In 1975, two branches of the United Nations, UNESCO (Education, Science and Culture) and UNEP (Environment) jointly launched the International Environmental Education Programme, an initiative aimed at bringing environmental awareness into the classroom so that the ethics of respect for nature and sustainable development would be integrated into the values that schoolchildren across the globe are taught. The Thessaloniki Declaration, signed in 1997 as part of this UN programme, sought to promote initiatives along these lines at “all levels of formal, non-formal and informal education.” And perhaps it is in that third type of education that various experts have taken up the baton to explore the possibilities of a particular tool: play, something as essential for children as it is for a large number of adults.
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The king of entertainment in the 21st century is undoubtedly the video game. The passion for this form of entertainment, which is played by one in three people on the planet, led UNEP in 2019 to enlist the support of 21 of the world’s leading video game companies to launch the Playing for the Planet Alliance, on the occasion of the climate summit in New York. Through this agreement, companies reaching one billion gamers committed to incorporate environmental goals into both their products and operations, with the basic goal of reducing 30 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030. But beyond this alliance, for more than a decade now, the climate crisis has been tackled through screen games, not only in so-called serious games, but also through popular franchises such as SimCity or Civilization.
Table and role-playing games
But as not all entertainment options require a screen, there are also plenty of opportunities for environmental education beyond video games. As an example in the more classic line, board games have never lost their appeal and can also offer a powerful way to raise environmental awareness. One example is Enviropoly, a board, dice and card game for five or six players, but which can also be adapted to classes of 20 to 25 schoolchildren divided into groups. Along the way, players encounter everyday situations that have a positive or negative impact on the environment, on which they have to reflect and answer questions. “At the end of the game, participants will have a better understanding of the importance of saving resources, recycling, and conserving natural resources,” wrote the authors of a study that examined the usefulness of the game with a group of young teachers.
Role-playing games are another entertainment format with a legion of fans around the world, and their potential application to environmental education is also being explored, for example through simple tasks aimed at primary school children, such as teaching them about recycling and keeping the school environment clean, or more complex simulations that place pupils in a personal experience they would not otherwise have, in a way that makes it more immediate for them than what a simple debate could achieve.
“Rather than pollution being an issue out there, it is experienced as a series of human dilemmas,” wrote education specialist Edward Errington of Australia’s Deakin University in one of the earliest proposals for such games. For example, Errington proposed a situation in which a road was to be built between two towns; students had to impersonate the various parties involved in order to carry out the project in the most mutually satisfactory, sustainable and environmentally responsible way. Another interesting initiative has placed players in the role of negotiating nations in climate change agreements, while a third project adapted BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights series of role-playing video games to address the problems of water pollution, desertification and the scarcity of non-renewable resources.
Escape rooms against climate change
But if researchers themselves recognise that studies in this field are still lacking, equally promising and nascent in their application to environmental education is an increasingly popular entertainment option: escape rooms, games in which a team must find clues, solve riddles and overcome challenges in a defined space to achieve a goal in the designated time. At the Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, the Netherlands, games, communication and environmental education expert Tania Ouariachi is pursuing a line of research aimed at exploring the applications of the escape room format to climate change education.
“The idea came up based on the challenges of educating on climate change issues in general, or the energy transition in particular,” Ouariachi explains to OpenMind. According to the expert, this is a complex issue for students to understand, both because of its extensive roots in a variety of sectors and because of the very nature of climate change, “seen as a slow progressing force, hardly noticeable and unpredictable.” Ouariachi notes that “the application of escape rooms to educational purposes is becoming increasingly popular to engage people in their learning environment.”
To Ouariachi’s surprise, her research has found almost twenty initiatives that already apply this format, either for students or for the general public, and that reflect diverse scenarios, from the more immediate ones that refer to the sustainability of our daily habits, to futuristic dystopias about a world that is uninhabitable due to climate change and whose inhabitants must seek refuge on Mars. “Escape rooms are fun but also challenging because they are designed to solve problems, motivating players to think creatively, differently and unconventionally,” says Ouariachi. The teamwork format also helps to build trust and communication among participants, allowing all players to contribute.
Finally, like role-playing games, escape rooms also offer the possibility of combining digital formats. “It is still quite unexplored, but is growing, especially during COVID-19 times,” says Ouariachi. One example comes from Austria; Escape Fake is an escape room aimed at high school students that uses Augmented Reality to confront players with the problem of fake news, from which they must escape by fact-checking, researching and solving puzzles. In the field of environmental education, “augmented reality is another trend,” she concludes.
Unfortunately, combating climate change is far from being a game, but at least through play we can arouse the urgency of tackling the problem.