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CEO Interview: Gaming and the Environment

Hello, Filamentarians! For today’s blog, we sat down with CEO Dan White to discuss educational video games and their relationship to environmental topics. Have you ever wondered what games can do to educate players on sustainability, conservation, and other extremely important and timely issues? In this interview, Dan White explains how video games are a medium that can uniquely represent abstract and longitudinal concepts related to our planet, how games can keep players motivated to take action in their real lives, and much more. 

How can video games help educate players on sustainability, conservation, and other critical environmental concerns?

Part of the challenge when it comes to a lot of environmental issues and sustainability issues is that they’re really abstract for the average person. That’s because they deal in systems that are much larger than the individual person’s day-to-day experiences. And those systems are often quite complex. Look at climate change for example. The forecasts are being updated on a daily basis because there are so many systems at play, at such a complex and large scale that even experts have difficulty predicting exactly what will happen. 

That being said, one of the really nice things about playing with these issues via video games is that you can see these problems from a systems perspective and understand them at a conceptual level a lot better than you might as an individual going about your day-to-day life. 

Over the last 17 years we’ve been in business, we have often been approached and asked to make video games about things that you shouldn’t do. In some cases, games about the environment and sustainability fall in this category. For example, conservation. Conserving resources is often the act of not doing something to something else. The question is, how do you make games about not doing a thing into a set of verbs that compel you to not only understand why it’s important to not do that thing, but also be engaged while you’re learning that information. 

Sometimes we will take a subversive approach to that and I  think the best example of this is a game we worked on for the JASON Project called EcoDefenders. The title is funny, because in this game you were more of an eco-destroyer. You were tasked with creating an invasive species, and your goal was to outcompete a very particular animal in that ecosystem. You designed whether your species is crepuscular, nocturnal, or diurnal, you designed when it eats and how quickly it moves, and what its defense mechanisms are, all that kind of stuff. Then the game ran this simulation, and you saw how your species performed against the species that you were trying to outcompete. This game communicated to players how devastating invasive species can be to an ecosystem. 

EcoDefenders gameplay, via Playable Character

The traditional didactic methodology would be to talk all about invasive species, where they come from, and why they’re bad. With this teaching method, you lose most people in a matter of seconds or minutes. Whereas playing as the invasive species and decimating an ecosystem is great because it’s more fun to do and you also develop a deep understanding of why invasives are so destructive to the environment as you play. 

In addition to EcoDefenders, another game I’d like to shout out is Energy City, another title we created with the JASON Project around the same time in the 2000s. There were a fair number of games around that time that tried to use the city building genre to teach about renewable energy. I think Energy City did a particularly nice job of that. In a lot of those other games, the trade-offs felt pretty thin. A lot of those games came off as “everybody gets an A, just put up lots of windmills and solar panels!” But it’s not that simple.  

Energy City gameplay, via ResearchGate

Games like that were a disservice to a player’s understanding of real renewable energy, because literacy on the topic doesn’t come from knowing all the different forms of renewable energy. It involves knowing how to practically implement them, despite some of the logistical, political, and social challenges. Energy City introduced players to those trade-offs and helped players to understand that it’s not as straightforward as putting up as many windmills as you can. 

Which aspects of sustainability and conservation are particularly well-suited for exploration through an interactive experience? 

Going back to the JASON Project, we worked on a game about geological processes. One of the foundational concepts you need before you can understand anything about how geology works is an appreciation for how slowly it works across a massive length of time. Again, from the perspective of an embodied human going about day-to-day life, these time scales are difficult to grasp.

But by turning those time scales into a video game that you can manipulate, you can see millions of years pass in the blink of an eye. Seeing this represented in a game can help players develop a really solid appreciation for how long it takes for things to change on a geological scale. 

It’s very difficult to illustrate this passage of time if it’s not interactive. You can’t develop an appreciation for how something changes over time by looking at a static image. You arguably could get some appreciation from watching it happen in a movie. But of course, the difference with being able to play with it is that you can change different variables and see what impact that has. That’s one of the really important things for all science education regardless, whether or not it’s specifically about the environment. 

