Millions of gamers love nail-biting, edge-of-your-couch “Call of Duty” scary games. Millions more adore cuddly, irresistible Pikachus, Eevees and Jigglypuffs.
Could climate change, with poster critters that include fuzzy polar bears as well as an apocalyptic potential for floods, fires and droughts, be ready for its own break-through video game sensation?
Professors and students with the University of Washington’s EarthGames program certainly hope so.
EarthGames is a national leader in a nascent effort to harness video games as a way to engage kids and adults on the causes, impacts and ways to reduce climate change.
Their efforts include “Save the Pikas” — a game available in a beta version that opens with one of the whiskery, mountain-dwelling creatures, a tear trickling down its cheek. The pika urges players to purchase energy- and fuel-saving technologies to keep the planet cool, thereby protecting the heat-sensitive little mammals. Another game called “EcoTrivia: Save the Animals!” delivers entertaining climate facts via cartoon creatures.
This summer EarthGames released app versions of “Climate Quest,” a game where players must help “scientist-heroes” quickly adapt to massive droughts and rising seawater plaguing a warming planet. The game won first place in the national Climate Game Jam, an event sponsored by the White House and other agencies.
EarthGames’ motto: We can change the future through video games.
“The challenge is to take a serious subject and make it really fun,” said Josh Lawler, a founder of EarthGames and co-director of the UW’s Center for Creative Conservation.
A little more than two years ago, Lawler and Dargan Frierson, an associate professor in the UW’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences and himself a gamer, began exploring what was available in terms of climate-related video games.
“The ones that existed, maybe one or two were OK, and the rest were miserable,” Lawler said. “And we thought, ‘Somebody must be able to do better.’”
So the two started recruiting other UW professors and students in order to build their own games. The group has released two video games, has one game available as a beta version and has posted two online choose-your-own-adventure style stories. They also have a Settlers of Catan-inspired board game called Adaptnation that has a climate focus, which can be downloaded and printed out. All are available for free.
The games are designed and built by UW undergraduate and graduate students, with input and guidance from the professors. The effort has been so successful that there will be an EarthGames-inspired UW course offered in January where students will work on environmentally-themed games.
“There are tons of people who want to work in the game industry who are in their dorm room making games anyway, and they would love to apply that to something that is really used,” Frierson said.
Undergrad student Sally Wei roughly fits that description.
The UW junior joined EarthGames a year ago and is the designer for “Life of Pika,” a second pika-themed game that’s still under development.
“It’s really interesting,” Wei said. “I get to learn about pikas and how our environment is changing and the impacts.” And she earns college credit for her efforts, is learning C# programming language and will highlight the experience on her resume.
This summer Wei tested her pika game with some high school students who were at the UW for a math camp. The game is a take on the classic “Frogger” in which a pika seeks food and shade, with the added challenge of a thermometer that tracks its temperature.
A hot pika is a dead pika.
“A lot of the students enjoyed it and thought it was pretty addicting,” Wei said of the game demo. As a bonus “they gained some value from it, learning how global warming was effecting the pikas.”
Many of the releases from EarthGames have targeted younger audiences and would be suitable for use in a classroom or museum. The group has even developed a teacher’s guide for “Climate Quest.”
The group has also sought advice from experts in the video game industry, including Bellevue’s ArenaNet, which developed “Guild Wars,” an online role-playing game series.
In addition to designing their own games, the group would love to get big-name companies to include information about climate change into their own products, and one of the services offered by EarthGames is consulting on climate information. They’re also considering trying to compile the environmental video games available and becoming a clearinghouse for parents and educators.
It’s not easy to take a topic that’s as weighty and depressing as climate change and turn it into a game, Frierson and Lawler agreed.
But it’s crucial that people better understand the issue and kids are already curious about the threat.
“Our games focus on trying to prevent climate change,” Frierson said. “It’s going to get worse and we can avoid the worst-case scenario. And we also talk about adaptation and how you can prepare so there is less harm to humans and animals. Talking about adaption can be more optimistic.”
The games don’t set out to change the minds of climate deniers who believe that climate change isn’t happening or that humans aren’t playing a significant role driving the warming, or both.
In general, the games do provide scientific information on the causes and effects of climate change, and address some of the misconceptions about the issue.
“The fact is that scientists have not done a great job getting the message out about climate change,” Lawler said. “The traditional way of showing data and graphs and charts isn’t capturing the publics’ attention as much as it should.”
Video games, he hopes, are “a way we can get this information in front of all sorts of people.”