Sustainability Games

Exploring the new relevance of innovative teaching formats for sustainability education in business schools by Carmela Aprea and Laura Marie Edinger-Schons

Today we are facing urgent sustainability issues like climate change, species extinction, or food and water scarcity which threaten no less than our very existence as humanity. Despite some reductions in CO2 emissions, recent statistics reveal that the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic have aggravated many pre-existing sustainability issues defined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Even for goals where positive development was observed previously, e.g. child mortality, the worldwide lockdowns have led to a deterioration of the situation due to a lack of access to basic goods and services like clean drinking water, food, or medical services.

For higher education institutions, the topic of sustainability education has consequently gained in relevance, and business schools are no exception. There are academics actively engaged not only in researching solutions to real-world issues around sustainable development, but also designing and piloting new teaching formats to empower and motivate the leaders of tomorrow to be proactive change makers who will create sustainable and resilient economies and societies.

In recent years, innovation in teaching formats has highlighted the need for student involvement and engagement. In addition, there has been increasing interest in game-based learning approaches. At the business school of the University of Mannheim, two academics have recently developed an innovative teaching format which fulfils exactly the above-mentioned learning goals, i.e. fostering students’ ability and willingness to be sustainability change makers, and involving elements of games, while actively engaging students to co-create their own content. Additionally, students also learn how to cope with the ‘messiness’ of design processes, to work effectively as a team, and to clearly communicate complex issues. This article will outline the format of these “Sustainability Games” with the hope of inspiring colleagues around the world.

Prof. Carmela Aprea (Chair of Economic and Business Education) and Prof. Laura Marie Edinger-Schons (Chair of Sustainable Business) partnered to develop this interdisciplinary project in spring 2020. The idea of the interactive seminar was for students to work in teams of four or five to develop a game (either a board game or a digital game, depending on skills and preferences) to raise awareness and educate users about a topic related to sustainability as defined in the UN SDGs. For instance, students could develop a game inspired by a well-known existing game but applying the existing mechanism to a topic like the climate crisis, poverty, or financial illiteracy.

The seminar comprised of ‘block’ workshops. During the first session, the lecturers provided some introductory guidance on the topics of sustainability as well as game design. Subsequently, design thinking methods were introduced to outline the game development process. The remainder of the first day was dedicated to ideation. In this phase, students developed ideas for sustainability problems which they feel are especially pressing and intriguing as well as thinking of possible game mechanisms which could be used to educate people about their topic. During the second session, the teams had the opportunity to discuss, present and possibly reframe their ideas and develop first prototypes (e.g., mock-ups of the games). For this purpose, the two professors developed a so-called ‘game design canvas’ including four boxes: 1) sustainability problem, 2) game description, 3) target group(s), and 4) learning goal(s).

The students used the boxes to illustrate the basic elements of their ideas. On the third day, the prototypes were used for first test games and teams received feedback from the whole group which they could use to refine their ideas. Initially a fourth full day was planned totake place with final presentations and test plays. However, this last day had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Instead, after developing their game concepts, students produced short videos about their projects which contained the information outlined in the game design canvas.

An example video can be found here.

They also wrote a paper describing the game mechanisms in more detail, and also reflecting on their learning experience as a group. The basis for grading were the video summaries (of approx. 10 minutes and worth 50%), as well as the written report of the game, its underlying theoretical content, and a rulebook (of 12 pages, also worth 50%).

The course had multiple learning goals. First, the student teams each focused on one specific topic related to sustainable development, e.g. virtual water, the climate crisis, or food waste. By designing a game on this topic, students gained comprehensive knowledge on their specific topic and sustainable development in general. By searching for information, organising and discussing the material, and preparing the content in the game format, they acquired a deep understanding of the challenges related to the problem and the stakeholders involved in potential solutions.

Furthermore, over and above learning about sustainability, students developed an understanding of how games can be used to convey knowledge on important societal topics in an effective and engaging way. Beyond the theoretical knowledge on game design, they learned from the experience of testing and discussing the game, its potential target groups, and its learning goals.

The first pilot of this new teaching format received a very positive evaluation with participants saying, for example, “Creating a game is the best idea one can have for a university course!!’ or ‘I really liked the fact that the course had both sustainability and educational aspects. I think that there should be more interdisciplinary cooperation between professors and departments. It was also great that the theoretical knowledge learned in the course could be directly put into practice.” Despite the disruption of COVID-19, the overall feedback for the course was 1.8 while the lecturers scored 1.6 (on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is the best and 5 the worst evaluation).

Looking back at the first edition of the course, the two professors are more than satisfied with the outcomes, although they also see some potential for improvement for future cohorts. Overall, the performance of the students was astonishing and their willingness to invest time and effort to develop highly creative solutions went far beyond what the two lecturers had anticipated. The new games included, for example, an escape game on the topic of multidimensional poverty, a board game on sustainable tourism, and a tower game, similar to the well-known game ‘Jenga’, including quizzes about the UN SDGs. All the games developed by the student teams demonstrated their profound awareness and knowledge of the problem, and resulted in very high quality products. Further, the student videos were also a highly valuable resource and again a sign of good engagement and motivation.

Ideas for the future development of the course include using the games not only with students from the course, but partnering with local schools and other educational institutions to test the games with learners from different age cohorts, depending on the target groups of the games. This will enlarge the impact of the “Sustainability Games” course and could have multiple benefits. Firstly, it would be beneficial for the partner institutions because they would receive support in teaching about sustainability; secondly, for the university students it would be insightful because they would then engage in a kind of service learning.

Further, following the idea of open educational content and open science, the content produced could be made available for all interested institutions with the option to download the materials like the board games. This would allow actors in education systems all around the world to benefit from the creative work of the students who take the course.

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