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State-of-the-art of game-based approaches for climate change engagement

Human-data interaction

Blog: Daniel Fernandez Galeote, Tampere University

Gamification can engage players’ climate change cognition, affect and behavior and provide engaging gameful experiences, but research and design in this area can still improve.

Engaging with climate change goes way beyond being aware of scientific facts. Active engagement comprises an ongoing state of connection consisting of three dimensions: cognitive (knowing, or involving the head), affective (caring, or involving the heart), and behavioral (acting, or rolling up one’s sleeves) (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). These apply whether we aim to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and enhance sinks, or prepare human communities and activities for present and future climate risks and impacts.

But how can we contribute to systematically engaging vastly different people with a complex topic? Gamification, or the use of games across society, culture and technology for purposes other than entertainment (Hamari, 2019), has been lauded in the last decade as a promising avenue for engagement with multiple societal issues through engagement and enjoyment (Koivisto & Hamari, 2019).

Our openly accessible review of the state-of-the-art of the field examines the use of games and gamification to engage diverse actors with climate science, mitigation, and adaptation issues. Our analysis suggests that gamification can impact multiple engagement dimensions simultaneously and provide engaging gameful experiences. Among other benefits, it can motivate, result in learning through experience, provide safe social spaces, and support complex topics through visual support. Despite the apparent benefits of this approach for the forestry sector as well, none of the articles reviewed focused on this area, showing that there are many opportunities for gamification research and practice on climate change and forests.

Gamification as an avenue to tackle the climate crisis

Climate change poses an existential threat both to biodiversity and human societies through impacts such as extreme weather and sea level rise (IPCC, 2018). While public concern remains high, widespread active engagement is required from all societal actors according to their responsibility and power to effect change. Since psychological and social conditions hinder effective engagement with climate change, approaches that take into account the complexities of humans’ relationship to the crisis are needed. Public engagement strategies that take into account situated contexts and understandings is vital (Wibeck, 2014).

Our motivation in researching gamification (which includes concepts such as commercial games, serious games, game-based learning, simulation and gaming, etc.) is to understand how gamification has driven climate change engagement, and how to expand this area in the future. Although gameful experiences can motivate and immerse players, support learning through hands-on experiences and visual environments in real or simulated contexts, and provide safe spaces to engage as a collective, evidence on the effectiveness of game-based interventions to enhance climate change engagement is not well integrated. By providing a current systematic review of game-based climate change engagement research, we aim to provide a picture of the landscape and an informed agenda for the future.

How to improve a promising area of research and design

Our analysis of 64 papers indicates that game-based climate change engagement is a nascent and growing area of research, with all studies published in the last decade. In them, it can be seen that digital, analog and hybrid gamification is applied to multiple areas of human activity, including climate science literacy, mitigation, and adaptation. Of the three areas of engagement, cognition seems to be the most researched, but positive engagement results in all other dimensions were reported. Many interventions adapt to the players’ habits and needs, such as digital games for the young and rigorous role-plays for professionals. Contrary to traditional criticisms of gamified solutions as simplistic in their design, over three quarters of the games included achievement-oriented, immersion, and social elements.

However, research and design could improve in several areas. More social, political and economic actors could be targeted by gamified experiences, including forestry professionals who should be interested in the sustainability of their sector, and citizens who interact with forest environments, who can contribute to protect and valorize them. For example, how can the children of today sustainably relate to forests now and in the future as adults?

In our study, we also include a call for a further involvement of emerging and developing economies. In the local context, this focus on existing inequalities may translate into taking into account the interests of small owners and indigenous Sámi populations who are directly affected by e.g. logging activities.

In addition to paying attention to more audiences, future research should gather more information on the participants’ background to properly contextualize the outcomes of interventions. For example, how do forestry professionals, in Finland and elsewhere, experience climate change, and what would be the best way to engage them further?

We encourage interventions that target specific behaviors to connect more explicitly with climate change. For example, explicitly linking strategies aimed at promoting sustainable forestry could be anchored in the crucial role that forests have in mitigating and adapting to climate change, instead of just appealing to possible growing market demands for low-carbon and recyclable products.

Furthermore, games have the advantage that actions carried out by players can have real-world impacts by design. In forestry, this could be accomplished through augmented reality games, which blend the physical and the digital, and experiences where players beat challenges and progress by engaging in sustainable professional practices and consumption. This can also result in games that comprise multiple sessions and even months, multiplying for example learning impacts (Flood et al., 2018; Wouters et al., 2013).