Players need to be able to manipulate variables in order to understand that the way things are is by no means a foregone conclusion. The environment is a system of variables that can be tweaked and are tweaked across time by natural processes and also by humans, to a significant extent. Using gameplay to help learners develop an appreciation for how manipulating variables on any scale can have a dramatic impact is really powerful. 

We also know from studying professional development in schools that if you come in with a one-time intervention, it doesn’t stick. People don’t change their behavior. It’s the same thing with documentary films. People watch The Cove, An Inconvenient Truth, or Seaspiracy, and they get super outraged, inspired, and passionate for about two weeks – and then they forget about it. The information they learned fades into the background of their daily lives. I experienced this myself with Chasing Coral. After I watched I thought, “why isn’t this all we’re talking about right now? We’re losing coral at such an alarming rate!” I still remember the feeling of being incensed and wanting to take action – but now it has this layer of dust on it. I think that’s exactly what teachers experience weeks to months out from professional development intervention. After the intervention, they have to get back to the stressors of their lives and worry about classroom management and whatever else is directly in front of them. 

That’s where games come in. You can create long-form games about environmental and sustainability issues that people can have a relationship with across a longitudinal period of time. Strange Loop Games’ Eco is a really good example of this. At its core, Eco is a simulation about working as a community to promote sustainability practices, and people are engaging with this concept through this server-based multiplayer game.

Players are developing this relationship with this in-game planet and they’re forming policies to protect it. All of this is happening over the course of weeks or months. If you want an environmental intervention to matter long-term, after the intervention is over, I’m a firm believer that it has to be an invention that takes place across months, and that you engage with and re-engage with it over and over and over again on a cadence. And that’s something unique you can accomplish with a video game, as compared to text or a film. 

Another approach can be found in the most recent version of Civilization VI, which has an expansion pack that introduces climate change as a variable. Similar to Eco, in the course of playing the game, you have to do things that are bad for the environment. If you want to build your houses in the case of Eco, or if you want to build your civilization and expand your industry in the case of Civilization VI. Both of these games aim to show players that growth and expansion come at an environmental cost. 

via Civilization Wiki

I think it’s imperative that games give players the opportunity to grapple with some of these nearly impossible decisions and difficult trade-offs right between doing what is in the best interest of sustainability and doing what’s in the best interest of say, the economy. Those are really interesting challenges to wrestle with, and games are really well suited to let people make decisions and see what the short-term consequences versus the long-term consequences are, compared to other forms of education.

Why do these types of games matter right now?

As a society, we’ve reached this tipping point where the majority of people agree that taking care of the environment is an urgent and salient issue. We’ve reached a point where our collective knowledge around climate change, water issues, environmental justice, you name it – is changing on an extremely rapid basis. And so is our knowledge about potential solutions. I feel like every week I read about a new, potential technology or practice or reason to have hope about these types of things.

Video games are not the news. They’re not necessarily the medium that you would use to keep somebody aware of and up-to-date on an evolving landscape. Best practices for what the average citizen can do to address environmental issues are evolving. So I see video games playing a role in helping people make sense of it all. On one hand, it’s great that we’re developing new best practices at a quick pace, but also we have to take into account that that’s really overwhelming to a lot of people. 

I think video games have a role to play in bringing environmental concerns down to Earth for people. Video games are a medium that lets you try on an identity, try on a practice, or try on an experience – and have that experience feel close and relatable. Particularly for cutting-edge science, letting people play with those ideas firsthand is a really nice way to make them relatable.

Take, for example, regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is a set of different practices that the farming community is still forming consensus around, and the science is still relatively nascent. But to the average individual or somebody reading about it in a newspaper, it’s a relatively abstract concept. Every day people may wonder how it is different in practice from conventional agriculture. Because regenerative agriculture is a set of systems and practices, it’s very straightforward to turn it into an interactive experience. It’s a really great way to educate somebody who is not an agriculture expert. 

That’s only one example. You can take other emerging practices or emerging technologies and turn them into interactive experiences that help the public understand what it is and why it matters in an engaging way.

Do you want to create an educational experience about climate change, renewable energy, or another topic related to eco-friendliness? We’d love to hear all about your vision and help you make it a reality. Reach out to us to schedule a free consultation with members of our team!

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