How Indie Developers Use Games to Enrich the World

Video games are about war. They’re about science fiction and fantasy and violence. At least, that’s the feeling you get by looking solely at the best-selling titles the medium produces. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as a new generation of developers is using games to explore social and cultural issues as well. Like global warming, for instance. Or other environmental issues. And it turns out games aren’t only good at teaching players about these issues, they might actually be the best tool we have.

Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ) is one the leading producers of nature documentaries in the world. The company has worked with National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, and has produced more films in Antarctica than anyone else. And recently, NHNZ decided to get into games by forming Runaway Play, a tiny studio focused entirely on creating titles with a natural theme.

The first product to come out of the new studio is Flutter, a Facebook game where you play as a butterfly in the Amazon rain forest.

“I just went through a lot of natural history shows, read a lot of stuff, and just was trying to find cool stuff from the real world that we could use as the basis for an interesting and fun gameplay mechanic,” says studio director Tim Nixon. “One of the ones that came up was the life cycle of a butterfly and exploring the rain forest. It’s a pretty beautiful area. And it just seemed like it could be a cool control scheme to be in at the start. That’s where the genesis of the idea came from.”

Though the game is about the natural world and features real flora and fauna, Nixon isn’t quite ready to call it an educational game. Mainly because, to him, that’s not what players want.

“Once you tell someone something is educational it’s a huge huge turnoff, unless they’re a government department or a school,” he explains. “As a consumer, people don’t like to be taught things, they like to go and seek things out.”

Instead, he says, games can help spur interest in a particular topic, which players can then go out and seek further information on. “People will be able to see the diversity of the Amazon forest environment through the game. We’re also hoping that they’ll take their interest outside of the game and they’ll go out and learn more about the Amazon itself.”

But not everyone shies away from the educational game label. Pocketwatch Games, the studio behind Venture Arctic and Venture Africa, creates games about nature and the environment and the systems that sustain them. And though both games serve as excellent examples of educational tools, owner Andy Schatz says that wasn’t necessarily his original intention.

“I never intended to make educational games per se, I just find subjects that are typically thought of as educational fascinating,” says Schatz. “No one watches the Discovery Channel in order to learn something. People watch the Discovery Channel because it's fun to enrich yourself.”

Venture Arctic, for example, not only teaches players about the Arctic ecosystem, but also shows the effect of global warming on that region. The shorter seasons caused by climate change make it more difficult to do everything that needs to be done in time. In this way the game is able to show players the impact in a way that isn’t possible in any other medium. It’s a case of show, don’t tell.

“In Venture Arctic the player acts as mother nature, trying to steward the animals through the four seasons,” explains Schatz. “I thought it was a really interesting concept that climate change may in fact increase the difficulty of the game by making the length of various seasons either shorter or less predictable.”

And when it comes to education, Pocketwatch’s games have been a success. In addition to being nominated for awards and selling tens of thousands of copies, the games have also been used by teachers with surprisingly positive results.

“There really is no better medium for education,” he explains. “ I had a teacher create an ecology unit around Venture Africa. Her students scored highest, district-wide, on the ecology unit exam. The reason is that games combine the attention-draw of television with the interactivity of working with a teacher.They provide kids with a safe place to experiment and learn, and well designed games provide both interesting decisions and rewards for progress. It's hard to imagine a better teaching tool.”

Part of the reason the Venture series makes such an effective teaching tool is because of just how realistic they are. Schatz did quite a bit of research, which he says actually helped improve the games.

“I actually found that the more gameplay that I drew from real world ecosystem mechanics, the more balanced and healthy the in-game ecosystems were. So my goal wasn't 100% accuracy, because there's no real way to achieve that, but as much interesting detail and realism as I could pack in given the restraints of the game rules and world.”

And the Venture series does more than just raise awareness, it raises money as well. Pocketwatch is a corporate sponsor for The Wild Foundation and has donated a percentage of the revenue from each game to the charity. Schatz’s fascination with nature has lead to a desire to whatever he can to help preserve these ecosystems.

“I made these games because I was fascinated by the worlds that they simulate,” he explains. “I've been to Arctic before, but I've never been to Africa. I hope that when I do eventually make it over there the wildness that inspired the games will still be around.”

For those of us living in the city though, the Arctic and Amazon can feel very far away. But even those surrounded by concrete and glass can make a difference, even if it’s mainly aesthetic. The guerrilla gardening movement is all about bringing more green to urban spaces. And Spooky Squid Games’ aptly named upcoming game Guerrilla Gardening: Seeds of Destruction aims to bring some recognition to the burgeoning trend.

“While guerrilla gardening is in no way going to solve global warming, it’s really much more an aesthetic movement, I think issues like that are probably the most important ones we’re facing right now,” says Spooky Squid’s Miguel Sternberg.

And like both Nixon and Schatz, Sternberg believes that games are uniquely equipped to educate players on these types of issues..

“Games are possibly the best medium for expressing specifically environmental issues, but I think a lot of different types of issues, because they’re about systems,” he says. “It’s [global warming] such a slow moving process and such a complex process, that getting across what the impact is when you just explain it to someone isn’t very effective. But if you have a game system that they’re playing and they’re interfacing with and they’re starting to see those connections...that’s sort of this suddenly deeper understanding than what they would get if they were just reading about how it works.

“So I think there’s almost a one-to-one direct correlation between game systems and the environment and other sort of complex systems.”

While it might not necessarily be raising awareness of issues like climate change, Sternberg hopes that the game will at least remind people of “the importance of nature.” And that might just include inspiring people to go out and do some guerrilla gardening of their own.

“We’re hoping to put in some guides on how to guerrilla garden inside the game and to get people to go out and try doing stuff,” he says. “That would be the awesomest sort of fan mail to get back when the game is finished: photographs of people’s guerrilla gardening patches.”

With the recent surge in interest for green issues, it’s no surprise that many games are now tackling these themes. What is surprising though, is just how good they are at it. This begs the question of why the medium has such a spotty track record when it comes to creating these types of experiences. According to Sternberg, a big reason for this is the disconnect between those on the academic side and the developers who actually make games.

“It’s very easy to not understand what makes something fun and interesting,” he says. “Typing of the Dead proved to me that you could do an educational game and make it super fun. There’s no reason any other typing tutor game couldn’t have been as good as that.”