Gaming offers educational lessons about ecological consequences

January 29, 2018

In the graduate seminar led by Paul Zedler, Nelson Institute Associate Director for Research and Education and Professor of Environmental Studies, he often tries to explore environmental thought in new ways to encourage creative thinking and problem solving. Last semester, his newest session included a seemingly unconventional platform: environmental gaming.

For this particular seminar, graduate students competed in an online game “Econauts” to create the most successful sustainable business model. Thanks to a budding partnership with game development leader Mike Beall, Nelson graduates could learn ecological relationships in novel ways.

As an educational game developer, Beall must strike the perfect balance between learning and fun in his game designs. In order to get to that level, he works with scientists, artists and even environmentalists to get the job done, especially in the case of their trademark environmental science game “Econauts,” which has become a valuable resource for helping students understand trends and patterns about climate change and the natural world.

Beall is the director of Gear Learning at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, an organization which takes complex content and makes it accessible and fun through gameplay. Most recently, they received an award for their astronomy-based educational game “At Play in the Cosmos,” which was designed to accompany an introductory level astronomy course. In this game, players put on their helmets as space research contractors to explore the universe, using the principles of physics and astronomy to progress forward.

The games designed and developed by Gear Learning often serve as companion tools alongside a traditional lesson plan, especially in the sciences where the games give students an opportunity to engage with scientific data in a fun and simplified way. He says the development of games like “Econauts” and “At Play in the Cosmos” allows players to engage with real-world scientific principles in environments that encourage exploration and experimentation.

Beall contacted several scientists in the game development process to help guide the scientific accuracy of the system and create a system that realistically reacts to player decisions in the game.

“We’re game designers and developers, we are not scientists. So we completely rely on scientists to get the science right for the games,” Beall noted.

By collaborating with a wide range of Earth system sciences, the Gear Learning team was able to develop the game mechanics for “Econauts” which would allow players to impact the environmental health of the landscape depending on their individual choices.

Assuming the identity of either a logger, miner or farmer, players can earn capital from refining resources and selling the products. Loggers turn their lumber into housing development, miners turn their minerals into car production plants and farmers turn their harvests into food markets.  However, if players aren’t careful with how they harvest resources and place their refinement factories, the forests, plains and lakes in the surrounding area will suffer from their heavy pollutant activities.

Beall said learning through “fail-testing,” or making observations about the variables which cause a player to fail, is useful because games provide low risk environments to test ideas about how complex system relationships work. For “Econauts,” he says players were very motivated to keep the landscape clean after experiencing an initial failure to do so.

“When students play the game, they can start to make sense of what’s happening before their eyes from what they’re causing or preventing,” Beall explained. “They’re not only getting a conceptual understanding of a relationship, because when they have an opportunity to recreate those scenarios, they do a better job. That’s how we know they’re learning.”

This intricate relationship between the players and the landscape is exactly what Robert Bohanan, outreach program manager for the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement and lead curriculum developer for “Econauts,” wants to see students encounter.

Initially, Bohanan wasn’t very receptive to the idea of educational gaming. He was concerned the game would encourage people to not explore these lessons outside in the natural world, but through series of playtesting, he saw it could act as a supplement to longer environmental lesson plans.

Bohanan worked with Beall to adapt the gameplay into usable lesson plans for K-12 students. The game is now formatted to work for both longer unit lesson plans as well as shorter one-time lessons. In both cases, students were very receptive to the gameplay.

“The big benefit I see is that games are the only way I have found to really teach these environmental concepts,” Bohanan maintained. “It’s a way to make dynamics things easier to understand that really you can only normally teach with graphs and tables and charts.”

Students could now engage with a simplified environmental model in a digital world before observing the ecosystem in the real world. On a broader level, student were introduced to systemic concepts such as cause and effect, correlational patterns, and cost-benefit analysis. On a simpler level, students could see that their actions have real-world impacts on the environment.

For Zedler, Bohanan’s target goal of developing a successful classroom tool was the ultimate goal for environmental education. He wants experimental ideas to be part of the graduate curriculum to show how our greatest environmental problems of today can sometimes come from unexpected places.

“The potential of so called ‘gamefication’ is to use the game format to create games with a purpose. Games that prompt thought beyond winning or losing and into the complexities of real world environmental problem solving. If used wisely, it can be one tool in the tool box of environmental studies,” Zedler said.