Learning through Simulation: Environmental Impact

Games are a source of fun and entertainment, but can games be used for more than just simple enjoyment? “Serious” games try to have a greater purpose other than entertainment. These are games that are usually educational, or promoting a message about a cause to players in a more fun and interactive manner.  It’s taking something generally more serious but having game-like elements. Schools, nonprofits, businesses and even the government are using game elements in some form to promote something. It relates to the idea of gamification: a process of taking a concept and applying game-like elements to make something more engaging. It can be seen in the form of educational and training games to marketing and advertisements. Some argue that a simple game element like badges and rewards can be used to make rewards programs and simple tasks more engaging.

One serious game I discovered that peaked my interest was Eco. Originally a Kickstarter campaign, the game premiered at the Indie Booth at PAX West. The game is currently in alpha and open to players to test, it is expected to be released in 2017. Eco has received coverage and praise as an ambitious and unique game. The game is targeted as a “global survival game” in which a meteor is going to destroy the planet unless players work together to solve problems with technology while being conscious of the environment.  It’s an online game in which players collaborate, building a civilization together with every decision having an impact on the simulation.  The environment is player-run and constantly simulating a true ecosystem 24/7. Players build, hunt, farm and selling things as they ensure the safety of both society and nature.

The game has an entire wiki and videos dedicated to the game and explaining the mechanics that drive the game. The general elements of the game are in-depth, with topics like the economy, government, laws and resources. Players can investigate pollution and hydrology,  how land ownership works and learn about the player-run economy. When we think of traditional video games, we don’t think about the state of the world’s criminal justice system or how the economy will be affected or the population of an animal after consuming it for food; these things are usually set in stone. Eco is unique because the mechanics of this game allow the players to decide their own story, with their decisions having (not literal, but virtually) tangible effects on their gaming experience.

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A player’s screen about to chop down a tree for resources.

Besides being a successful Kickstarter, it is funded by the Department of Education, and won both the Climate Challenge Award by Games for Change and a Pax Prime Award for “Best Use of Imagination in Gameplay.” On the website’s homepage, multiple testimonials from the likes of Forbes, SimLife, Eurogamer and an iPad UI concept designer praise the game for its unique approach as ambitious game concept based on ethics and technology.

The developer, Strange Loop, focuses on creating educational games like Eco that are not focused on drills and repetition, but rather creating an “augmented classroom” that allows players to simulate and apply decisions. The direct statement by Strange Loop about their game development: “Our goal at Strange Loop Games is to use the massive power of today’s hardware for gameplay, not just graphics. We use deep, interactive simulations to explore the boundaries of what can be done within a game.”

From an aesthetic standpoint, Eco looks like a prettier version of Minecraft. The simplistic graphics are a nice touch for any type of player and nicely done. Minecraft is a popular global all-ages phenomena. Minecraft allows users to build, craft and explore with virtually no story line. Eco has a loose-story line with a similar look and approach to Minecraft. With similar mechanics and aesthetic, Eco could gain a large audience as well. Users would be exposed to a different kind of simulation that teaches them at the same time without realizing it. Since this game is a simulator, people are drawn to those types of games like Sim City and Spore, and survival games like Rust.

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Eco concept art.

The story line and the mechanics of the game could have an impact on people as the environment is a huge issue in today’s society. The game has been called a simulation of the Global Sustainability Challenge by Yale Climate Connections. The game looks at how humans interact with the environment, as well as with each other. Every player’s choice impacts not only the simulated world but every players’ experience. People are often unaware at how technology and the environment interact, and in this new game it’s an easy way to learn. It could possibly become an effective tool to use in the classroom. Students (or players in general) could study first-hand in this simulation biology, environmental science as well as social sciences for developing the politics behind their societies. Initially, since the game looks and plays like Minecraft, it appears more entertaining than educational; which is a benefit for a serious game. It easily achieves the goal as not only a game but as one that can teach and impact people about the environment.

Eco is much more than just a game, it serves as an educational tool. Unlike other educational games, Eco doesn’t use loose game elements to make learning fun. Eco does effectively use game elements that many video games use. It has elements of entertainment, it appears fun. There is a goal, for both the general storyline and for the player at a personal level. There are mechanics unique to the game that effectively allow the player to build and control the simulated environment. It’s not like most educational games where the application of learning is more prevalent than the game itself. As a player goes through Eco, they’re exploring and building. They must apply logic and creative problem solving; they must try ideas and see what happens in the environment. It doesn’t just throw facts at the player, it’s a creative simulator that happens to teach the player.  A serious game, like Eco, has the impact to change how people think about the world around them.

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