim, and 2/3rds of the articles are non-empirical. The authors offer examples of what they consider strong research designs and methods; mostly studies that did pre-/post tests and large sample sizes as well as a measure of long(er) term effects with a repeat measure after 9 months. They highlight a study by Mulcahy et al. (2020) on a gamified app and its effects on behavioral intentions and actual behavior as a good practice example. And it is indeed a cool article worth reading! The app leads to real behavior change of real customers of an energy company (compared to a control group) both in how they consume energy and how they talk about it with friends and family. Their subjects were arguably a lot more diverse than what we find in our classrooms, and the reinforcement of “good behavior” through saving actual money on energy bills is probably helping the behavioral  change. But still we can learn from this study, for example that the transfer of general calls to action (“save the environment”) into really clear actionable messages (“turn off the lights”) is important for actual action to happen, and maybe also for considering that — as important as it is what we do in class — we should be more open in collaborating with other actors when it comes to encouraging more sustainable behavior. And I really like that they state as practical implication that “Statistics and forecasts of numerous climate changing trends are dire, with some experts even going so far as to say the earth is past the point of no return. Yet there is no utility in such gloom-saying, and it seems irresponsible to make no changes. This research shows that behaviors can be learned (or bad habits unlearned), changes can be implemented, and done so in relatively short window durations”. So what are we waiting for when we should be exploring other such levers like that app? :-)

But back to facilitating the Biodiversity Collage last week. One part that we played a bit with is the last part about transferring learning from the game into real life. Usually participants are asked to come up with actions they can do, typically at home, in school, in society; but I feel that leads to them just producing the typical actions from memory: Don’t fly, buy second hand, eat seasonal local stuff, … It doesn’t actually lead to any deeper thinking. So we asked about what participants felt they needed to learn more about to deal with the challenges that we explored in the Biodiversity Collage, seeing that they had just started a program on Risk Management. Using this exercise to highlighting the links between their education and the choices they make about what they study, and the big challenges of our time, seemed a good idea and is definitely something I want to explore further! The same group of students will play the Climate Fresk in a couple of weeks, too, and the teacher will refer back to both the content of the game and the connections to their studies later on. And we will try to evaluate this to know how to improve the whole thing next time round!

*energy… Maybe not. I need so much time to recover from interacting with a lot of people! But definitely new motivation and drive and hope!

Hallinger, P., Wang, R., Chatpinyakoop, C., Nguyen, V. T., & Nguyen, U. P. (2020). A bibliometric review of research on simulations and serious games used in educating for sustainability, 1997–2019. Journal of Cleaner Production, 256, 120358.

Mulcahy, R., Russell-Bennett, R., & Iacobucci, D. (2020). Designing gamified apps for sustainable consumption: A field study. Journal of Business Research, 106, 377-387.

Ouariachi, T., Olvera-Lobo, M. D., & Gutiérrez-Pérez, J. (2019). Serious games and sustainability. Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education, 1450-1458.

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