Gamification: a playful way to combat climate change

Results of the Gaming Climate Expert Conference of the Berlin Energy Days 2022
Header Gamification: Spielend gegen den Klimawandel

Gamification: a playful way to combat climate change

Staircase with flag of ENERGIETAGE in Berlin
The #SpielKlima expert conference took place at the Berlin Energy Days in May 2022. © Rolf Schulten/Energietage

As part of the Berlin Energy Days, representatives from the spheres of politics, science and business discussed how games can serve as a communication channel at the SpielKlima conference, which aims to help raise awareness of the energy transition and climate change among the general public. Representatives of energy suppliers, psychologists, philosophers, climate researchers as well as researchers from the field of renewables and members of the games industry thrashed out the topic for four days.

Claudia Roth, Minister of State for Culture and the Media, compared environmental challenges to a computer game: “The common final opponent is the climate crisis.” But humanity has no superpowers, she said, so it has to choose other options. With suitable products, environmental awareness among the general public could be reinforced in a playful way, she said. “The industry must face up to its responsibility,” Roth stated.

Seriousness or fun

The German Environment Agency has launched its own research program with a budget of around 350,000 euros, which will run until the end of 2023. Christian Hoyer, a researcher at the agency, criticises the lack of scientific findings: “The state of research is rather scanty.” Among others, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg is involved in the project.

One thing is clear, however: games have a major advantage over simply learning facts. “In the context of climate change, I have the chance to try out different behaviours in a protected space,” explains Pia Spangenberger, a research associate at the Institute for Vocational Education and Work Education at TU Berlin. She distinguishes between entertaining games and serious games. The latter have an advantage: their effects are well documented scientifically.

Avoiding technical errors

However, serious games have to combat the general prejudice of being boring. “That's because many of them are boring,” criticises Linda Breitlauch, Professor of Design & Intermedia Design at Trier University of Applied Sciences. According to her, only games that are fun actually have any positive impact.

Game board with cards at the #SpielKlima conference
Games workshop at the #SpielKlima conference. © Leon Kopplow/Energietage

In fact, it often happens, both with virtual and non-virtual products, that an NGO, a utility company, a governmental institution or some other actor launches a game to bring its own topics closer to the general public – and doesn’t involve a game developer. As a result, the game mechanics often fall short: there is insufficient fun, the game is not played, and all the time and effort were in vain.

Breaking down a complex topic

This is not surprising, because communicating science topics is hard – especially when it comes to climate change. Many areas are affected by climate change, such as humans, animals, plants, glaciers and a lot more. “Each of these aspects has its own area of research, so it is incredibly multidisciplinary,” explains Claudia Frick, Professor of Information Services and Science Communication at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

Positive thinking rather than doomsday scenarios

In her view, it is important not to choose scenarios that are too apocalyptic. “If we always show people only the worst outcome, then they resign themselves to the worst,” she fears. To be sure, she says, a doomsday scenario can show how things could turn out. However, it would be too short-sighted to just move in this direction. If you resign yourself to your fate, you don’t act. That is why it’s vital to motivate people.

Robin Eckert, games editor at Haba, takes a similar view and issues a warning: “Distress and problems lead to uncertainty and fear.” He says it’s important to make abstract concepts tangible. Sustainability, in particular, is not tangible as part of the big picture, he says. But separating waste or turning off the lights are tangible measures. Positive emotions are what is required.

This is also because people tend to build up psychological distances to negative topics. “Games help to reduce this distance,” explains Stefanie Schlösser, a member of Psychologists for Future. They also offer people the chance to take on the role of the person or animal affected, whether it’s a polar bear on a melting ice floe or an industrial magnate who has to reduce his company’s emissions. This fosters empathy.

Limited offer

So far, the range of games relating to climate change, the energy transition and sustainability in the toy sector has been of a manageable size. “There hasn’t yet been a wave of such games,” confirms Hermann Hutter, chairman of the games publishers’ industry association. However, he expects that there will be more in the coming years.

The group game Kyoto from Pegasus contains a game board of a globe, a thermometer and various animals
Kyoto (Pegasus) is a group game with the aim of ensuring that the world isn’t destroyed by climate change. © Pegasus

Among the few exceptions is Kyoto by Sabine Harrer and Johannes Krenner published by Pegasus. Players represent a state or group of states at the climate conference. Scientific studies advise them to take certain measures in the fight against environmental catastrophe. To achieve their goals, the players have to give up achievements of the affluent society. This often leads to surprises such as, “Oh, that damages the climate, too?!” A learning effect is already present, unconsciously and without any wagging index finger.

However, Kyoto is an isolated case, at least on the shelves of the toy trade. On Kickstarter, things are different, as Robert Dağcı, initiator of the SpielKlima conference, knows: “Here, too, climate is probably an issue where the independent publishers and authors will be ahead of the established ones.”

One key aspect missing

One example is Gigawatt. The players try to get to grips with Europe’s energy transition. Weather, rising demand, an unstable grid… Gigawatt highlights the key issues. A lot of expertise went into the game, says co-founder Wouter Vink: “All the designers have worked in the energy industry.”

But here, too, as in most climate change games, the focus is on energy. Others take up the topic of environmental protection, some biodiversity. How societal change could affect climate change is rarely included. Yet two-thirds of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate report revolves around social aspects. But games mainly address climate scenarios and market-based processes, Frick complains: “The issue of climate justice is still missing from games.”


Expert conference #SpielKlima (“Gaming Climate”)

At the #SpielKlima expert conference, the climate change issue as conveyed via the medium of games covered the topics of communication, narratives, marketing and game design. The website includes more details about the conference, which took place as part of the Berlin Energy Days from 3 to 6 May 2022.

Go to the website #SpielKlima

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