Serious games teach students serious business | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 02.08.2012
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Serious games teach students serious business

Utrecht University students are learning to become sustainable entrepreneurs with a serious game called Solar Tycoon. But are serious games a substitute for real experience?

It all started when Geoscience professors at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands discovered that their students were missing a link. They were having trouble connecting theory about innovation and sustainable technologies with real life situations on the market. They lacked the practical experience.

This, in part, had to do with the limited number of work experience placements available to students.

So - almost paradoxically - the faculty decided to develop a virtual marketplace to teach students about the realities of selling green technology. Together with a design firm called Digital Dreams, they developed the serious game, Solar Tycoon.

"Students learn to apply the theories they learn in the courses. They learn what it's like to be an entrepreneur and how to tackle competition," says Simona Negro, who coordinates a Summer School Class at Utrecht.

Solar Tycoon is played in teams, with each team playing the role of a sustainable entrepreneur. The goal is to sell solar panels and the team that copes best with changing environments and fluctuating prices wins the game.

Screenshot of the serious game, Solar Tycoon, Utrecht University

Solar Tycoon is a virtual world designed to help students understand the real world

It went through a successful test phase earlier this year and has just been introduced at the Utrecht Summer School, where international students with various educational backgrounds experience what it is like to be an entrepreneur in the fields of innovation and sustainable technologies.

Sustainable futures

Simona Negro runs the Summer School Class "Innovations for a Sustainable Future."

She says it is important for students to learn more about the practical part of sustainable entrepreneurship.

"They learn what it means to be innovative and how to handle innovation. Because innovation is uncertain, there are a lot of influences from outside and from the environment where you operate."

Negro says the game is set up realistically - the students are challenged with changes that are common in real life.

"Think about changes to government regulations," says Negro. "New subsidies or the removal of subsidies - that really has a lot of influence on entrepreneurs when they set up a business. You have to be very flexible and anticipate on these changes."

New possibilities

Not every student of the Summer School course "Innovations for a Sustainable Future" wants to become an entrepreneur. But after playing Solar Tycoon most have a better understanding of how innovative theories work in practice.

"For students, it is very interesting and exciting to experience that and to cope with changes. We try to explain that with innovation theories, but a theory is more like a model and the best way to learn is if you can apply it and see in practice how it works."

Screenshot of the serious game, Solar Tycoon, Utrecht University

Students are taught to analyze and respond to a changing market

Pradyumn Raju is an engineering student from New Delhi. Raju says he is excited about Solar Tycoon although he does not want to become an entrepreneur when he graduates. But he says the game has introduced him to new possibilities for the future.

"I come from an engineering background, so I may not be directly linked to renewable energy fields," says Raju. "But I can work in the technical aspects of renewable energy. I have practical knowledge about the different types of solar panels. And I have an idea about how much solar energy can be utilized for energy. The scores of the game teach me a lot, which I can apply back home."

Entrepreneurial behavior patterns

Frank van Rijnsoever is assistant professor in Innovation Studies at Utrecht University.

Van Rijnsoever was one of the initiators of Solar Tycoon at the Faculty of Geosciences. He says serious games introduce students to new and practical learning methods.

"Most of the teaching nowadays focuses either on studying cases, perhaps with interviews at companies, but it very rarely incorporates putting the student into an entrepreneurial environment," Van Rijnsoever says. "And that's what we really like to simulate."

Serious gaming is relatively new territory for universities. But Van Rijnsoever believes they are a logical step in developing new learning tools and for learning more about the behavioral patterns of entrepreneurs.

"Gaming is already being used a lot in teaching environments - for example at military bases or for pilots. They have all kinds of simulators. But it hasn't really been applied to entrepreneurship, so it's really a new thing here. In research it's also new. This is a nice, new addition, where we predict the behavior of entrepreneurs, but also look at what the entire market looks like."

The Missing Link

To study the behavior of entrepreneurs and scientists and to predict when they are most likely to innovate is at the heart of Van Rijnsoever's own doctoral research.

Professor Frank van Rijnsoever, Innovation Studies, Utrecht University

Rijnsoever says serious games like Solar Tycoon have their limitations - but they are growing in importance

"I think this game is the essential link between the micro behavior of individual entrepreneurs and the market," says Van Rijnsoever. "At the moment we don't understand this link. And the game is really a useful tool to help us there. I'm not saying it will give us the correct answer, but it is a very, very interesting phenomenon to explore."

But Van Rijnsoever says serious games are no substitute for real, hands-on experience.

"An internship can't be beat. But [Solar Tycoon] can be a very good preparation for an internship. The students know there are limitations, but still they are placed in an environment where they experience being an entrepreneur," Van Rijnsoever says.

Innovative teaching methods

For Utrecht University, a serious game such as Solar Tycoon is also a good way for it to promote itself as a pioneer of innovative teaching methods.

"The university can now say that it has something other universities in the Netherlands don't have," says Van Rijnsoever.

But for summer school course coordinator Simona Negro it is all about getting more students excited about innovation and sustainable technologies.

"We really want the students to learn these theories but we also want them to understand how they can integrate these theories in their studies. With this game they have a lot more fun with the theory."

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