Utrecht 2040 Game sends students into the city

All students at the university should become acquainted with the topic of sustainability, Utrecht University believes. It’s not easy to devise something that makes both art history students and mathematics students enthusiastic about this topic. But the reaction of Karin Rebel, head lecturer at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development was “Exciting!”. In 2019, she and colleagues Joost Vervoort and Astrid Mangnus and game company IJsfontein developed the Utrecht 2040 Game: a serious game that introduces students to sustainability through the Sustainable Development Goals.

Karin Rebel, researcher and initiator of 'Utrecht 2040'

There are no less than 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations to make the world a better place by 2030. The SDGs show that sustainability not only encompasses the conservation of forests and oceans, but also issues such as gender equality and clean sanitation. If you look at the goals one by one, you see that they are all interdisciplinary: each goal has to be approached from several knowledge areas. Rebel: “The SDGs are therefore highly compatible with a broadly oriented university such as the UU.”

How do you make the SDGs fun?

Photograph a place in Utrecht that would be suitable for urban agriculture. This is one of the challenges presented to a group of students in the Utrecht 2040 Game. Each set of assignments is introduced by a short video – a nano talk – from a professor or entrepreneur. Then it's up to the students. Guided by challenges, their task is to create the best possible Utrecht in 2040. The city centre of Utrecht and the Utrecht Science Park are their playground. An assignment is completed when students upload a photo of their solution into the app.

Attentive players will notice that each challenge is linked to multiple SDGs. For example, Living on the land and Responsible consumption and production. In a future version of the game, students will be explicitly asked to link SDGs to their challenges, Rebel says. “This will encourage students to think about which SDGs their solution contributes to.”

Why serious gaming?

Many people perceive the topic of sustainability and the SDGs as something big or abstract, Rebel is aware. “A game breaks down the walls that people erect when they think 'this isn’t for me’.” The game transposes the scientific and political side of the SDGs to the student’s physical environment. After that, it doesn't take much more to make students enthusiastic. “You have to bear in mind that many of today's first-year students have already been on a climate march or Women's March. Often they are already much more aware of SDG themes than you might think.”

An empty lecture hall

During the pilot project in the last introductory period, some 800 students were sent out into the city to work with entrepreneurs, residents and each other on sustainability challenges. The rest of the students should follow in the coming years. The game developers’ aim is that students become aware of sustainability in Utrecht and their own contribution to it. Feeling that you're part of something bigger than yourself. To illustrate what they were looking for, the creators envisioned a photo of an empty lecture hall. Rebel: "Go on, get out of that lecture hall and make contact with your city.”

Serious gaming as a form of education

Has Rebel become a keen gamer too now? She smiles. “Gaming's definitely appeared on my radar more. But right now, I'm only really paying attention to the concepts behind such games. Losing myself in them doesn’t happen anymore.” 

Does Rebel see a future in serious gaming as a form of education? She thinks so. The lecturers who were involved in the creation and test phase of the game mentioned that they also wanted to use the idea of nano talks and challenges in their own lectures. I think serious gaming could be an appealing addition to the more usual educational techniques within the UU.” 

An example of a challenge from the game

"Ask a child about his or her vision of the future”

Rebel: “Children and the needs of future generations are very often forgotten in 'the inclusive city'. Some of the children surveyed were really worried about the climate. Other children approached it more pragmatically and made suggestions for more playgrounds in the city.” 

“What's nice about this assignment is that it naturally includes the players in futuring (imagining the future). Normally people find futuring very difficult. They're too stuck in what’s happening now. By engaging in a conversation with a child, the abstract concept of 'future' suddenly became much more tangible.” 

Read more about sustainability in education in the focus chapter education.