Sustainability Learning through Gaming

Posted on August 20, 2012


I’ve long been looking for approaches that use gameplay to engage in sustainability.  I’ve previously been disappointed in a lack of systems thinking, and decisions in game design that damage a sustainable game’s utility. While participatory model development rather than gameplay, this was premise of my PhD Spatial Process Modelling.

Prompted by Stefan Kreitmayer I’ve been reading an interesting paper by Carlo Fabricatore and Ximena Lopez presented at ECGBL:  Sustainability Learning through Gaming: An Exploratory Study

This paragraph is laden with potential:

Educating for sustainability demands approaches and tools promoting systems thinking and learning to deal with traits of complexity, such as change, uncertainty, and emergence. Due to their characteristics, digital games can highly benefit learning for complexity. In fact, they can be regarded as excellent educational environments, supporting knowledge and skills learning through fun, in situated and meaningful contexts. Furthermore, digital games can address complexity, requiring players to deal with ill-structured problems, unpredictability, emerging systemic properties and behaviours, and non-linear development of events. Finally, gaming environments can support remote interactions across large numbers of players, requiring collective engagement in the pursuit of common goals. p160

So is this quote:

All these steps are carried out directly in the gaming environment that serves as a frame for meaning making (Gee 2007).

The three pillars model of sustainability is a bit simplistic but then they clearly get it with the mindset and references to Tilbury’s work.

Their model of gameplay doesn’t seem to have interaction with other players, nor environmental scanning. It doesn’t really address the complexity of gameplay – which is a shame as they have done time in this space: see this great quote from their previous work on gameplay mechanics.

All this leads to a simple but very relevant conclusion: game designers should be in first place skilled and sensitive toy-makers, capable of building a comprehensive but yet parsimonious set of core and satellite mechanics. And then, they should be architects capable of building apparently complex gameplay structures with as few toys as possible.

A discussion that starts with “Mechanistic complicacy…” (the state of being complicated)  is key:

Mechanistic complicacy could lead players to believe that global phenomena spontaneously emerge from local interactions of entities through uncertain and non-linear dynamics, whereas everything actually unfolds based on predefined criteria… p164

After this good discussion on system complexity, disappointingly the analysis and figure reduces to quite coarse categories. I suspect that they ran out of time to do a more detailed analysis (they do describe it as an exploratory analysis).

Some good observations

  • Lack of complex system characteristics
  • Only one game relies on collective efforts and multiple perspectives to manage a global crisis.
  • “Focusing mainly on children and environmental contents may lead to underexploiting the potential of games” p166.
  • There is an over-reliance on Q&A dynamics
  • It is a shame that they didn’t include FarmVille etc.

    The challenges of sustainability originate from the interplay between social, environmental and economic elements. Furthermore, this interplay is already key to massively successful leisure games appreciated by millions of users worldwide (e.g. FarmVille, CityVille and SimCity). Hence, designing games evenly integrating the three pillars of sustainability can enhance both game-based “learning for sustainability” and the entertainment value offered to players. p166

    There is a good conclusion (probably only weakly supported by the analysis)

    Our results suggest that games are not fully leveraged to develop mindsets and skills required to engage with sustainability. When designed as proper complex systems, games are most suitable to promote the development of complex systems thinking and facilitate a systemic understanding of the interrelations among environment, economic growth and social development. However, we found that games presenting characteristics of complexity (e.g. the ARG and MMO analysed in this study) are uncommon. Therefore, there is large space for improvements oriented at creating complex game systems incorporating emergence, uncertainty, ill-defined problems and requiring players to address issues from multiple perspectives, thus nurturing “sustainable mindsets”.

    Fabricatore and Lopez have also run a different but very interesting workshop “Gaming and the Scientific Mind: Designing Games to Develop the Scientific Mind

    The day before the workshop, participants were required to identify simple games, based on a maximum of five rules, in order to contribute to the workshop. No details were provided as to
    what would be the purpose of their proposals, and no constraints were imposed as to whether the games should be analog or digital.

    The game design process saw an increasingly proactive involvement of all the participants, who engaged in the activity with a high level of motivation, as if designing a game was a game
    itself. The process was quite well structured, and organized in iterations which produced incremental tuning and evolution of the game design….

    Slides by Fabricatore and Lopez