Addressing climate change from a player’s point of view

Logan Lawler (left) and Drew Olsky (right), who won the 2022 National Games for a Change Championship for their creation of Port Pickup

Dealing with the climate crisis is not a game – but finding solutions may be.

This year, hundreds of middle and high school students from across the United States competed to design digital games that address timely issues affecting their communities. The topics were sustainability, voting, building awareness of learning, and cognitive differences. The annual challenge was hosted by the non-profit organization Games for Change and supported by organizations such as NRDC, which helped judge the Sustainable Cities category and provided educational resources to students as thematic partner.

Dozens of finalists raced to win prizes worth thousands of dollars, including a $10,000 scholarship from video game company Take-Two Interactive Software and mentorship from game designers at Unity. Their entries, which can all be played inside virtual arcades, prove that being a change agent can actually be fun and playful.

Playing for the planet

Given the risks of climate inaction for the younger generations, it is perhaps no wonder that the sustainability category got the most requests.

Among them is the sustainable city simulation game Frogotropolis, which has been honored as a regional champion in the Northeast. Maya Warshaw and Sylvie Leaf, rookie seniors at Computer School in New York City, say they, like most competitors, found themselves learning about environmental issues in depth for the first time. “Diving deep into it was intimidating, but also educational,” Liv says.

In their game, the player has to take on the role of an assistant mayor and imagine what it would take to turn their fictional city into “the most sustainable of them all”. Players collect coins by participating in mini-games, such as picking up rapidly moving piles of trash, then cashing them in to fund sustainability solutions.

“We tried to brainstorm as many issues as we could,” Warshaw says. “There’s flooding, wildfires, overheating, all of that.”

Left: The fictional city of Frogotropolis and a drip irrigation mini-game from the sustainable game Frogotropolis, designed by Maya Warshaw and Silvie Leaf (Computer School, New York)

Real-life mayors should consider: Frogotropolis city planners can install drip irrigation systems to deal with drought, build river embankments to protect against flooding, and order fire-resistant building codes, all while receiving donations from grateful Frogotropolis residents.

For many designers, the competition not only required a significant amount of work for the school year, but also presented a steep learning curve in other areas. Students designed narration, wrote scripts, coded, created music and art, animated graphics, auditioned, debugged, and then debugged some—all without any prior experience.

“We’ve never done anything like this before, and sometimes we overcomplicate things for ourselves, because we like to overthink things,” says Leif, who plans to join the Warsaw team again for next year’s challenge. “We’ll take note of the coding and then realize it was there [simpler] ways to do that.”

Boat collecting sea pollution at Port Pickup, designed by Logan Lawler and Drew Oleski (Utica Center for Science and Industry, Sterling Heights, Michigan)

Simple, clean style was the approach of the National Championship-winning Port Pickup, designed by soon-to-be sophomores Logan Lawler and Drew Olesky of the Utica Center for Science and Industry in Sterling Heights, Michigan. In it, players head out to sea to scavenge for pollution until they reach their boat’s storage limit, then drop their cargo back onto the shore, where they can recharge their energy.

In their race back and forth to the port, players learn about the scale of the ocean clean-up task – a realization made by the designers, too.

“There is a giant garbage collection in the middle of the ocean that is four times larger than Texas,” Lawler says. “I knew it, but there is so much more to it than that. There is so much in the ocean.”

Scenes from the game Port Pickup Lawler and Olesky

The realization was enlightening, and after all their efforts, the awards also felt like a worthwhile reward.

“We really still can’t believe it. Right after our win, I called Logan and said, ‘Do you want to go to 7-Eleven?’” National Champion Olesky says, “We treated ourselves to a game of slurpees.” We knew we had a good chance, but it was still shocking.”

The beginning of Our Lonely Speck, created by Felicia Yan (Enloe High School, Raleigh, North Carolina)

Felicia Yan, a rookie student at Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, searched for online resources to learn how to code and drew all the graphics herself. When writing her game story, she also had to learn more about the existential threat posed by climate change.

In her narrative game Our Lonely Speck, an alien discovers the Golden Record – one of two discs containing footage of human life that NASA actually released in 1977 to inform any potential space traveler about Earth. Intrigued, the alien travels to the planet, only to find it lifeless in the wake of an environmental disaster. Players must then travel back in time to talk to Earth’s former inhabitants living on the brink of a climate crisis (eg, Importantus) and help prevent their eventual destruction.

“By researching it more, I realized that there are a lot of things we can do, that we are doing,” Yan says. “If more people know about it, it will help us in the future.”

A character from Our Lonely Speck describing the main character’s environmental issues

In order to write original background stories for the characters players meet along the way — such as a fisherman dealing with the disappearance of a trout or an asthmatic biker who can no longer ride in the city’s smog — Yan read real-life stories of people from all over the world. On the front lines of climate change. “I’ve learned that climate change isn’t just one thing,” Yan says. “It affects people differently and has a wide range of harms.”

The name of the game is inspired by a favorite quote of one of Yan’s idols, Carl Sagan: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great cosmic darkness. In our mystery, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from somewhere else to save us from ourselves.”

Yan agrees. “We are out looking for extraterrestrials, but the truth is, even if they exist, they are likely to be out of reach. It is up to us to solve the problems we have, such as climate change. Ultimately, it is up to us.”

Your turn

Kim Morasse, Director of Recreational Partnerships at NRDC, got a chance to test the different games in the Sustainable Cities category as one of the judges. I found the experience – and the players – inspiring. “Their creativity has the potential to help us envision a healthier and more equitable future,” she says. “Together, we can bring about the transformational change the world needs.”

Play all the winning games from the Sustainable Cities category in G4C’s virtual arcade:

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