20 February 2019

Student game jam explores complex sustainability problems

In the words of the MIT Game Lab, “play, as expressed in games, is the most positive response of the human spirit to a universe of uncertainty”. Last week, students from Utrecht University and the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht collaborated to develop applied games addressing complex and deeply uncertain sustainability issues.

Games are a huge part of today’s media landscape – arguably more so than films. More and more people and companies are developing games, big and small, and it is easier than ever for people all around the world to access them. Games also offer unique possibilities for people to engage with the big issues of our time.


Photo: Charlotte Ballard

“Many people think sustainability issues are too big to solve. Videogames are a good way to simplify an issue and show people that small actions can lead to a bigger change in the world.”

Droovi de Zilva - 2nd year Global Sustainability Science student at Utrecht University.

Games of all types – from board games to virtual reality experiences – allow players to directly interact with stories, settings, and systems of play that explore the present and future challenges that humanity faces. Games also allow people to engage with and learn from each other in new ways.  

“This is what makes applied games such an exciting tool for the exploration of interdisciplinary and complex sustainability and climate change challenges,” say course organisers Karin Rebel, Astrid Mangnus and Joost Vervoort. The use of games to educate players about specific topics is known as applied gaming.


Photo: Charlotte Ballard

“Young people aren't really interested in numbers - it’s boring for them. Games are a good way to interest more young people in sustainability issues”.

Lenneke van Doorn, HKU Game Art student.

Four external clients

Teams worked hard to develop games for one of four external clients working with Utrecht University researchers: The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), Stockholm Resilience Center, Eden Holland and De Herenboeren. De Herenboeren, for example, is an organization that engages in small-scale sustainable food production. They were looking for a game that let players explore the ecological advantages of nature-inclusive agriculture.

'A High intensity pressure cooker'

Kick-started with a game jam - a week-long high intensity pressure cooker where teams compete to build game prototypes. In teams of five, expertise from the two institutions complemented each other. UU students provided sustainability knowledge, and the HKU students were experts in game design.

The game jam resulted in sorts of weird and wonderful prototypes. Some were dystopian and nihilistic, while others were realistic, simulating real the world. The course came to a close with a show, which was covered by NOS Radio 1. Clients and the public were able to test the 17 game prototypes, and winners in four categories were chosen.


Image: Team Parkeet

Innovation: Team Parkeet clustered the Sustainable Development Goals into five groups, which were translated to five minigames spread throughout the educational and sustainable park that Eden Holland is developing. Finishing one minigame unlocks the next minigame, and alters the park itself - demonstrating the interconnectedness of the different global sustainability goals.

Collaboration. Team Spashte answered the call of a project led by Utrecht University with the Stockholm Resilience Centre to make games that explore radically new futures. Team Spashte's game tells the story of disenfranchized miners on the moon who are experiencing the ‘overview effect’ every day. Confronted with its fragility, they aim to start a sustainability revolution on Earth. Excellent programming, design, cool synth music and the content brought in by the UU students took the game to the next level.

Image: Team Toxicow

Creativity. Team Toxicow responded to the challenge set by UU and de Hereboeren to make a game to help people understand agroecology. In Team Toxicow’s KeverFever game, player 1 plays a farmer and player 2 a beetle. Both players must try to satisfy their respective needs. The perspectives were well done the judges were impressed with both the idea and execution.

Process. The game jam itself was gamified as well - which meant that teams could score points by fulfilling certain challenges, and win the ‘process’ prize. Team ChocolateChicken won the most challenges (small assignments throughout the Game Jam) such as recording their own K-pop video.