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Can Games Change How We Think About Science?

Games have become increasingly ubiquitous, with the enormous potential to be effective at reaching and teaching audiences.

ByRalph BouquetNOVA EducationNOVA Education
Can Games Change How We Think About Science?

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In a digital age where misinformation often travels faster than facts, debates that pit science against uninformed opinions and conspiracy theories are all too common. Controversy over widely accepted scientific evidence for human-induced climate change, vaccines, and evolution leaves scientists and science communicators stymied. Often, fervent “deniers” paradoxically appear to become even more emboldened in the face of evidence . So how can scientists communicate effectively with the people in the middle—those who don’t have strong opinions, but could have a large impact socially and politically, based on what they choose to believe? In an age where millennials are consuming their news through digital formats on social networks , a newspaper op-ed may not have much impact. Short-form videos are one way in which science communicators can help people develop informed opinions about science topics. In fact, there are numerous YouTube channels dedicated to helping viewers better understand science. However, another form of digital media has become increasingly ubiquitous, with enormous potential to be effective at reaching and teaching audiences: games.

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The use of games to educate has changed significantly since the days of The Oregon Trail , the popular 1971 computer game about 19th century pioneer life. Now there are entire organizations like Games for Change and the Engagement Game Lab that focus on developing games that encourage social change, civic action, or learning empathy. These games are not simply narrative-driven decision games—they make full use of traditional and emerging gaming mechanisms and technology to educate players. For example, Spent is a web game that uses social media to show how easy it is to fall into homelessness. In the game, asking people for financial assistance actually requires posting on Facebook to highlight just how difficult some of the decisions can be. These games have shown success in teaching people be more empathic to the needs of others and engage in citizen participation . Can the same be done to improve people’s understanding and opinions about controversial science topics, such as climate change? I’ve interviewed a professor working in this field who will describe his study on gaming and climate change opinions later in this post.

There are a few notable examples of games that tackle some of the important science issues of our time. Vax is a puzzle game about epidemic prevention that simulates the spread of a virus within a human social network and forces the players to distribute vaccines and quarantine individuals who are at risk of becoming infected. The game has a minimalist visual design with simple mechanics: at the beginning of each level you vaccinate members of a network—focusing on the individuals with the most connections. Once the outbreak occurs, you must then attempt to quarantine enough people to stop the entire population from becoming infected, and meet the percentage goal of uninfected in order to beat each level.

Can Games Change How We Think About Science?-screen-shot-2015-08-27-at-1.50.08-pm.png

In Vax, each dot represents a person in the network. Bigger dots have more connections to others in the network. Yellow dots are anti-vaxxers.

Another game highlights a popular transportation topic: self-driving vehicles. In Error Prone , players observe 26 autonomous cars driving in a circle—each labeled with an alphabet letter. By pressing the corresponding key on their keyboard, they can control the speed at which that car travels within that circle. Unfortunately, within a second you find out that as soon as human judgment is thrown into the situation, the entire system begins to break down as cars bump into each other. Add a few additional players (other people pressing down on a keyboard letter) and you’ll soon have damaged cars from accidents and traffic jams even with a small, contained system. The message for this game is simple: humans are more prone to the erratic driving behavior that causes gridlock and accidents while autonomous vehicles avoid this problem.

In both of these games, the main takeaway is a cautionary one: if we don’t commit to doing X as a society, Y why will happen. Vax reveals how quickly a disease can spread even in a small network that contains 50 people. Furthermore, there’s no such thing as a “perfect score.” Because players never start out in a situation where they have enough vaccinations to meet the needs of the entire network, they’re fighting a constant battle that reveals how easy it can be for a disease to ravage a community when people are not vaccinated. In addition, in later levels the game introduces people in the network who refuse to take vaccines and the player’s ability to contain the disease becomes increasingly more difficult with this additional challenge. In Error Prone , the message is quite similar. It’s very difficult to succeed as a human in a system with autonomous cars and not cause mistakes. Probably one of the best cases of using this type of “worst case scenario” game design is a game about climate change called Fate of the World .

