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Using Games to Teach Young Learners About Climate Change

While traditional teaching methods will always have their own merits, the dynamic nature of climate change demands innovative solutions. For instance, video games can be a fantastic medium for educating students on climate change in a non-distressing way. Today on the blog, we’ll explore how interactive games can serve as powerful tools for raising awareness and inspiring action on one of the most pressing issues of our time. Here’s how combining video games and climate science can nurture a generation of environmentally conscious citizens!

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Attributes of the most effective games for climate change education 

To kick off our investigation of games for climate change education, it’s important to note that not every video game can be considered a high-quality learning game. So, how do educators discern what qualities games should have to be effective for their students, especially when it comes to sensitive topics such as climate change? 

A recent study conducted by the North American Association for Environmental Education set out to discover what specific video game attributes can enhance engagement with climate change topics among young adults. 

To start, researchers conducted interviews with video game experts and young people in two rounds to identify game attributes that impact these engagement dimensions. In the first round, 12 video game experts were interviewed, and they identified 15 game attributes that they believed would enhance engagement in climate change video games. The second round involved 17 students aged 12-18 who discussed what attributes they would use to engage players in a climate change video game. The results confirmed that many of the attributes identified by the experts were also seen as important by the young participants.

The researchers then created a framework aligning these attributes with the three dimensions of engagement (cognitive, emotional, and behavioral). This framework aims to guide the development of climate change video games for greater effectiveness in engaging young players. The results emphasized the importance of attributes like immersion, interactivity, and a sense of agency. 

These attributes align perfectly with our understanding of game-based learning, where students take on new roles, make decisions, and witness the consequences of their actions in a controlled yet dynamic environment. The results of this study resonate with our approach to game-based learning, specifically our three-pronged approach to game design. High-quality learning games, no matter the subject, include considerations of a player’s identity, actions, and the rules they have to operate within. 

The unique strengths of environmentally conscious games

The number of explicitly climate change-themed and environmental education games has increased over the years – both commercially developed and created by students and indie game developers. These games come in various forms and serve different educational goals, and each game has a different approach to the topic. Here’s a breakdown of different games and their unique approaches to climate change education!

Environmental Exploration

Many video games offer virtual worlds that simulate real-life environments. By exploring these digital landscapes, young learners can gain a deeper understanding of ecosystems, weather patterns, and the impact of human activities on the environment. Games like Eco allow players to build and manage their own ecosystems, fostering an appreciation for the delicate balance of nature.

Simulating Consequences

Video games can simulate the consequences of various actions, allowing players to witness the impact of their choices firsthand. This can be a powerful way to demonstrate the cause-and-effect relationship between human activities and climate change. Games such as Fate of the World challenge players to make decisions that affect their virtual worlds, illustrating the consequences of environmental neglect or responsible stewardship.

Fostering Empathy

Empathy is a crucial aspect of addressing climate change – it motivates action. Marginalized groups are disproportionately affected by the negative consequences of climate change. No matter the identity of the player, video games can help them empathize with the challenges faced by different individuals and communities affected by environmental issues. Never Alone is an example of a title that can help young learners connect on a deeper level with the human side of climate change.

Inspiring Action

Ultimately, the goal of teaching young learners about climate change through video games is to inspire action. Many games incorporate elements of advocacy, encouraging players to take real-world actions to combat climate change. For example, AJ’s Recycle Rescue, a game we created with our client Twin Cities PBS, educates players about recycling and encourages them to recycle in their own communities.

The gaming industry and climate action

Effective video games that impart knowledge on climate change are only one part of the picture when it comes to gaming and the environment. Companies that make up the gaming industry also have a responsibility to take care of the planet and make a positive impact. According to this 2022 report directly from the United Nations, there are many ways the gaming industry is collaborating with the United Nations to promote climate action and engage audiences through climate-themed video games and initiatives. This effort is aimed at leveraging the immense reach and attention-grabbing power of video games to raise awareness about climate change and inspire climate action.

One notable initiative is UNDP’s Mission 1.5 mobile game, which educates players about the climate crisis and allows them to communicate their views on climate solutions to governments while exploring virtual worlds. The game has been played by approximately 6 million people in 58 countries, with a 50% completion rate. The data gathered from the game has informed the “People’s Climate Vote,” the largest-ever survey of public opinion on climate change, influencing global policy discussions.

The Playing for the Planet Alliance, consisting of private video game sector organizations, including major players like Microsoft, Sony, and Ubisoft, has committed to promoting sustainability and climate action through their gaming platforms. The alliance hosts events like the Green Game Jam, where studios integrate environmental themes into popular games and encourage users to participate in conservation and restoration campaigns.

These initiatives have led to the planting of over 266,000 trees and significant contributions to environmental causes. The gaming industry is also working on reducing its carbon footprint, with many companies committing to becoming net-zero or carbon-negative by 2030.

The impact of these efforts is significant, given that the gaming industry reaches over 3 billion people worldwide. Collaborative efforts among gaming companies are expected to help educate and engage people on climate change, reaching entirely new populations and influencing behavior for the better.

If you’re feeling inspired to harness the power of video games for a positive impact on our planet, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’re an educational game development studio with 18 years of experience, and the very first game we created happened to be an environmental science game. Let’s combine our expertise to create an educational game that keeps young learners informed, engaged, and inspired to act. 

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