From Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Arcade,” which helped make recycling fun for kids in Dhaka; to Heineken’s Brewing a Better World Digital Experience, a series of mini-games in which users “are faced with the challenge of balancing their will to compete with taking care of the world,” purpose-driven organizations have long used gaming experiences to engage stakeholders on various sustainability issues.
So, why does gaming still make a good vehicle for teaching and engaging people about sustainability?
“Many sustainability issues are things we don’t see, or experience, on a daily basis,” Giselle Weybrecht, author of The Sustainable MBA: The Manager's Guide to Green Business, explained in a recent interview. “Games provide an opportunity for individuals or students to be able to experience them in a way, or at least to put themselves in the shoes of those who are responsible for managing/solving some of these challenges.”
With the goal of sustainability education to include some kind of call to action, Weybrecht said, “Gaming brings it to life; it makes it more real, it helps to see the issues and to start thinking about actual solutions and even test out possible solutions.”
A growing list of online games are geared toward raising awareness about sustainability topics that can be used in classrooms or individually. Examples include:
- The Solar PV Industry Simulation, developed by MIT, is a live, web-based simulation where participants role-play senior management at solar giant SunPower. Users compete against other firms, simulated by the computer, and set industry conditions so as to learn about strategy under different conditions relating to learning, knowledge spillovers, and competitive behavior.
- CityOne, released by IBM, helps users discover how business process management, collaborative technologies and service-oriented architecture enable industry solutions that help organisations and industries adapt to new demands and build a sustainable advantage. The game looks specifically at Water, Energy, Banking and Retail.
- The Business Ethics Challenge, developed by Novo Nordisk, looks at how to deal with business ethics issues in everyday business situations while ensuring a balance between sales targets and company reputation.
- Block’hood, centered around construction and city planning, is designed to teach players about the challenges of resource allocation by simulating the carbon and energy contributions of each part of a city. As players build out their ‘block’hoods,’ resource needs get more complex – and with 90+ blocks available for building, an infinite array of choices must be balanced with hood-ecology, taking into account living space, agriculture, commerce and manufacturing.
Outside of a classroom, though, what kinds of players are attracted to these types of games, and how can we best broaden their reach?
“Sustainability-type games are more popular with female students who are often more engaged in these topics – this is perhaps an opportunity to reach a new demographic,” Weybrecht pointed out. “In terms of reaching those males that are playing games already, there are games that use the same types of platforms and story lines as games popular with those groups but incorporate sustainability messages. There is such a wide range of different kinds of games on different platforms that the idea is there is hopefully something for everyone.”
Many gamers share an attraction to problem-solving. Role-playing games such as CCP’s “EVE” — an intergalactic game that tests players’ ability to maneuver between personal, short-term resource demands and longer-term needs of groups of players known as corporations; and Bohemia Interactive’s “DayZ,” which simulates combat situations requiring scavenging of resources in consort with others, scratch this itch while weaving in understanding of sustainability challenges.
As Matthew Yeomans noted in The Guardian in 2013, when it comes to educating children about sustainability, gaming is “just a way of fast-tracking that education in a medium they love”: “Perhaps the most successful way of teaching kids about sustainability through gaming is not to stress sustainability at all and simply focus on the game experience itself. In this way, gaming for good would mirror the successful sustainability strategies at companies where the focus is on building a stronger business rather than saving the polar bears.”
Case in point, Neste, the world's largest producer of renewable diesel refined from waste and residues, recently created the environmental education game, EduCycle. The augmented reality gaming platform is designed to help children understand the impact of human actions on both the environment and the carbon cycle. The game was tested with a class of 6th graders from Espoo International School in Finland.
“We were glad to see how environmentally conscious the children actually are,” said Neste president & CEO Matti Lievonen. “As EduCycle’s message is delivered through digital gaming, the children feel at ease when playing and learning. We really feel that interactive education could benefit schooling in the future. After all, children are the decision makers of tomorrow.”
So, let the games continue - the more ways we can find to effectively engage children of all ages around the world’s most pressing challenges, the better they will be equipped at solving them.
As Yeomans concluded in 2016: “Ultimately, the more that writers, video game and filmmakers, and other content creators integrate sustainability into their work, the more quickly our society will adapt.”