Can a Video Game Be a Valuable Public Education Asset?

Faculty at Indiana University are developing a web-based game that allows players to simulate the management of an actual water system

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Getting the public to fully understand how water systems work and the resources it takes to properly maintain them is always a challenge for utilities. Maybe a video game can help?

That’s the thinking of a team of professors at Indiana University, who are developing a web-based video game that can serve as a teaching tool about water infrastructure. Imagine the popular game series The Sims, only instead of guiding virtual people through life, players create virtual residential water systems and over time expand and upgrade those systems while accounting for the types of real-life challenges utilities face. The lead designer on The Sims 2, Mike Sellers, is even one of the Indiana University faculty helping design the game. He also has past experience designing a game for the U.S. military aimed at teaching soldiers how to interact with civilians in foreign countries. Sellers told Great Lakes Echo that the new water system game will have a similar structure to those games, in that players will have a high level of freedom and be asked to strive for the best possible outcome.

“Using a game like this, can we improve that understanding (of water systems),” he says. “We’re pretty confident that we can do that, but we haven’t done it yet.”

The team’s goal is to have the game ready within two years, with a free version for distribution to schools and perhaps a paid version that is more fleshed out. The game branches off a study one of the other team members recently co-authored that tried to shed some light on the public’s actual understanding of water systems. In the study, participants were asked to draw diagrams illustrating how water reaches the tap in an average home and is then returned to the environment. Results showed major gaps in understanding, says Shahzeen Attari, an assistant professor at Indiana University. For example, 64 percent of the participants didn’t draw a wastewater treatment plant. Attari told Great Lakes Echo that she believes there’s more potential for learning in an interactive format like a video game than by simply publishing diagrams. There will be survey questions inserted into the gameplay to assess how effective the game is at being a teaching tool and actually bringing about behavioral change.

“I’m just trying to figure out if there’s a way to get people to understand one system and take it from there,” Attari says, noting that if the game is successful, the same format could be used to help people learn about other systems, like ones that produce gas and electricity.

Better understanding among the public can bolster efforts to maintain and improve those systems, she says.

Source: Great Lakes Echo


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