Playing games is a very serious matter

Playing games is a very serious matter

June 01, 2021

Playing games is a very serious matter

Games, whether digital or not, are increasingly making their way into classrooms. And with good reason, as they help children learn, memorize and predict the consequences of their actions, including in terms of sustainability.

Playing to learn is the purpose of gamification: the use of typical game mechanisms (challenges, rankings and scores) to promote the learning of complex ideas.

Using games to teach is by no means new in education, but the opportunities offered by technological development in the sector have led to its widespread dissemination within a few years, particularly in scientific education.

Games designed entirely for educational purposes, otherwise known as “serious games”, have been officially recognized as a growing trend, especially in higher education, by the New Media Consortium Horizon Report: Higher Education Edition 2005, a document that describes the key trends, emerging technologies and practices that are shaping the future of higher education and foresees a number of scenarios and implications for that future. The report was produced by a global panel of industry leaders in the sector who, even fifteen years ago, began to see how games were beginning to be used in education in the US. 

The document recognized the importance of a number of creative centers that were putting their experience at the service of education, beginning with the Boston MIT’s “Games to Teach” project and the research team at the University of Wisconsin led by Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire, well known as serious game developers and game-based learning research centers. The pioneering era did not last long: today there is significant interest in serious games, as evidenced by the expected growth of the market from 3.2 billion dollars in 2017 to 9.2 billion dollars by 2023 in the United States alone. This interest is also demonstrated in science education by an increase in academic research on gamification, the constant development of new games and the use of  games in many scientific disciplines.


Playing is rewarding

Human beings have always played,” explains Gabriella Bottini, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Pavia. “This is because play activates a series of processes in the brain that are responsible for positive feelings and the stimulation of motivation, because when you play you have a chance to win. And the human brain loves to win. There are specific areas of the brain that govern reward mechanisms, the main neurotransmitter of which is dopamine. What is interesting is that the same neurotransmitter is also essential for learning processes based on memory consolidation. Furthermore, games, even computer games, require physical activation, which in turn consolidates the memory trace: we know from cognitive studies that it is easier to memorize in motion, especially when content is associated with an action.” 

Gamification is most effective when learning is designed to be a continuous process - playing a game gives users an incentive to come back again and keep progressing. 

Playing also has an impact on self-expression: games that involve the creation of avatars and nicknames allow the experience to be personalized. Competition and the creation of lists of “best players” further encourage students to improve and try again: this is demonstrated, for example, by the great success of mathematical games. Finally, educational games allow each student to learn at their own pace: players who fail to pass a certain level of play, or find some sections complex, are free to try again at their own pace and, above all, to identify a completely individual learning strategy

Lasting learning

The gamification of learning works not only because games are fun, but also because, while they play, students process the information contained in the game itself and learn it without having to make an additional effort. “The current generation of students can be considered fundamentally different from previous generations because of significant changes in their media consumption behaviors”, wrote Carla Brown and associates in 2018 in a scientific article published in FEMS Microbiology Letters, considered one of the most complete on the topic of gamification.

Studies have found that high school students find digital technologies easy to use. On average, college students in the United States (aged 18 to 34) own seven technology devices, mainly laptops and smartphones, followed by video game consoles in two-thirds of the population surveyed. They also spend about 141.2 hours a week on personal technological devices, 48.5 hours on cell phones and 40.1 hours on laptops and computers.” 


These data predate the pandemic, which has led to a significant acceleration in the digitization of study around the world, making digital games particularly suitable and attractive for teachers and students.

Teaching about sustainability

Science is a complex discipline that requires specific cognitive processes to be learned, and basic skills that many individuals may find difficult to retain. “Students may feel detached from arguments and theories that are difficult to relate to other life experiences,” Brown continues. “Lessons as a standalone educational approach have proven to be rather ineffective. However, games are also insufficient as a standalone teaching method. Therefore, gamification is unlikely to completely replace traditional forms of education (lessons, textbooks, reading) but rather complements them.”

The first fields of science to use gamification in teaching, after mathematics, were the life sciences: playing with genes and molecules, simulating laboratory experiments is relatively simple with a digital support. 

In recent years, however, the interest of educational game creators has turned to the simulation of complex systems, as explained by Anders Norby of the Department of Fine Arts and Computer Science at Hedmark University College, Norway, who was the first to apply gamification to sustainability education.

Games are systems. Through games and systemic thinking, students can learn how events in the real world are connected to each other and how they have a causal influence on each other. Systems thinking can also be used to build games and teach students how different parts of the game interact and manifest. It can also allow students to build and simulate complex systems which would usually require a deep mathematical understanding of the equations that describe them. Recent research shows that children who are taught systemic thinking (i.e. to think of complex phenomena as systems made up of parts that affect each other) think more critically, express their thoughts more clearly, and understand more difficult problems than children who are not exposed to this type of teaching. Sustainability is an increasingly important topic in schools and its interdisciplinary nature involves many subjects. The themes of sustainability can therefore be used as 'environments' for teachers in which to incorporate elements that are part of different subjects. Games do all of this naturally, because they simulate the interaction between different factors to determine a final result.

This is why games are such an effective way of explaining sustainability: they allow all the factors that contribute to the final result to interact in a virtual context. In the field of food sustainability, for example, they immediately relate individual food choices with their effects on the environment. And they also allow us to see what happens if we make different choices: they are an intuitive and simple way to visualize the future. It is no coincidence that even highly successful games that are not specifically intended to educate or promote sustainability, such as SimCity or Minecraft, include a game mode that requires carbon emissions to be kept under control or a carbon tax to be introduced.

The Barilla Foundation has also launched its own gamification project as part of a more complex and detailed educational project aimed at teachers and students. 

Globally, 70% of under 18-year-olds believe that climate change is an emergency to be addressed, yet few are aware of the link between food production and the climate. According to a recent survey by the Barilla Foundation, for example, in Italy only one young person in 3, among those who are aware of the problem of sustainability, thinks that the well-being of the planet also depends on what we put on our plate. For this reason, the Barilla Foundation has launched “We, the Food, the Planet”, the educational video game, available in Italian and English, created to introduce fundamental concepts about food, nutrition and sustainability that need to be understood in order to ensure that everyone is aware of how their individual contribution is needed to save the Planet. Among other functions, the educational game allows players to measure the impact of their eating behavior as well as to chat directly with the Planet

Find out more about Food and Education