Serious gaming STEM education


As another ecological disaster struck the simulated Arctic spread across our table top, every player groaned. I’d retained one sea ice card in reserve so I only had to lose one from my marine ecosystem; I tried to jostle the species that had been supported by the lost ice into other positions along still thriving food chains. We were playing EcoChains: Arctic Crisis, and the ecological disasters were pummeling.

I moved my belugas elsewhere, and humans transferred to a different food source. I knew every unique species at the end of the game would be a point. So when there wasn’t space I discarded doubles: bivalve clams — discarded, seals — discarded. Other players had been forced to dismantle more food chains than I when the disaster stole two sea ice stretches. They passed their displaced species over and I slowly discarded them as well. The polar bears required more sea ice than I could provide — discarded. The walrus could have survived on the sea ice and clams I’d already lost. Walrus — discarded.

So much like the plight the walrus faces now. Where once they’d hauled out on ice floes to rest and care for young, letting the sea ice drift along currents to different feeding grounds, they’re now so often forced to lie on shore in massive herds. When they swim along the sea floor with their sensitive whiskers seeking bivalves and other crunchy foodstuffs, there’s an expanding half-circle of nothing to eat stretching barren alongside their shore-side spot.

The game was highlighting the looming threat of extinction for interlinked species, and the many disasters (most human-caused or -influenced) impacting the fast-changing Arctic. Poor walrus. Poor phytoplankton and copepod.

Integrating Serious Gaming Into Climate Change Education – Workshop


“Climate change science and the complex systems integral to its causes and impacts are among the most pressing and difficult STEM educational challenges. In addition to the inherent complexity, the prevalence of misconceptions and the tendency to portray climate change as a politically and emotionally charged topic present barriers to learning. Serious games offer an educational approach […]” ~workshop description

The workshop was hosted at the American Geophysical Union 2014 Fall Meeting. This year’s #AGU14 Fall Meeting brought together 25,000 attendees – the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world. Part of an effort to reinforce and spread ideas about sharing science, the Integrating Serious Gaming Into Climate Change Education workshop brought together attendees who serve as educators, scientists, and both at once. It was hosted by Juliette Rooney-Varga, Stephanie Pfirman, and Michelle Hall. During the workshop, participants were given a chance to play and assess educational science games.

Stephanie PfirmanPoLAR Climate Change Education Partnership, Columbia University [ EcoChains: Arctic Crisis ] [ SMARTIC ]

Juliette Rooney-Varga – UMass-Lowell Climate Change Initiative [ World Climate / World Energy ]

Michelle Hall – Science Education Solutions, Inc. [ Challenge & Persuade ] [ Thirst for Power ]

Design principles

“While we want to be green, there’s a process, a long time frame, before we can become green.” ~ Michelle Hall

These games allow their players to explore many steps forward in time and to experience a shift in perspective. Games, like supercomputer-driven models, can be used to compress time and reality. What will happen in ten years? In 100?

The workshop presenters told us that while hope and empowerment encourage action, doom and gloom cause a shutdown. That’s described as a problem with climate change communication: people stop thinking about it because it seems too hard to influence, too big to tackle. Hurricane Sandy flooded New York subway tunnels. I heard from NOAA’s lead scientist that later, when NOAA provided city planners with a 30-year forecast to help them prepare for future events, the planners requested the forecast only show 10 years.

By giving players power and choices, games let players strategize and experience a strategic path, fail, and begin anew. The ideal is a doable but challenging game; the goal is pleasant frustration, challenge, and perhaps a hard-won reward.

It reminds me of a cooperative game I play with friends called Pandemic, in which colored cubes representing epidemics mass and expand across an interlinked map of world cities. The difficulty scales, and we always push for a new record, meaning that over and over again our efforts fail and we lose the world to epidemic outbreaks. Then we reset the board and begin again.


These educators are utilizing existing game design principles and methodologies to create strategic challenges with traits like variability and repeatability. They say the game concepts can be adapted to a wide range of instructional environments and can help engage and immerse learners in complex systems. As they plan strategies, gamers form hypothesis, test them, observe, and adjust. That incorporates basic principles of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning.

“Human activity is the dominant geophysical force on the planet.” ~ Juliette Rooney-Varga

“These decisions that we make today are going to unfold over decades, centuries, millennia.” ~ Juliette Rooney-Varga

In order to face complex problems like climate change, it helps to be able to use systems thinking. That is to say, we imagine how components within a whole influence one another, and how those components change over time. Climate change is complicated. Feedbacks between changing components lead to further change. For example, warming temperatures caused by greenhouse gasses thaw permafrost (frozen ground) in the Arctic, which in turn releases more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. Using systems thinking improves scientific and climate literacy, raises awareness, and can support wiser decision-making.



Those are skills that policy makers need to use. We’re not all influential world-players, but in Arctic SMARTIC (Strategic Management of Resources in Times of Change) game play the gamers take on the role of groups with interests in the Arctic. Oil companies, shipping companies, Native group representatives, fisheries, environmental advocates, and the tourism industry claim parts of the Arctic that are valuable to their interests by drawing on a map, then use diplomacy and leverage to negotiate with one another over the territory. Stephanie Pfirman joined us, helping us understand the groups’ desires and influences. More advanced versions of the game include roles for nations’ representatives as well. By adopting an identity and getting involved in the process, participants learn about the issues at stake and take on social and diplomatic challenges. The game is built to include system dynamics, interactive simulations (physical-technical aspects), and immersive role-playing exercises (social dynamics).


If I understood correctly mid-game, here’s some tidbits I heard.

* The area north and north-west of Greenland is anticipated to be the last location where summer sea ice will remain in the Arctic.

* The Greenland glaciers are buttressed by sea ice, so as sea ice melts away from Greenland coasts it will be ‘like popping a cork’… glacier mass loss will further accelerate, adding to global sea level rise.

* Oil companies are buying real estate which won’t be accessible for drilling until sea ice extent lessens even more than it already has… despite any claims to the contrary, they know melting will continue.

Getting into it

Want more on science games? I especially enjoyed exploring The PoLAR Hub for a wealth of educational resources focused on polar climate change, including games, activities, and simulations developed by the PoLAR Partnership.

Recently I read an article by Paul Chakalian posted on Glacier Hub, ‘Killing Rats to Save Birds as Glaciers Recede’, detailing an effort to eradicate invasive rats from a vital bird-nesting island before melting glaciers allow the rats access to the remaining bird habitats. It reminded me of this gorgeous impactful video I’d encountered online: ‘Sticky – – Preview’ by Jilli Rose hosted on Vimeo about the Lord Howe Island phasmid (stick insect). The video artfully illustrates how a seemingly small human impact like the introduction of rats to an island can have disruptive and echoing ecological consequences.

“It’s often said that extinction is forever, and when you lose the key parts of your environment the effect of that extinction can be so massive. And it can be as enormous as wooly mammoths or as tiny as an invertebrate.”

“With the loss of the phasmid from Lord Howe we never really knew what we’d lost. And this is the worst thing — is that our future becomes the pauper, and we don’t even know what’s gone.” ~ ‘Sticky’

Laura Nielsen

Frontier Scientists, a National Science Foundation funded nonprofit, features scientists’ work through short videos.