Playing the right games can help us learn about sustainability.
Changing our behaviors can be hard. Biking to work rather than drive there can be too tough a challenge. So can avoiding the use of disposables. Yet might there be a different way forward?
An increasing number of examples show that change can be much easier than we may think. The key to it is gamification. For some time gamification has been proving highly useful in fields like medicine and education. Now it is also reshaping the ways we strive to save the planet.
For instance, cleverly designed games can transport people back into the distant past and teach them to appreciate the evolution of life. Meanwhile, games of forecasting can let us experience the consequences of our actions or inaction in the future. Games can entertain us or frighten us, but they can also inspire us and help us invent novel solutions to complex dilemmas.
The simplest way to gamify sustainability is to green what’s already viral. Imagine Spider-Man or Assassin’s Creed players trying to save a city from a flood or the world of Civilization facing biodiversity loss and resource depletion. Actually, some massively popular games are already treading such paths. Monitoring ecosystem health is already a part of SimCity and Minecraft has a special mode featuring climate change, carbon taxes, and emissions offsets through planting trees.
While the potential of these examples is far-reaching, game developers have not always been particularly nature conscious. A large number of games still have mindless destruction as their primary aim: immensely popular 4X games invite players to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. It looks like change will not happen in one day and that is why we need more games specifically dedicated to teaching gamers about sustainability.
A classic source for this is Systems Thinking Playbook from the 1990s created by educator Linda Booth Sweeney and sustainability advocate Donella Meadows. The book features a number of both small and advanced games to promote sustainable thinking. Among the most prominent examples is Harvest, which leads you through the depletion of the ocean from unsustainable competition (the tragedy of commons) and helps you to learn ways to avoid it.
Another classic example is Innovation Diffusion by sustainability educator Alan AtKisson. Building on innovation theory, the game helps players learn how to spread positive changes in society through simulating the diffusion of ideas in an environment of change agents, laggards, mainstreamers, and iconoclasts, each with their unique attitudes and ambitions.
Sustainability games have also been evolving. From online Green Business simulators to Nature Cards teaching biomimicry and inspiring creative thinking, games promoting sustainability have actively populated both virtual and real worlds. The most recent applications include a playful environmental science textbook that lets you interactively explore different layers of life on Earth and the World Climate negotiations simulation, which shows that the only way we can tackle climate change is through collaboration.
One of the other prominent recent examples is Eco, a civilization simulation game that pays close attention to players’ impacts on their environment and the balance between the development and preservation of the natural world. Other games deal with survival in the wild and city building: they often shift the focus from individual survival and prosperity to the life on the planet as a whole.
According to recent research, such games really work by helping people to understand science and feel an increased urgency to act. However, another approach might bring about even more promise for real change: the gamification of our own lives and the very real sustainability challenges we face.
Championed by Jane McGonigal in her Reality is Broken book the approach is now advocated by organizations like Games for Change which try to change the world through games. The basic idea is to use game mechanisms for promoting individual transformations or solving societal dilemmas; e.g. finding the most sustainable alternative to disposable cups.
Challenge prizes and social experiments have proved particularly effective, while mobile apps are quickly catching up. Businesses increasingly use gamification to spread sustainable behaviors among their employees through rewarding them for sustainable choices. Apps like Climate Drops or JouleBug help people learn sustainable lifestyles on the go and incorporate responsible choices into everyday routines.
By applying an effective framework, anyone can use gamification for a sustainability challenge they care about. A foolproof way works like this: come up with a powerful narrative and an enchanting story, share a vision with people and guide them through a hero’s journey, and help them to steadily progress towards ambitious but realistic sustainability goals. Finally, don’t forget to provide timely tips and feedback, relevant rewards, and a safety net in case they falter along the way.
Yet there is no easy recipe for success. Even the best intentions can lead to less than welcome outcomes: if implemented wrongly (as satirically presented in one of the Black Mirror episodes), gamification can mean not only learning but also addiction and dissociation. Besides, a game is just a game. Saving a virtual world does not mean you will be saving the real world too.
A little fun and games might just be something we need, but let’s not forget the very real real-life challenges life on Earth faces.