The game consists of a total of six 3-minute levels, each getting progressively more difficult. The game takes place on a fictional planet named Alora, one that is constantly threatened by incoming comets. The player tries to develop their city on Alora within this context of risk and they need to make decisions about when to invest finite resources in development while managing protection, research and insurance. The game encourages players to invest in all three modes of risk management, but is open to user discretion and the critical assessment of individual risks or circumstance. For example, in the first level where threats from comets are less substantial, there is less need for insurance. But it would be near impossible to pass the fourth level without insurance.
When the World Bank Institutemade plans for a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) about the 2014 World Development Report, they decided to include an online game to explicate and frame the course content, believing that risk management is a very playable, highly complex system of decision-making introduced or amplified by climate change. The Development Report itself served as the centerpiece of this activity.
With an accelerated two month timeframe and a partnership with The Engagement Lab at Emerson College, the project was taken from conceptualization through production; the end result was Risk Horizon, a real-time strategy game about the balancing of three major variables in the development context: protection, insurance, and research. A success by any measure, it was released in October 2014 and within a week was played over 9600 times by 7184 players in 167 countries. MOOC students were required to play the game and asked to produce a 250-word reflection that connected learning in the game to their real world context.
Meta discussions and critical thinking
Because Risk Horizon was a required part of the MOOC, there was some resistance from students who didn’t understand why they were “being forced to play a game.” During the game, there was discussion in the MOOC forums wherein people questioned whether or not it was an appropriate form for their learning to take. These questions were typically met with responses from other students who shared game strategies and advocated for the value of the game as a learning strategy. As the game was a required activity, voluntary participation was not possible, threatening the fortitude of the magic circle, or that other space or state of play wherein players tacitly agree to the rules and norms of the game. This was offset, we believe, by the learning potential that emerged from the tension of it being required. The forum discussions productively focused on the question of “why a game?”, motivating students to step outside the system and critically assess the game design, structure and learning goals. Rarely do learners interrogate the logic of the learning system itself, where they question the balance of goals and incentives, the aesthetics and representation of content, and the morality of having fun while learning; Risk Horizon provided that opportunity for critical thinking towards the structure, as well as reflection about their place within it.
Learning Outcomes from the Game Itself
Beyond the meta-discussion about the game, we were able to identify some key learning outcomes in in gameplay. The data from the game showed that players who did the best distributed their resources more wisely. The research mechanic in the game requires the player to hold their mouse (or finger) over an incoming comet to learn about its estimated severity and chance of collision. The longer the player hovers over the comet, the more “early warning time” the player receives in case of a direct hit. Early warning time allows the player to draw connections between structures to amplify protection against an impending threat. The graph below shows that the players who did best spent more time researching threats. The importance of research was a key goal in the Development Report and it is clearly reflected in the player data.
Similarly, the average amount of resources spent on protection rose with each level, (except level 2). This is significant because it shows that players initially over-protected, corrected for that bias in level 2, and then progressively invested more in protection in subsequent levels. This increase in protection demonstrates that players learned how best to play the game the more they played it. This “learning while playing” is an important affordance of game-based pedagogy in that it demonstrates the tolerance of failure and experimentation towards mastery.
The data from Risk Horizon confirms what game-based pedagogy has identified: games are effective vehicles for teaching decision-making within complex systems. In the Global Development MOOC, this was reflected through the learner’s generation of reflective capacity through meta-game analysis, as well as their capacity for balancing and navigating the variables within a complex system. Risk Horizon, as such, was a layered learning activity, one promoting critical thinking and reflective capacity simultaneously.