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Impact of gameplay vs. reading on mental models of social-ecological systems: a fuzzy cognitive mapping approach

Tanya O'Garra, Middlesex University, London, UK
Diana Reckien, University of Twente, Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation, The Netherlands
Stephanie Pfirman, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Elizabeth Bachrach Simon, Goodman Research Group, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; SAE International, Warrendale, Pennsylvania, USA
Grace H Bachman, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Jessica Brunacini, Michigan State University, Michigan, USA
Joey J Lee, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA


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Climate change is a highly complex social-ecological problem characterized by system-type dynamics that are important to communicate in a variety of settings, ranging from formal education to decision makers to informal education of the general public. Educational games are one approach that may enhance systems thinking skills. This study used a randomized controlled experiment to compare the impact on the mental models of participants of an educational card game vs. an illustrated article about the Arctic social-ecological system. A total of 41 participants (game: n = 20; reading: n = 21) created pre- and post-intervention mental models of the system, based on a "fuzzy cognitive mapping" approach. Maps were analyzed using network statistics. Both reading the article and playing the game resulted in measurable increases in systems understanding. The group reading the article perceived a more complex system after the intervention, with overall learning gains approximately twice those of the game players. However, game players demonstrated similar learning gains as article readers regarding the climate system, actions both causing environmental problems and protecting the Arctic, as well as the importance of the base- and mid-levels of the food chain. These findings contribute to the growing evidence showing that games are important resources to include as strategies for building capacity to understand and steward sustainable social-ecological systems, in both formal and informal education.

Key words

Arctic; climate change; fuzzy cognitive mapping; polar regions; serious games; systems thinking

Copyright © 2021 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087