XXXI.3 May - June 2024
Page: 36
Digital Citation

Using Playful Approaches in Education to Create Awareness of Pro-Sustainability Behavior

Simone Kriglstein

back to top 

Sustainability plays an important role in today's world, as it affects the well-being of both current and future generations. A collective effort is therefore needed to find a balance between our current needs and the long-term preservation of natural resources and ecosystems. Creating awareness about sustainability values and how to support a sustainable way of life is an important topic for the human-computer interaction community, reflected in various recent efforts such as the CHI 2023 panel "There Is No Plan(et) B: On Sustainability in/and HCI."


Among the open questions and challenges in addressing sustainability issues is how to make people more aware of sustainability. Playful approaches have strong potential because they can get people's attention and spark their curiosity. Interactive games or gamified applications, for example, can transform the learning process into an enjoyable and engaging experience [1]. Over the past few years, several games and simulations that address sustainability have been developed. For instance, the Games4Sustainability platform [2] offers more than 100 sustainability-themed games and simulations.

back to top  Insights

Playful approaches show great potential for conveying sustainability topics.
In particular, such approaches offer a promising way to engage individuals, increase their motivation to think about sustainability, and support them in exploring new perspectives toward sustainability.

By incorporating playful elements into sustainability education, educators can enhance learners' understanding of their personal responsibility for the environment. A benefit of such approaches is that the creation of a safe and supportive environment allows players to freely experiment with ideas, concepts, and solutions related to sustainability [3]. With the removal of the fear of failure and judgment, learners are encouraged to explore different approaches and test ideas and multiple perspectives without being concerned about potential negative consequences.

This article highlights two use cases to demonstrate the potential of using playful approaches to convey sustainability topics. Two different directions were chosen: In one, a serious game was selected as an approach to support awareness about sustainability issues; in the other, new meaning was given to vintage objects that are no longer used by reusing them to create novel game experiences.

back to top  Game for Supporting Sustainability Awareness

Serious games have gained popularity in education due to their potential for combining entertainment and educational content. As a learning method, the development of serious games on topics like sustainability awareness enables students to explore and understand specific issues and can help them find solutions. Through this process, students gain in-depth knowledge about the topic by actively participating in the learning process.

As a use case, I present a game designed and developed by Raluca Chisalita, which was part of her student project and was also presented at CHI PLAY 2022 [4]. One of the first steps was an extensive analysis of what sustainability is about in order to identify which topics could be addressed via a serious game. As sustainability is a broad topic with many different viewpoints, however, it was necessary to set a specific focus. We decided on renewable energy. Since the way technology has evolved has greatly influenced people's daily lives, it can also be used as a tool to support people's awareness of sustainability topics. This is why the decision was made to not only develop a mobile game but also combine it with a technology that supports renewable energy: a solar panel, which was used as the main input device. Ultimately, a game was developed with the goal of taking care of a virtual plant by using the two most important factors involved in its successful growth: the sun and water. The solar panel is connected to the player's mobile phone via an Arduino microcontroller with an attached Bluetooth component integrated into a fanny pack (Figure 1). Such a bag was used because it allowed all the necessary components to be integrated in a comfortable way and because many people use one to carry their mobile phones. By interacting with the sun in the real world—for example, when going for a walk wearing a fanny pack and its integrated solar panel—the player can influence the plant's growth, which depends on how much sunlight the solar panel captures. For example, when the player is outdoors, the plants grow faster than when they are indoors, where there is less sunlight.

The left image shows the open fanny pack, which includes the Arduino microcontroller inside the fanny pack. The right image showed a player playing the game while outdoors on the balcony. Figure 1. Left: Fanny pack as wearable for the serious game. Right: Playing the serious game outdoors.

