Games and simulations in teaching sustainability

Dr. Stephanos Anastasiadis, Prof. Laura Spence, Dr. Diego Vazquez-Brust,

Dr. Sigrun Wagner

School of Management and Department of Geography

College Team Teaching Prize 2016

Convinced by the well-established pedagogic literature on the value of engaged learning through games and other playful forms, we have developed playful learning – serious fun – approaches in our sustainability-related teaching, which includes role-plays, simulations, and other games. This innovative approach applies across the whole sustainability spectrum at UG and PG level, mostly within the School of Management but also together with the department of Geography (as part of the joint MSc Sustainability & Management).

The particular relevance of ludic tools for sustainability lies in the complexity of the field, which requires analysis and engagement at multiple levels, taking into account principles and consequences of actions. The serious fun of games and simulations stimulates understanding in terms of both logos and pathos that may be lost in more traditional teaching patterns. In sustainability particularly, practitioners are faced with complex choices and uncertain outcomes, and must act on limited information. Scenarios that encourage higher-order problem-solving skills are therefore especially valuable, and such scenarios can be particularly well-replicated in games and simulations, with the opportunity for reflective practice and discussions. We note that our approach is congruent with recent calls in the Academy of Management Learning and Education (a premier teaching & learning journal for Management) for critical approaches to teaching that help to reverse trends to dehumanise leadership (Collinson & Tourish; Petriglieri & Petriglieri, both 2015), and also promotes practice-oriented learning and marketable skills.


The ludic tools

 We now briefly explain each of the ‘playful’ tools in turn:

  • CEO2 win-win game: The online simulation “CEO.2 The Climate Business Game” is an interactive game that puts the player in charge of strategic decision-making as the CEO of different companies in four industries (automotive, chemical, insurance, utility), to see if it is possible to be green and profitable, whilst also satisfying stakeholders (shareholders, environmentalists, researchers and customers). 

  • Prisoner’s dilemma game: Students are divided in two groups, representing two countries, and play an application of the prisoners’ dilemma in the case of ocean fisheries. Anyone can fish in the ocean and there is no restriction to the size of the catch. Thus, it is always in the interest of the fishing boat to catch more fish and as every boat does this, the total fishing stock declines. The more boats join in, the more likely the catch is to fall. Students can fish sustainably or unsustainably and are given a payoff matrix presenting the outcome.  Afterwards, students discuss how the prisoner dilemma of cooperative behaviour can be applied to other sustainability challenges such as climate change, and further analyse the limitations of market-based solutions driven only by competition.

  • Crunch : a card game based on a realistic, if simplified, economic model used in a manner that emphasises greed and self-enrichment; designed to encourage self-reflection and awareness of the business as game metaphor and appropriate arenas of activity.

  • Formal debate : Based on McGrawHill’s “taking sides/clashing views” series on sustainability and environmental issues, debates require students to prepare for opposite spectrums (yes/no) of particular sustainability challenges, e.g. Does Geo-engineering offer a sound approach to climate change? This dialectical approach introduces students to the complexity of issues that can rarely be answered with a simple yes or no as it might be both or neither, capturing current, ongoing controversies from the real world.

  • Practitioner ‘sustainability symposium’ : A summatively-assessed ‘symposium’ simulation, in which students present ‘papers’ and answer questions. Includes an element of student feedback and marking (which counts a small proportion of overall mark). The student symposium requires all students to work in groups, but allows them to utilise their individual strengths as they see fit, focussing their energy on background research, presenting to the class, or some combination thereof.

  • Social enterprise elevator pitch to ‘angel investors’, draws on the dragon’s den format: students present a social enterprise idea, designed to address a real-life social issue; other students choose whether to ‘invest’ their money (chocolate coins) or not.

  • Ethical tribunal: Students do some independent research on the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill and are invited to identify the key stakeholders in the case, before the class is divided into roles representing each of the key stakeholders. They are invited to an ethical tribunal on April 19th 2010 – the day before disaster struck – to discuss investment in Health & Safety on the Macondo exploration well. This is a specifically ethical stakeholder debate, and students are required to use the ethical theory learned in the course to support their arguments.

  • Climate change negotiations: these require each student to choose a country or be allocated to a country and prepare for within-workshop discussion. As all students have to outline what their country’s position is, this ensures full participation and engagement.

  • Quizzes: these can also be categorised as games and are used for revision and introduction of new facts and concepts throughout courses as well as for revision purposes in exam preparation.

  • Lobbying simulation: Role-play in which students represent players in a policymaking environment. There is a common briefing followed by role-specific briefings, including quotes taken directly from research interviews. Roles are distributed according to students’ abilities (some roles are more demanding than others).


Student feedback

We have found that students become highly engaged. This is reflected in a range of positive student feedback, in both formal end-of-course and mid-point evaluations – in which students indicate that they experience the games and simulations as high-points of their courses – and through informal student feedback. We present a sample of such student feedback for illustrative purposes.

  • The in-class group discussions and work was incredibly fun, especially the lobbying process task.

  • I must say I am most impressed with the fact that you manage to get the role play going for an hour and engaging all students. I am very happy with choosing this course.

  • More in depth and “higher level” intellectually than other courses.

  • The workshop activities relate to actual enterprises.

  • Interesting content on global warming and climate change.

  • [Aspects that most helped you increase knowledge and skills?] Workshop interactions (prisoner’s dilemma)

  • Loved the CEO2 game group task and essay, it was fun to play and at the end we all learnt a lot about real life decisions.

  • The activities were engaging and helped us apply the theories learned during lectures. They were also quite original and concrete examples applicable in real-life situations 

  • The role playing exercise was a great way to think more critically about the ethical theory and to hypothesise on how discourse ethics may work in practice. It was enjoyable and a good way to get the principle of the theory stuck in our heads!

  • The tribunal role playing made the issue more realistic and tangible. It challenged my critical thinking and allowed me to review the issue from a personal point of view and learn to balance logic with empathy. I found it very helpful and it fostered my understanding of the theories, the course as well as the issue.

  • This was a very useful exercise allowing us to assume specific roles relating to the BP disaster. It enabled us to apply different theories of business ethics in an engaging manner and see how discourse ethics, in particular, relates to the ‘real world’.



Collinson & Tourish (2015). Teaching leadership critically: New directions for leadership pedagogy. Academy of Management Learning and Education 14(4): 576-594.

Petriglieri & Petriglieri (2015). Can business schools humanize leadership? Academy of Management Learning and Education 14(4): 625-647.


See other case studies on our Seminars and workshops page