Put a class of primary school children around a board game: you connect pipes in an aqueduct to get water to the houses, repair leaks, win points depending on how much water you manage to save. The game can then continue at home, and while talking to parents about saving water you can earn more points. You also accumulate points by demonstrating that in your daily life you have engaged in virtuous behaviour, taking water from the fountain, or turning off the tap while brushing your teeth, and have reduced environmentally unfriendly habits.
This game is called 'Blutube - Chi porta l'acqua a casa' (Blutube - Who takes the water home), and in 2019, thanks to the collaboration between GEAL, Lucca Crea and the municipality of Lucca, it became a 'ludo-educational programme' - and an experiment - that took place in 53 primary school classes in Lucca, and is now also starting to give its first results. Behind the game was an idea to be tested, namely that through playful activity - especially if conceived and organised in a certain way - it is possible to encourage and propagate virtuous behaviour from the youngest to adults, to families, and ultimately to society.
Studying whether, how, and above all how much playful activity can be an effective tool for learning are the researchers of the Game Science Research Centre, the inter-university centre that also includes the Scuola IMT Alti Studi Lucca, dedicated to the science of play in all its forms. "We are trying to understand whether gaming can be used as a tool to trigger prosocial behaviour, i.e. behaviour that is positive for society as a whole," summarises Roberto Di Paolo, researcher in behavioural and experimental economics at Scuola IMT. In the case of the project Blutube, the aim is to improve the awareness of young students between the ages of 7 and 9, in the second, third and fourth grades of primary school, of how the water cycle works in nature and the importance of saving water.
Now one study confirms that the ludo-educational programme organised around the game Blutube had a positive and measurable effect on the behaviour and habits of the children and their families, especially those involving significant or frequent use of water, such as washing or drinking.
The researchers, with the help of the Education Department of Lucca, organised a quasi-experiment in which the classes that participated in the project were joined by other classes that did not participate in the activity. The ludo-educational programme included three phases: a meeting with each class, in which the students and the class itself were given a box of the board game and explained the rules of the programme; a second phase of about a month and a half in which the students were free to play Blutube in class or at home, accumulating points both with the game itself and with other activities; and a final phase, in which the classes, selected on the basis of the scores achieved, competed in a tournament. Before the start of the programme, after the end of the programme, and finally six months later, students from the 50 or so schools were subjected to a questionnaire that included questions such as: How much do you keep the tap running while brushing your teeth? Do you take a bath or shower more often? Do you drink more from the plastic bottle or the fountain? Do you talk to your parents about not wasting water? Their answers were compared with those of a thousand other students from the same schools, who did not participate in the programme activities.
"The questionnaires - over 5,000 were analysed in total - tell us that the game produced positive results both on knowledge of the problem of water saving and on changing habits," Di Paolo notes. "The programme especially increased habits involving the increased use of water, such as washing hands, taking showers and drinking water from fountains, and the habit of discussing these issues with one's parents. Especially the latter shows how these programmes, designed primarily for the youngest, have an effect on the whole family, which is indirectly involved, and that the effect on behaviour persists even in the long term'.
For play to be effective as a tool for change, however, certain conditions are necessary: playing once is not enough. "The message is that game-based programmes that aim to promote virtuous behaviour should be designed in such a way that they involve participants on a daily basis, for a sufficiently long period of time to allow participants to internalise the topics covered.