How a serious game can help protect the environment

Published on
November 16, 2022

Do you like gaming? Games are not only fun but can also help to learn more about all kinds of subjects – including complex matter such as environmental systems. An international research team has investigated whether learning about the “critical zone” (our planet’s outer skin, critical to all life) via a digital serious game can affect adults’ systems thinking about the environment and create support for policies to protect the environment.

System thinking allows us to understand better complex challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, or the nitrogen crisis. This way of thinking helps make sense of the world’s complexities by focusing on relationships among parts of a system rather than looking at individual parts in isolation. We develop a deeper appreciation of the environment by thinking about ecological systems. Those who engage in system thinking often display a pro-environmental orientation and ecological ethics. Alexander Klippel, Professor at Wageningen University & Research and co-author of the study: “But it still remains an open question how to foster, encourage, and facilitate system thinking. Not only in communication and education but also in decision-making.”

A still frame of the game 'CZ investigator'
A still frame of the game 'CZ investigator'

To address some of these challenges, researchers from Penn State and Wageningen University & Research have developed a serious game to educate the general public about one of the most complex systems, the critical zone. The critical zone is the outer layer of our planet that supports life. It reaches from the bedrock to the tops of the tree canopy. Understanding processes in this zone requires a truly inter- and transdisciplinary approach.

Games as a powerful tool

The results of the study were recently published in Frontiers in Environmental Sciences. Lead author Pejman Sajjadi: “One of the most promising approaches to establishing a culture of system thinking in communication and education is the use of serious games.” This vision is coming true: we see games and gamification establish their place in the scientific community as powerful tools to address some of the most pressing societal problems in all parts of the world.

However, as Janet Swim, one of the co-authors of the study, notes: “One caveat that serious games still have is a certain lack of empirical validation.” Do they work, or are they just shiny objects that excite people but fail scientific tests? To better understand the potential of serious games for system thinking, the research team has not only designed a game to educate the public but also a framework for assessing its effects.

Playing the CZ investigator game

The game developed by the researchers is called CZ investigator. It is based on a high-intensity real-world research environment (a critical zone observatory). Here transdisciplinary science happens based on environmental sensors placed, in this case, in an area in Central Pennsylvania. The player is put into the shoes of a journalist writing a story about deforestation through logging in Central Pennsylvania. The player explores the critical zone by simulating real-world processes and experiences the effects of rain and how, for example, cutting down trees affects surface water run-off.

A still frame of the game 'CZ investigator'
A still frame of the game 'CZ investigator'

“Exploring how water flows through a system and experiencing factors that affect the processes in the hydrosphere can help players understand how water is connected with the rest of the environment,” said Janet Swim. Once people start thinking about how systems work, they may be more likely to understand the importance of their behaviour and environmental policies that can influence a chain of events.

Reaching a broad audience

Over 150 players from diverse backgrounds participated in the study. The results are very encouraging. They document that serious games can indeed reach a broad audience and educate people in the art of system thinking, even if they have not had extensive science education. The study also shows that through system thinking, the support for pro-environmental policies can grow.

Alexander Klippel: “I was in a fortunate position to co-develop this research and approach before I joined Wageningen University & Research. It is falling on the fruitful ground with our WANDER initiative and the newly established Game Hub.”

The research team is part of a growing international community on using serious games for solving complex societal challenges. The team continues its work, expanding it to other domains and technologies. They are currently conducting a study using immersive technologies to create even more authentic experiences.