RealLives – Learning from Being Born in a Different Place on the Earth

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These competencies are fostered in this course but are not explicitly described in Competence View. Please contact the responsible person for further information. Competencies in grey are fostered in this course but are generally not the focus of Competence View, which focusses on cross-disciplinary competencies.

The course gives students insights into the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By playing the text-based online game "RealLives", they learn how to empathise with people from other parts of the world and see the SDGs from a different perspective. Students get hands-on experience in discussing the SDGs and their implications with students from other less developed countries.

From their upbringing in a high income country like Switzerland students show difficulties in relating to many of the world challenges addressed in the seventeen United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). The computer game RealLivesallows students to experience life when born at random place on earth (a specific location can also be chosen). Each lived life last between 30 to 45 minutes. The game is purely text-based. During gestation, players are confronted with real world data from public databases about their country of origin and they learn about the countries issues with the SDGs. They are born in a typical family and at first they experience life as it unfolds around them. By the age of eight, they can start to make their own decisions. After they have died they write an obituary reflecting about their life and their choices in life. In our course, we partnered with the FLAME University (connection established by Parag Mankeekar) in Pune, India. Our 20 students played RealLives by being born in Pune, India, while 20 Indian students lived a live by being born in Zurich. After completing 3 lives in the respective cities we arranged for one-on-one skype conferences between the students. The success of the perspective change was assessed by recorded interviews with the Swiss students.

Lesson Sequence






  • Obtain RealLives licenses (An institutional license is available for $ 1 per student)
  • Find a partner university and professor who has access to roughly age-matched students (use of connections or go via ETH Global)
  • Get email and skype addresses from students in partner university


  • Encourage students to play RealLives and make experiences by choosing random birth places. Encourage them to play by being born in their hometown to critically evaluate accuracy of the information received (2-3 hrs; feedback to RealLives is welcome)
  • Students play 2-3 lives by being born in the city of the partner university (2 hours) and note questions that they want to ask their peers

In class Activity (90 min)

  • Set-up bilateral video conference
  • Students discuss one-on-one for 30 min
    • 5 min introductions
    • 5 min: Experience playing RL
    • 10 min: Questions about the other country
    • 10 min: Free discussion
  • Back in class, each student reflects about their experience playing RL and talking to their fellow student


Assessment of the activity

We conducted and video recorded interviews with students about RL and their interactions with the Indian students. In general, they regarded playing RL helpful and their really enjoyed their exchange with the foreign students. Video files are not public but available in request. A draft summary report of the activity presented in the Links section.

Further and future activities: Students help students – From Students to Change Makers

The RL module could be used at the beginning of a course in which mixed intra-cultural teams work together to solve real-world problems related to SDGs. A template for such challenges are the Open17 Challenge that we tried to adapt at ETH for first semester students. With a suitable online collaboration platform, mixed teams could come up with challenges based on their own experience or use a challenge that has already been posted.
• Partner university in a LMICs
• Students from different disciplines could sign up
• Formation of inter-cultural teams needs careful planning (we have been experimenting with the Belbin and HBDI
• Secure collaboration platform allowing video and document sharing/co-creation

The RealLives Module is part of the block course Entrepreneurship and Biological Approaches to Sustainable Development but can easily be introduced in any course or even be implemented as a mandatory exercise in perspective change for all students of ETH at the beginning of their studies.
Institutional licenses are available.

Course Description

Social Entrepreneurship and Biological Approaches to Sustainable Development
The course gives students insights into the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how scientific thinking and the knowledge about biological mechanisms can help to address challenges associated with the SDGs. A special focus will be on company models whose goal is not only to maximize financial gains for investors but on social responsibility and societal impact.
The students possess a general knowledge about the basic concepts in biology. They are accustomed with the principles of experimental work (setting up and testing of hypotheses). In the lectures during the first two years they learnt about the limits of our biological understanding today and what the open questions with respect to human biology are.
Student teams will develop their own business idea and pitch it to a group of entrepreneurs and investors.
Bachelor 3rd year
Block course
max. 30, min. 10
Block course
Teaching Power:
2-3 (+ other universities)
Graded semester performance