A user study with eight participants was conducted to gather feedback and identify whether people can be made aware of environmentally sustainable behaviors such as using renewable energy with the help of a game. The feedback was very positive, and the mobile game was rated as fun and enjoyable. The results were also very promising in terms of how games can support people's awareness of environmental sustainability. It should also be mentioned, however, that the number of participants was small, and the game was too simple to cover the full potential of renewable energy. Therefore, it would be necessary to extend the game to show how solar energy can be used to more fully demonstrate why it is beneficial for the environment and to conduct a more extensive user study to confirm the first observations.

By incorporating playful elements into sustainability education, educators can enhance learners' understanding of their personal responsibility for the environment.

The project also showed us that the design and development of such games has the potential to motivate students to learn more about sustainability topics. The user study highlighted that there is interest in these games and that they can be used as simulation or learning tools for creating awareness about sustainability. In absence of a long-term study, whether these games would support pro-sustainability behavior over a longer period of time is difficult to say, but this could be an interesting direction for further research.

back to top  New Play Experience via Vintage Objects

Another way to motivate students to engage more deeply with a specific topic is through hands-on learning via active participation and direct manipulation of materials to build objects. Building objects can support students' curiosity by giving them the freedom to explore new ideas, experiment, and think outside the box, in turn, fostering their creative thinking skills. Building objects can also be used to support awareness of sustainability, for example, by exploring and using recycled materials or giving a new meaning to unused vintage objects with the goal of minimizing waste and using resources sustainably.

As a use case for upcycling to support awareness about environmental sustainability, I present two student projects. The first project, from Barakura Thierry Tuyishime, was presented at CHI PLAY 2021 [5]. The project involved selecting a vintage object and using it in a game to create a new play experience. This approach aims to playfully increase the awareness of reusing unused objects, which, in turn, can help reduce the amount of waste we produce.

The first step was to find an object that could re-create the functionality of a computer input device and to find a game where the interaction was simple enough to support this input. The decision was made to use a rotary dial phone, since the dial plate and handset of the phone were promising as an input device. It should be noted, though, that a rotary phone may not work well as an input device if the game is to be played for a long period of time or if player performance is a main concern. As a showcase, the game Angry Birds 2 was chosen because it emerged as one of the most popular mobile games in recent years and the interaction possibilities can be reasonably mapped to the phone (Figure 2). For example, dialing a number determines the strength and the direction of the shot. To shoot a bird in the defined direction, the player has to hang up the phone handset. To collect feedback about the approach, a user study was conducted with eight participants, ages 24–61 years old. The approach was well received and results indicated that the participants found it fun. However, further studies and research are necessary to, for example, investigate different objects and games.

A person playing the game Angry Birds 2 by using a rotary dial telephone connected to a laptop through a microcontroller. Figure 2. Playing the game Angry Birds 2 using a rotary dial telephone connected to a laptop through a microcontroller.

Another student project, conducted by Jan Pokorny, used multiple vintage objects to investigate the potential to reuse them to create video game controllers. For this purpose, a mechanical alarm clock, a transistor radio, and a rotary dial phone were selected (Figure 3). These objects offer different interaction possibilities, which can be achieved by keeping the original electronics or adding, or replacing them with, additional digital and analog sensors to give them a second life as video game controllers. For the clock, a simple interaction was chosen by using only the "turn off alarm" button for simulating the left mouse click to play an arcade game that required just one button. For the radio, a rhythm game that required four buttons to be mapped to the radio's buttons was selected. For the phone, three buttons and the dial pad were used. Since the dial pad could simulate the rotation of a steering wheel, an action-adventure game with a focus on the racing part was selected as a showcase. The three buttons were used to control the gas pedal, the brakes, and vehicle interaction (e.g., getting in and out of the car). Similar to the feedback of the above student project, the results of the user study with six participants (ages 20–42 years old) were promising regarding the acceptance of using upcycling to create novel play experiences. The study showed not only that vintage items can create feelings of nostalgia for the generations that used them in the past but that they also have the potential to be used for a new purpose by generations unfamiliar with them. The different controller approaches and the initial feedback were also presented at CHI 2023 [6].

