Playing Ecologic

The game’s second iteration is played on a board made up of randomly-placed hexes. The latest, third iteration, uses a pre-made board depicting a specific landscape. Players take on the role of heads of resource-mining companies. They must develop their business and make profit while also being mindful of the environment. To do that, they can compensate for their production’s environmental impact through various eco-friendly initiatives, such as planting trees, using purification filters, or spreading awareness – all of which, too, costs money.

Players, thus, have to keep track of two main factors: their eco-points and their money. There are many ways to win: some may compensate for their impact by regularly spending money on initiatives throughout the game, or they can amass profits and make large contributions near the end of the game. The game also features random events, such as floods or financial crises.

“So far, we’ve developed two aspects of sustainable development: ecology and economics. But we already have a few more ideas on how to improve it: we’re planning an expansion called “Society”, which will add the third aspect of sustainable development. We’re also thinking of a special expansion that would emphasize a role-playing, dialogue-based format in which players would take on the roles of various staff and management in a company: a director, ecologist and others,” – adds Marat Sabirov, one of the game’s developers.

Ecologic at ITMO

Marat Sabirov and Alexey Kolmakov, the game’s creators, play the game on a regular basis: they’ve conducted several hundred game sessions since 2013; others have volunteered to set up game sessions in other regions of the country. At ITMO University, workshops on the game were held for students of Master’s programs “Urban Development Management”, “Urban Informatics” and “Science Communication”.

“This academic year we’ve restructured some of the subject courses, such as the “Modern Science and Scientific Forecasting” and “Modern Educational Technologies”. It let us try out new formats and expand the pool of guest experts. I invited the creators of Ecologic here on the suggestion of Angelina Davydova, a science journalist who has added some valuable insights to our syllabuses. It was nice to find out that staff from our university, too, contributed to the game’s creation. We’ve long wanted to add ecological and climate change subjects to our Master’s programs. Board games provide us with well-thought-out concepts that let us involve everyone in the process. It’s important for science communicators to be immersed in a topic, to see the big picture and be able to determine the most interesting or pressing aspects. It’s no surprise that lately students have been bringing up a lot of ecology-related examples during classes,” – comments Daria Denisova, PR manager of Science Communication and Outreach Office at ITMO University and senior lecturer at the Department of Physics.

During the first workshop, the game’s authors teamed up with staff of ITMO’s Sustainable Urban Development Lab Irina Shmeleva and Arsene Konnov on a study of player behavior. For that purpose, the sessions are recorded on video and players take surveys. Results of the study will be submitted to the ISAGA-2018 conference on simulation gaming.

Ecologic play session at ITMO University
Ecologic play session at ITMO University

“This study will help us explain how well the game can complete its purpose, which is to make players aware of the need to seek balance between economic development and environmental responsibility. We analyze the players’ strategies and get their feedback on how they make decisions, how they explain their actions and what they’ve learned from the game and can use in real life,” – explains Irina Shmeleva.

Immediate effect

“Most players don’t see the big picture right away. But at a session with a host, it takes them maybe 2 or 3 turns to grasp the main idea: the importance and equal value of ecology and economy,” – says Marat Sabirov.

He adds that teachers see the game as an educational tool, while students see it as an example for their own game projects. Businesspeople see it as an unorthodox venture and a great option for workplace leisure. Among users of Ecologic are a major environmental company, an oil company, an energy company and several non-profit organizations.

“It lets people learn about the existing eco-protection measures that exist in industrial environment. Players say that playing the game gives them a better understanding of the balance between ecology and economy. Having analyzed some sessions, we’ve found that players value the ability to improve systematic thinking, as they have to take into account multiple factors and think a few moves ahead,” – says Arsene Konnov of the Sustainable Urban Development Lab.

The game's second iteration
The game's second iteration

One of the workshop’s participants, Science Communication student Irina Asadullina, adds that the game fulfills its task of making people aware of their impact on the ecological balance.

“Of course, there are some simplifications and generalizations in the game, and the focus is mainly on gaining the most points. But for those who know very little about environmental protection, Ecologic is a great way to learn more. It wasn’t like that for me, as I’m a biologist by trade and most of it was familiar. I think the game would be interesting to corporate employees, too, especially those who have to make decisions related to environmental measures. The mechanics are well-thought-out, as well: they’re not too simple and not too complicated, and you don’t have to memorize a whole bunch of rules,” – says Irina.

Spreading awareness

The concept of sustainable development has existed for several decades; in 2015, the United Nations adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Universities all over the world have introduced programs on the subject and set up Centers for Sustainable Development, tells us Irina Shmeleva, head of the Sustainable Urban Development Lab.

“Today, university education all over the world includes courses on sustainable development, green economy, closed-loop economy. Such courses are necessary to help students take a systematic approach to these issues, to understand how all of humanity is interconnected and local disasters like Chernobyl or Fukushima become threats to the country or the world,” – she explains.

The game's third, improved version which will become available to customers in early 2018
The game's third, improved version which will become available to customers in early 2018

For several years, the Institute of Design and Urban Studies has organized many simulation games on the topic of sustainable development for its Master’s students. In 2014, such a game centered on the fishing industry, eco-responsibility and the consumption of ocean resources; in 2015, it focused on sustainable development of cities and regions and was developed by staff of the Moscow State University. In 2013 and 2015, the Institute hosted two-day gaming sessions for Stratagem – one of the most famous – and complex – simulation games about sustainable development. Developed in the 1990s by Club of Rome member Dennis Meadows, it places 5 to 10 players in the roles of government officials in a developing country. The team must develop the country’s economy and society without exhausting its natural resources.

At ITMO University’s Science Communication and Outreach Office, first-year Science Communication student Yekaterina Shershneva is taking part in the creation of the tabletop card game Memory.Oceanology as part of her practical training. The game’s authors are oceanologists, artists and, now, a science communicator. The game will be showcased in late May during the “Complex Studies of the World Ocean” conference for young scientists. A tournament for the game will also be held at ITMO, says Daria Denisova from the university’s Science Communication Office.

“The overall level of public concern about the various issues of sustainable development is visibly growing. Will this result in a growth of economic consciousness, too? I think so, although perhaps not as much as it should. Sooner or later, when these issues start having a direct effect on people, they will become aware. It’s important to encourage awareness in advance. Because when the trouble starts – and it will – educated people will react in one way, while ignorant ones will react in another,” – says Ecologic’s author Marat Sabirov.

Ecologic and other awareness-raising games are more than just board games – they are social projects, of which there should always be more and which can be highly useful as educational tools in universities, workplaces and homes.