Serious Gaming and Sustainability

Game controller with landscapeClick to enlarge
SubSeGa - Gaming meets Sustainability
Source: Elisabeth Lena Aubrecht / UBA

Gaming on PCs, consoles and smartphones has gained immense importance in recent years. The research project “Serious Gaming – Potentials for Knowledge Transfer and Change of Awareness for more Sustainability” of the German Environment Agency takes a systematic look at issues and approaches to the use of this medium. The project is developing its own serious game.

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Computer and video games are very popular in Germany. According to the Association of the German Games Industry (game), around sixty percent of the people in Germany engage in gaming, at least sometimes. The number of German gamers has increased steadily across nearly every age group (game, 2022).
Verband der deutschen Games Branche - game (2022): Jahresreport der deutschen Games-Branche 2022.

Serious games have also gained attention in game development in recent years. Serious games pursue at least one other characteristic goal in addition to their entertainment value, e.g. to educate or motivate to take certain action. Serious games combine the typical elements of gaming such as fun, competition and an attractive game world with the for example educational content. They can provide an innovative opportunity to promote sustainable development, open up new avenues for an increasingly technophile generation and address a wide target group.

The Digital Policy Agenda for the Environment package of measures “Environmental Policy 4.0” strives to establish digital tools for education and participation. Serious games represent an increasingly significant means of access to environmental information and education for the general public. They also offer the potential to create increased digital and data literacy.

With a generation of environmentally conscious students and young adults demonstrating for climate protection and inspired by role models like Greta Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer, personal interest in contributing to a more sustainable future seems to remain high, even in times of multiple crises (Frick et al., 2022).
Frick, V., Holzhauer, B., Gossen, M., Harnisch, R., Winter, F. (2022). Zukunft? Jugend fragen! – 2021. Umwelt, Klima, Wandel – was junge Menschen erwarten und wie sie sich engagieren. Berlin & Dessau-Roßlau.

However, not all groups of society demonstrate awareness of sustainability (Umweltbundesamt, 2021). Innovative approaches are therefore needed for a large-scale sustainability transformation that also reaches citizens who have had little contact with the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development up to now.

Umweltbundesamt (2021). 25 Jahre Umweltbewusstseinsforschung im Umweltressort: Langfristige Entwicklungen und aktuelle Ergebnisse. Dessau-Roßlau.


Project aims and duration

The project partners Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, UBA and BMUV, will explore the potential of (serious) games for a change to more sustainability.

The project will reflect the current state of research in the field of (serious) gaming and sustainability with a special focus on the effectiveness of such approaches. In addition, it will identify the need for further research.

Concrete proposals for serious game applications will be developed together with the experienced game developer Quantumfrog. The game developers will then implement one of the proposals and develop a game for the target group of young people. The game will be evaluated in terms of its impact and scope on its target group.

Concurrently, the project will explore the possibilities for active networking between the German Environment Agency and the community of game developers and implemented together with the Booster Space event and consulting agency.

The project was launched in 2021 and runs until the end of 2023.


Current state of research and potential

Scientific interest in serious games is widespread across a number of academic disciplines. More than one fifth of publications are generated in the computer science research area (21%) and more than one tenth each in educational research, psychology and engineering. Environmental sciences play only a minor role in serious games research.
Çiftci, S. (2018). Trends of Serious Games Research from 2007 to 2017: A Bibliometric Analysis. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 6(2), 18.

Research focus is placed on different game aspects depending on research area. For instance, computer and engineering sciences often deal with technical aspects of games, such as high-performance algorithms, databases and graphics modelling. In contrast, environmental sciences tend to focus on aspects of knowledge and information transfer to the players.

With regard to research on the effectiveness of serious games (SGs) in relation to their respective impact goals, the majority of publications admit that measuring and collecting exact evidence for the effectiveness of SGs is a challenge (e.g. Connolly et al., 2012; de Freitas, 2018; Wilkinson, 2016).
This is mainly because research in this area is still quite new. There are still no uniform standards in the area of definitions or methods, which results in inconsistencies. Despite these current limitations in the field of serious games research, recent meta-analyses and a long-term study on SG effectiveness yield mostly positive results that point to an overall beneficial impact of serious games on the learning experience (Çiftci, 2018; Connolly et al., 2012; de Freitas, 2018; Raupach et al., 2021).
Connolly, T. M., Boyle, E. A., MacArthur, E., Hainey, T. & Boyle, J. M. (2012). A systematic literature review of empirical evidence on computer games and serious games. Computers & Education, 59(2), 661–686.

de Freitas, S. (2018). Are Games Effective Learning Tools? A Review of Educational Games. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 21(2), 74–84.

An examination of serious games research as it related to the transformation to more sustainability reveals a number of trends in terms of game design and research. These trends offer potential for further research:

  • Integration of real world conditions (in the applications studied, data on players’ factual energy consumption was integrated into the games)
  • Reality transfer via briefing and/or debriefing of players (moderated discussions between players and researchers were conducted before or after the gaming sessions)
  • Behaviour and awareness as different measures of game effectiveness (behavioural changes are more difficult to achieve and measure than changes in awareness; there are few games and studies that explicitly address this issue although the importance of such approaches is emphasised)

Developing a Serious Game

To address the issue of serious games and sustainability not only on a theoretical level, the first step in the project was to discuss the concrete potential for the German Environment Agency offered by the development and dissemination of a serious game.
Based on these potentials, UBA employees developed various game ideas in a next step. This was done together with the contractors from Fraunhofer ISE and the game developers from Quantumfrog in a co-design workshop. The game ideas were developed in relation to the various topics addressed by the German Environment Agency.
One of these game ideas is currently being transformed into a serious game and released as part of the project. The reach and effects (with regards to the characterizing goals) of this UBA Serious Game will then be evaluated.


Community of game developers etc. – networking event

The potential of serious gaming for a change to more sustainability is not limited to the areas of research and application. The gaming community – gamers, developers, journalists, etc. – is large, diverse, and has shown a great interest in earnest topics, including sustainability, for a number of years.

The ⁠UBA⁠ Serious Game aims to establish contact with the gaming scene. A networking event scheduled for spring 2023 will convene major stakeholders such as game developers, game researchers and journalists.

Further information will be published shortly on a dedicated website.

PLEASE NOTE: This article will be updated regularly in the course of the research project.