Three example use cases of items repurposed game controllers. Left: the user plays an arcade game with a ring alarm clock by triggering the ring button. Middle: the user plays an action-adventure game focusing on the racing part with an old rotary phone used as a steering wheel and additional buttons to control the brake and accelerator. Right: the user plays a rhythm game with an old radio interacting with the buttons on its top. Figure 3. Three game controllers created from vintage objects; alarm clock, rotary phone, and radio.

The two projects showed that actively participating in building or making game controllers with objects that are not needed anymore helped students see that such objects are not waste but rather provide the possibility to create something new, thereby extending the life span of existing resources. Working with vintage objects has particular educational possibilities; for example, in the context of museums presenting these objects in a new light. Building game controllers from vintage objects is just one way to foster an understanding of how these objects can be repurposed and, in turn, promote critical reflection before being thrown away.

back to top  Benefits of Student Projects for Design Groups

Student projects are an ideal opportunity to explore different ways to present sustainability topics creatively, such as developing alternative game controllers with vintage objects. And student projects such as the ones discussed here can have benefits in addition to their educational value.

One benefit is that they can serve as inspiration and offer new perspectives for design groups on how to deal with sustainability issues and topics. For example, insights gained from student projects can be used as a basis for brainstorming sessions to discuss and verify different ideas. Such projects, particularly participatory design activities with members of the younger generation, can provide ideas or highlight current trends.

Students and educational institutions can also benefit by inviting design groups to share their real-world experiences and knowledge. Furthermore, design groups can help communicate ideas resulting from student projects to a larger audience, for example, by organizing competition events or award events. Such events also increase the visibility of projects that address sustainability challenges. In turn, increased visibility can help raise awareness of the topic across different communities.

back to top  Conclusion

Sustainability is an essential part of our future; therefore, creating awareness about pro-sustainability behavior is important. Playful approaches offer a promising way to engage individuals, increase their motivation to think about the topic, help them think outside the box, and support them in exploring new perspectives toward sustainability. Both use cases showed the potential of playful approaches as an educational instrument but also how they can be used as tools to help people become more aware of sustainability. It should also be noted that educators play an important role in designing and supporting playful learning experiences, especially for educational purposes. Playful approaches should be used in a purposeful manner and as additional teaching material that is aligned with the learning objectives and the specific needs of students in the classroom.

back to top  References

1. Mylonas, G., Hofstaetter, J., Giannakos, M., Friedl, A., and Koulouris, P. Playful interventions for sustainability awareness in educational environments: A longitudinal, large-scale study in three countries. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction 35 (2023); https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijcci.2022.100562

2. Games4Sustainability platform; https://games4sustainability.org/

3. Fuchs, A., Pichler-Koban, C., Pitman, A., Elmenreich, W., and Jungmeier, M. Games and gamification—New instruments for communicating sustainability. In The Sustainability Communication Reader. F. Weder, L. Krainer, and M. Karmasin, eds. Springer VS, Wiesbaden, 2021; https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-31883-3_13

4. Chisalita, R., Murtinger, M., and Kriglstein, S. Grow your plant: A plant-based game for creating awareness about sustainability behaviour by using renewable energy. Extended Abstracts of the 2022 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play. ACM, New York, 2022, 177–182; https://doi.org/10.1145/3505270.3558344

5. Tuyishime, B.T. and Kriglstein, S. Rrrring & play: Using a rotary dial telephone as game controller. Extended Abstracts of the 2021 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play. ACM, New York, 2021, 382–385; https://doi.org/10.1145/3450337.3483451

6. Pokorny, J., Kejstova, M., Rusnak, V., and Kriglstein, S. From bin to playin': Give vintage objects a new purpose as game controllers. Extended Abstracts of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2023, Article 144, 1–6; https://doi.org/10.1145/3544549.3585665

back to top  Author

Simone Kriglstein is an associate professor at Masaryk University and a scientist at the Austrian Institute of Technology. She specializes in designing and evaluating user interfaces and interaction methods in different fields, including games. [email protected]

back to top 

intr_ccby.gif This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 license.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2024 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found