Games Can Teach About Climate Change and Motivate Ecofriendly Actions

The learning opportunities found in well-designed games give students an interactive and entertaining way to learn about environmental issues.

Games can be a powerful way to teach, persuade, or raise awareness about important topics that young people should care about, such as social justice or civic issues. These activities are powerful tools for educators because games can tackle complex topics like climate change and sustainability in a unique way. And the learning opportunities found in well-designed games are very different from textbooks or videos; rather than content to be “absorbed,” they provide a model of reality or a system of interconnected parts that a student can interact with and play with. As they learn about subjects endogenously and through hands-on experiences, kids can take on new identities and roles.

These experiences offer an opportunity for teaching and learning in more understandable and accessible ways, and as we raise awareness of important issues like climate change, we can also aim to change student attitudes and behaviors.

Hundreds of climate change-themed or environmental education games have been designed in recent years—both commercially available products or designed by students and indie game developers in competitions and game jams such as the recent Games for Change climate game jam in NYC. These games vary widely in terms of their goals, features, formats and intended uses.

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When I co-designed EcoChains: Arctic Life (Jogolabs) —a multiplayer tabletop food web building card game — with Arctic researcher and Arizona State University environmental science professor Dr. Stephanie Pfirman, we wanted to create a game that teaches players about climate change through values of empathy and stewardship, and is designed to teach science aligned to Next Generation Science Standards. The goal was for kids to learn about real scientific phenomenon and processes while having fun; we reject the notion that there must be a dichotomy or tradeoff between learning and fun in educational games. Kids are naturally curious and enjoy exploring systems and overcoming game-based challenges. Evidence in playtests in both formal and informal contexts reveals that the game was both effective and enjoyable for parents and kids, as they learned important concepts while protecting animals from threats of carbon pollution and melting sea ice. We have lesson plans for teachers, free printable editions and classroom kits available, as we look to partner with educators to continue development of this game.

Games are less effective when they are preachy or “inject” educational content in a game-like wrapper. Instead, we can provide meaningful experiences that can allow kids to view the world from new perspectives and even motivate actions as part of gameplay.

Well-designed games do this well. Here are a few climate-change-related games in different formats that educate about climate change while keeping kids engaged and entertained.

Tabletop Games

Keep Cool (Spieltrieb). Each player tries to balance competing demands—achieving the goals of one’s own country, wrestling with the demands of the oil industry and environmental groups. Decisions—egotistical or altruistic—can determine whether or not various droughts, floods or pandemics occur, or whether the world climate collapses; in other words, everyone loses.

Digital Games or Simulations

In Eco (Strange Loop Games).  Amultiplayer survival-oriented game, players must collaborate and wrestle with various ethical decisions in building a shared online world similar to Earth. As part of the experience, players create a civilization together and build economies, enact various laws, and see their effects. As the game was also designed together with scientists, climate models and other details are realistic or inspired by the real world. Teamwork and collaboration skills are necessary for success, making this an intriguing game worth a look.

Pervasive Game or Gamified Apps

A more recent trend, powered by technological advances and sensors found in devices, is a pervasive game or gamified experience. These digital, role-playing, gamified or game-like apps extend the gaming experience at least partly in the real world. Naturally, there are huge opportunities for challenging students to change their behaviors in ecofriendly ways, such as measuring or reducing their carbon footprint.

JouleBug (Cleanbit Systems, Inc.). A mobile app that allows players to compete to see who is the most sustainable and to share green actions with friends. Each time a player does an ecofriendly action such as using a reusable bottle or buying local food products, they “Buzz.” The app uses gamification elements like unlockable achievements and a leaderboard, along with social elements including the ability to share photos and comments to provide feedback. Players can also join local communities to learn and discover recent activity and ideas happening nearby.

Joey J. Lee is the director of the Games Research Lab and coordinator of the M.A. program in design and development of digital games at Teachers College, Columbia University.



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