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

T. O’Garra, D. Reckien, S. Pfirman, E. Bachrach Simon, G.A. Bachman, Jessica Brunacini, J.J. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
229 Downloads (Pure)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Article number25
Number of pages30
JournalEcology and society
Issue number2
Early online dateMay 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021




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