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Video Games for Peace and Sustainability

UNESCO MGIEP sees digital games as innovative tools for teaching and learning about peace and sustainability

Beyond the zombie apocalypse: Video Games For Peace And Sustainability

Anamika Gupta
Project Officer, Innovations Team, UNESCO MGIEP

Cover Story_Intro

Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock ‘n’ roll.
Shigeru Miyamoto
Video game designer and producer, Nintendo

Whether slaying flesh-eating zombies in Resident Evil, or brutally executing enemies in Mortal Kombat, violence is nothing new to video games. Even a quick glance through a game store reveals that the possibility for creatively eviscerating or otherwise annihilating a host of virtual characters—including fellow human beings—is seemingly endless. But what if, instead of embodying characters bent on death and destruction, users could engage in video games that were not only fun, but also promoted a deeper capability for critical thinking, problem solving and empathy?

At UNESCO MGIEP, our Innovations Team is taking the challenge of developing a fun and marketable game to a new level—by asking game developers around the world to put their creativity to good use. This year, our International Gaming Challenge invited game developers to submit an original game design by incorporating themes related to peace and sustainability, including alternative energy, climate change, culture, social issues, gender, consumerism, the impact of corporations, education and global citizenship. By recognising the potential of digital games as innovative learning tools, the Gaming Challenge asked game developers across genres to consider what could happen if they re-envisioned their products not just as games, but also as tools for peace.

The idea of games for peace and sustainability is not entirely new, and builds upon a well-established body of research. Since the 1990s, the growing popularity of video games has led to speculation about whether or not they can be used for more than just fun. Scholars such as Dr. James Paul Gee (Arizona State University), Dr. Jason Ranker (Portland State University), and Dr. W.S.E. Lam (Northwestern University, Chicago) have been exploring how video games can promote learning and ultimately foster more peaceful and sustainable societies. In his book What Videogames have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy, games and learning expert Professor James Paul Gee explains how, regardless of their audience or intention, well-designed video games already incorporate key learning principles associated with transformative ways of learning.

On a practical level, this means that players already acquire a set of useful life skills—just by engaging in an activity they love. For instance, though video games may be set in a mythical or fantastical reality, the rules of the games and the contexts in which they are set are often based on real-life scenarios that require making critical decisions that will determine the outcome of the game. A second benefit is that games encourage perseverance. Remember the feeling of dogged determination after failing to overcome a hurdle in Temple Run, or losing out to two survivors in Plague Inc? The frustration associated with attempting challenging but attainable goals is motivational and, according to internationally-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal, reduces the fear of failure and promotes overall resilience.

Research also shows that interest in a game can inspire players, including students, to undertake voluntary research and learning activities about a subject they are particularly interested in, sometimes leading to a deep expertise in a particular area. In the right context, games can be powerful tools for helping students and young people become lifelong, self-directed learners.

From the perspective of neuroscience, Jessica Berlinski, a leader in developing games for learning, and Dr. Jeremy Richman, a researcher on brain health and what drives violent behaviors, argue that computer games stimulate the brain to produce dopamine, a chemical that is most commonly known for rewarding pleasure-seeking behaviors. Less known, however, is dopamine’s ability to enhance attention and promote connections, or synapses, between neurons. According to Richman and Berlinski, “this means that the act of playing video games can change the structure and composition of the brain and can be used to enhance learning.” Their research also shows how playing video games helps to build the five competency areas of Social Emotional Learning: Understanding and managing emotions (self-awareness); setting and achieving positive goals (self-management); showing empathy for others (social-awareness); building and maintaining positive relationships (relationship building); and making responsible decisions (decision-making).

UNESCO MGIEP’S Gaming Challenge

While research clearly supports the benefits of using gaming and other technologies to enhance learning, education systems around the world are lagging behind. In a rapidly changing world with instant connectivity and increasing inter-connectedness among its inhabitants, UNESCO MGIEP believes that education should not only reflect these changes but also incorporate innovation at its very core. Goal 4.7 of the UN’s proposed Sustainable Development Goals states that all learners should acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development by 2030. Education for sustainable development, peace and global citizenship demands a new approach that calls for innovative pedagogies to inspire self-motivated actions.

Well-designed videogames can make learning more democratic, dynamic, learner-centric, and fun, while equipping players to confidently step into the future as responsible global citizens. With more than half a billion people worldwide playing online games for at least an hour a day, equating to more than 3 billion hours being spent in a virtual reality every week, the opportunities for making a difference are on the rise. With demographics on our side—gamers are increasingly diverse in terms of age and gender—video games may be part of a strategy to teach 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence, in a fun and engaging way.

The 2015 Gaming Challenge guided participants through a series of design principles adapted from research on peace education and global citizenship. These included the idea of interrelatedness and interconnectedness between people and nature, as well as among people themselves. Other principles included the role of individual agency and its effects on larger or global issues, and collaboration and cooperation over a winner-loser mind-set. But when it comes down to the actual design, UNESCO MGIEP purposely left the call open: the intention was to allow teams to be as creative and innovative as possible.

Well-designed videogames can make learning more democratic, dynamic, learner-centric, and fun, while equipping players to confidently step into the future as responsible global citizens.

Thanks to collaboration with the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) Gaming Forum, one of the largest IT industry associations in India, and a concerted social media effort, we received more than 100 project submissions from 36 countries across Asia, North America, Latin America, Africa, Europe and Australia. What we found particularly inspiring is that there were also 32 inter-country collaborations. Participants chose themes ranging from climate change to gender issues and peace and security. Overall, the most popular issues across all countries were the environment, global citizenship and cultural diversity.

The profiles of the participants were equally diverse. While the majority were male, about one in five participants were women. Their profiles ranged from developers at indie studios, professional gaming companies, and independent developers as well as students from 15 universities.

The finalists are currently being selected by a jury of experts from the areas of business, education and game design. Throughout the selection process, the finalists will receive mentoring to refine and improve their game designs, incorporate key learning principles, consider marketing and business strategies, and develop engaging and entertaining problems for players to solve. Judges will then review the updated proposals and choose two finalists, who will have to develop prototypes from which a final winner will be selected. The prize, which is up to US $100,000, will be awarded to develop and market the final product.

The final game will become the first of a series of UNESCO MGIEP games developed as innovative teaching-learning tools to help mould individuals who not only have the skills to face the emerging challenges of the 21st century, but who are also aware of their roles and responsibilities within an increasingly globalized world. Perhaps someday soon, video games will become ubiquitous teaching aids within classrooms to help impart the values of collaboration, empathy and critical thinking. In our vision, games will make learning fun and experiential, and, where traditional textbooks and blackboards have failed, will offer a new model of teaching new generations of global citizens.