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 and not just since COVID-19 pandemic. The research project “Serious Gaming – Potentials for Knowledge Transfer and Change of Awareness for more Sustainability” of the German Environment Agency takes a look approaches to the use of games. The project has developed its own game "Little Impacts".

Table of Contents



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.

While the majority of games can be categorized as entertainment games, there are also games that pursue other goals in addition to entertainment. These serious games (also known as impact games) are aimed at education, the transfer of certain skills or motivation for certain actions, for example. Serious games combine typical game elements such as fun, competition and an appealing game world with educational content, for example. They therefore offer an innovative opportunity to promote sustainable development, open up new approaches for an increasingly tech-savvy generation and thus appeal specifically to this wide target group.

Politics has already taken up such developments:

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 are one such tool and have the potential to provide 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 others 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.

In addition, a serious game on the topic of sustainability in everyday life is being developed together with the game developer quantumfrog and evaluated in terms of its impact and reach. The game was published in April 2024:

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 mid of 2024.


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)

A serious Game on the topic of sustainability: "Little Impacts"

If you want to make a difference with more conscious decisions in everyday life and provide food for thought in your own environment, the game “Little Impacts” is just right for you. The game is aimed at (young) adults and takes them on a short journey: In five chapters, players explore various everyday topics such as food, housing and mobility, as well as political participation and sustainable investments. As a player, you accompany the main character Leah as she discusses these topics with her family and friends. Leah sensitively navigates reservations and conflicts between the generations, inspires other people with her motivation and allows players to directly apply what they have learned themselves.


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 “Little Impacts” is intended to establish contact with the gaming scene. At the same time, important stakeholders from the gaming community (game developers, games researchers and journalists) were invited to a networking event in April 2023 at the Federal Environment Agency in Dessau to play and discuss games together.

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