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Gaming could be the future of sustainable education

Published at: 23 February 2016


EcoChains: Arctic Crisis is a new game designed by a climate scientist and mathematics professor that is shaking up traditional environmental education

If a nod from the notoriously cynical Nature scientific journal is anything to go by, there could be a new move on the horizon away from traditional systems of learning toward more interactive digital mediums. Arctic scientist Stephanie Pfirman introduced a new toy she developed to explain the impact of climate change. Pfirman and her collaborator, Columbia University professor Joey Lee, set out to design a game that would be as entertaining as it was educational. They refused, Pfirman said, to make "chocolate-covered broccoli." Instead, EcoChains: Arctic Crisis is strategic, as primed to stoke family feuds, they hope, as Monopoly or Risk.

After a controlled study confirmed that people who played their game retained new knowledge better than if they had just read about it in an article, they began in earnest to develop the project toward commercial release. In the game, players build a marine food chain — from ice algae and phytoplankton to ringed seals and polar bears. The ecosystem is buttressed by sea ice, which vanishes if players turn over a "carbon pollution" card. However, sea ice can be resurrected by playing a "renewable-energy" or "energy-efficiency" card.

“Games are uniquely suited to get people to understand, care about and take action on climate issues” Lee says on his website, because they can “serve as engaging tools that allow players to experience the complexities of climate systems [and] provide interactive models where players participate in decisions affecting climate change and immediately see the resulting outcomes” he adds. Pfirman says, "I think [players] get a sense of agency, and they get a sense that there are problems that are happening, but there are things that we can do about them, as well."

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