David Waddington, a professor at Concordia University in Canada, investigated how a simulation game about a world ravaged by climate change could impact people’s opinions about climate change . In Fate of the World , players must make tough decisions in a world that has one unified government, but due to climate change, is facing numerous problems that affect local economies, the health of people, and conflicts over land. To play the game, players make decisions about environmental, economic, and international policies while monitoring carbon dioxide emission levels. In his study, he investigated whether playing the game would affect people’s opinions about the importance of climate change mitigation via pretest/post-test surveys and interviews with the participants after they had played the game. I recently spoke to David about the game’s impact in his study and the role that this medium can play addressing controversial science topics.

What was the most interesting insight from your Fate of the World study?

The most interesting insight was probably the ability of the game to help participants get a grasp of the complexity of the climate change problem. One of the important things about Fate of the World is that it simulates multiple aspects of climate change simultaneously—the player has to simultaneously monitor social, environmental, technological, and political aspects in order to succeed. Over and over again in the post-play interviews, players told us about how the game helped them grasp how many factors are in play in climate change and helped them realize what a difficult challenge it is to solve.

What do you think can make games about controversial science topics more effective at educating people?

One reason that I think games are especially effective at educating people on controversial topics is that they allow the user to experiment with the problem in question, which allows him/her to develop a better understanding of the it. For example, in Fate of the World , if you want to take a radical approach and ban coal straight away, you can do it. The problem is that you then cause a massive power generation crisis, as there is no immediately ready replacement for all of the coal-fired power that you just banned. This kind of experimentation on the part of the player can generate some very profound learning—by playing around with the different factors under your control, you come to understand the problem in a much more thorough way than if you had, say, watched a movie about it.

Another reason for effectiveness in this regard is that games are (at least sometimes) less preachy and can even build in space for alternative assumptions. In the case of Fate , for example, there is a scenario called Cornucopia, which assumes much higher levels of fuel abundance than the standard scenarios. Even under this scenario, however, it’s clear to the player that climate change is still an extremely difficult problem.

A final reason is simply that games are tons of fun. There are already lots of fans of complex simulations, and we might as well leverage that fan base to help folks develop a more robust understanding of important social and scientific problems. Other genres of gaming have plenty of educational potential as well, although I’m a real believer in the educational power of simulations above all else.

Which science topics do you think are important for games to tackle?

Climate change is certainly on top of my list here, but there are many other possible topics. My favorite kinds of games are ones like Fate which don’t just model scientific problems in isolation, but which also model the social impacts of scientific and technological challenges. As a person who is interested in citizenship education, it is games like this that intrigue me most—the impact that they could potentially have on citizenship is huge.

Probably one of the most interesting results to come from the David’s study are these two word cloud images below that were generated by participants in the study during a concept mapping activity. The first word cloud was generated by pre-test responses while the second word cloud was generated by post-test responses. The second word cloud includes terms and concepts that better reflect the sources (emissions, methane, carbon dioxide) and solutions to mitigating climate change and understanding the scope of its effect (renewable energy sources, health).


The pre-test word cloud

Games like Fate of the World and Vax show the potential of making science games that educate people about the scientific and sociological effects of the decisions that people make. Even at NOVA, we’ve tackled an issue that is often the source of controversy with our Evolution Lab , a puzzle game that outlines the evidence of evolution via phylogenetic tree puzzles.

In 2014, research by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center revealed that a majority of teachers who use digital games in the classroom are using them at least once a week and find that they support and motivate low-performing students. A Gates Foundation study found that when digital games were compared to other instruction conditions without digital games, there was a moderate to strong effect in favor of digital games in terms of broad cognitive competencies. Students in the median see their learning achievement increase by 12 percent in conditions where they have a game. As games continue to become a more prominent part of K-12 classrooms, it’s imperative that we take advantage of their full potential to both augment content knowledge in science as well as the critical thinking skills citizens should have in order to make informed public health, social, and political decisions.

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