Overall, explaining and exploring the impacts of climate change in Finnish forests through games remains pending. The two articles reviewed that focused on Finnish (and Swedish) contexts (Asplund, 2020; Neset et al., 2020) related to maladaptation practices in agriculture, and succeeded in promoting understanding and discussion despite a need for more understanding that professionals’ personal and peers’ experiences have value in determining what information is credible. What about the present and future adaptations in the forestry sector? Games could also explore climate impacts beyond the most frequent—high temperatures, heatwaves, droughts, desertification, and floods.

Any future research paths should be followed seeking, when possible, data on long-term and behavioral outcomes. Moreover, we need more rigorous data collection and analysis, so results will be more reliable, and consider ethical issues such as privacy and safety.

Six opportunities and responsibilities for the future

Professionals, policymakers, and laypeople are only some of the populations that could benefit from game-based engagement with climate change in the area of forestry. Our review reveals many examples from professional sectors that interact with natural resources for human consumption. Gamified climate change has been applied in sectors such as water management, agriculture, and climate literacy for students and laypeople, but forestry is conspicuously absent from the list.

This leaves us with several opportunities and responsibilities. First, to pursue active engagement, including but not limited to understanding of scientific data. Second, to empower a diversity of actors who have a say in making the future of Finnish forestry truly sustainable. Third, to consider their psychological and social experiences, that is, their forms of living and understanding forests and climate change, in order to provide adaptive, engaging, and enjoyable experiences. Fourth, to connect forestry interventions with climate change and other environmental crises that decisively influence forests and human relationships to them. Fifth, to take advantage of games’ capacity to integrate real-world action with in-game challenges. And sixth, to do so with attention for relevant ethical issues and scientific rigor.

See the paper for full details: Fernández Galeote, D., Rajanen, M., Rajanen, D., Legaki, N. Z., Langley, D. J., & Hamari, J. (2021). Gamification for climate change engagement: review of corpus and future agenda. Environmental Research Letters.

Both bottom-up and top-down initiatives are essential for addressing climate change effectively. These include initiatives aiming to achieve widespread behavioral change towards reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as well as pursuing education regarding adaptation measures. While awareness of the issue of climate change is now pervasive, and actions are being taken at all levels of society, there is still much to do if international goals are to be met. Games and gamification offer one approach to foster both behavioral change and education. In this paper, we investigate the state-of-the-art of game-based climate change engagement through a systematic literature review of 64 research outputs comprising 56 different gamified approaches. Our analysis of the literature reveals a trend of promising findings in this nascent and growing area of research, suggesting the potential to impact multiple engagement dimensions simultaneously, as well as create an engaging gameful experience. Overall, the corpus appears to offer a fruitful balance in foci between climate science, mitigation, and adaptation, as well as a variety of formats in game-based approaches (i.e. digital, analog, and hybrid). However, shortcomings were also observed, such as geographic and demographic imbalances and the short duration of interventions. The reviewed studies yield a large number of results indicating climate change engagement through gamification, especially in the form of cognitive engagement, affect towards climate change-related topics, and in-game behavioral engagement with others. Nevertheless, heterogeneity in terms of contexts, designs, outcomes, and methods, as well as limited rigor in research designs and reporting, hinders drawing overall conclusions. Based on our review, we provide guidelines regarding contexts, interventions, results, and research quality and internal validity for advancing the space of game-based interventions for climate change engagement.

Asplund, T. (2020). Credibility aspects of research-based gaming in science communication.: The case of The Maladaptation Game. JCOM-Journal of Science Communication, 19(1).

Flood, S., Cradock-Henry, N. A., Blackett, P., & Edwards, P. (2018). Adaptive and interactive climate futures: systematic review of ‘serious games’ for engagement and decision-making. Environmental Research Letters, 13(6), 063005.

Hamari, J. (2019). Gamification. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, G. Ritzer (Ed.).

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.

Koivisto, J., & Hamari, J. (2019). The rise of motivational information systems: A review of gamification research. International Journal of Information Management, 45, 191-210.

Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2007) Barriers Perceived to Engaging with Climate Change Among the UK Public and Their Policy Implications. Global Environmental Change, 17(3-4), 445-459.

Neset, T. S., Juhola, S., Wiréhn, L., Käyhkö, J., Navarra, C., Asplund, T., … & Linnér, B. O. (2020). Supporting dialogue and analysis on trade-offs in climate adaptation research with the Maladaptation Game. Simulation & Gaming, 51(3), 378-399.

Wibeck, V. (2014). Enhancing learning, communication and public engagement about climate change–some lessons from recent literature. Environmental Education Research, 20(3), 387-411.

Wouters, P., van Nimwegen, C., van Oostendorp, H., & van der Spek, E. D. (2013). A meta-analysis of the cognitive and motivational effects of serious games. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 249–265.