Using video games to engage youth on climate change

Ouariachi, T. ., Olvera-Lobo, M. D., Gutiérrez-Pérez, J. ., & Maibach, E. . (2019). A framework for climate change engagement through video games. Environmental Education Research, 25, 701-716.

Young people are increasingly interested in gaming, which has created an opportunity to provide educational content through video games. In recent years, video games focused on climate change (CC) have become more prevalent, but research has shown mixed outcomes when examining changes in engagement with CC. As a result, the researchers of this study investigated which attributes of a video game could impact users' engagement with CC. The purpose of this study was to create a framework of game attributes to include in future CC video games in order to more successfully engage young adults.

For this study, the researchers used a grounded theory approach for data collection, which is an iterative, interpretive approach that explores a concept in depth. The researchers viewed engagement as three dimensional: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Cognitive engagement is what individuals think and know, as well as the mental effort they are willing to use towards a topic. Emotional engagement refers to how strongly individuals feel towards a topic. Behavioral engagement refers to what and how much individuals are willing to do for a certain topic. Through this research, the authors elicited which game attributes—such as challenges or storytelling—may impact the three dimensions of engagement.

The researchers purposefully selected the participants of this study based on how well they met certain criteria. The researchers conducted two rounds of interviews: Round 1 was with CC video game experts and Round 2 was with young people. In Round 1, the researchers selected experts based on specific criteria (i.e., involved in CC video game development and well-known game designer or scholar). Overall, a total of 12 experts (5 female and 7 male) agreed to participate. The researchers conducted semi-structured interviews, in person if possible, that lasted around 40 minutes. All experts were from the U.S. and worked for various agencies (federal, non-profit, private, etc.). The interviews consisted of questions about current research or projects the experts were working on, risks of relying on videos as educational tools for youth, and what game attributes CC video games needed in order to have the strongest impact on engagement. These interviews were then analyzed to identify the game attributes that the experts believed would successfully impact one or more dimensions of engagement. The experts identified 15 game attributes.

The second round of data collection investigated these 15 attributes and took place in a classroom setting. A total of 17 students between the ages of 12-18 participated in this round. The students all attended the same school and varied in gender as well as social-economic background. The researchers selected this school based on school director interest in the project, willingness of teacher participation, and approval from board and parents. This was a group interview and took place during a class period. The researcher acted as the moderator and began the discussion with the prompt: “If you were to design a video game on CC what would it be, what attributes would you use to engage with the players?” The data were analyzed and compared to the expert's responses.

Overall, the researchers confirmed that the 15 expert-identified game attributes should be included in CC video games in order to promote engagement. The researchers believe in order to create an impactful CC video game, the game attributes should influence at least one dimension of engagement.

To create the framework, the authors aligned each attribute within the three dimensions of engagement—cognitive, emotional, and behavioral; these dimensions overlap in the style of a Venn diagram. For example, to achieve emotional engagement, a video game should include an identity-driven attribute. The researchers found that some of the attributes impacted multiple dimensions of engagement. For example, the attribute fun fell in both the cognitive and behavioral dimensions.

Additionally, the researchers found that both experts and teenagers had selected similar game attributes to include in CC video games to promote engagement. For example, both groups believed it was important that the goal of the game was achievable. Furthermore, experts and teenagers placed the achievable in all three dimensions; in other words, an achievable goal may impact cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement.

The researchers identified limitations to this study. This study identified attributes but did not measure or test them. Additional research is needed to measure whether a video game with these game attributes impacts the specified dimension(s) of engagement. The framework in this study could be useful in future studies. The researchers noted that their methods of data collection as well as analysis may be a limitation. They explain these methods were necessary to study how to best create a CC video game that would engage participants, rather than to study if the video game was or was not doing so already. However, another study with different participants may produce different results.

EE practitioners should consider introducing educational video games into their lessons or programming, which will allow students to participate in something they are familiar with and enjoy while also learning a new topic or activity. When incorporating video games, the researchers recommend using CC video games that are tailored to a certain age group or topic. For example, selecting a CC video game that is focused on one cause of CC, rather than various CC issues.

The Bottom Line

<p>The purpose of this study was to create a framework of game attributes to be included in climate change (CC) video games, which would lead to greater engagement among young people. The study consisted of a two-part interview process to identify key game attributes and confirm their likely importance. The interviews resulted in the creation of 15 game attributes that video game experts and young people believe are necessary to impact CC engagement among young people through video games.</p>

Research Partner