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  • Cindi Knapton

Sneaky Ways to Save the Planet? Slide Some Climate Awareness & Action into Your Games

Updated: Apr 1

Martial Arts Tycoon Brazil, Favela Location Concept Art ©Good Dog Studios Available to Wishlist on Steam

If you know me, you know that my background in architecture has imbued me with a passion for making built forms sustainable. As I integrate that passion into game design, I was thrilled to participate in an inspiring and practical workshop/game jam at GDC:

Climate Crisis Workshop: Use your Game Developer Superpowers to Fight the Climate Crisis.

Immediately, Trevin York of Dire Lark games reminded us that environmental obstacles have always been a part of game play. Now we can include contemporary climate issues -- without sucking out the fun and turning the game into a lecture!

The workshop was sponsored by Atlantic Council & Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, so it was available for attendees with any level of pass. I bought the cost effective Expo Pass this year knowing that I could go to this wonderful workshop. This was the third year the workshop has been offered at GDC and I expect it to be offered annually.

Now we can include contemporary climate issues -- without sucking out the fun and turning the game into a lecture!

And if you've read any of my blog, you also know that I have very little interest in fighting games, but... I'll explain how we learned that climate awareness can be slid beautifully, and almost subliminally into the environmental obstacles of any game... even Martial Arts Tycoon Brazil.

Before we got to the optimistic fix-it-up stuff, the workshop presenters did take us through the depressing reminders of current climate issues -- everything from drought, heat waves, rising sea levels, and severe storms, to raging forest fires, and their possible mitigations.

After that darkness, we did a Slido survey to identify the games that already have climate awareness. Of the many names submitted, some of my favorites were Journey, Fire Watch, and Citizen Sleeper. It's already happening. Climate awareness and action are already in our games.

Citizen Sleeper Energy Regeneration Options at the End of the Work Cycle ©Jump Over The Age @Fellow Traveler

Throughout the workshop, the team of speakers including Grant Shonkwiler of Shonkventures, Arnaud Fayoll of Ubisoft Positive Play, and Shayne Hayes of the Atlantic Council wove in step-by-step game jam activities. This made sure that the experience was interactive and that each of us, coming from a variety of disciplines, could see how our scope of work on a game would effect the result.

From Climate Crisis Workshop GDC 2024 slide deck Every team member can participate.©Atlantic Council ©Arsht-Rock

I should stop here and complement my team mates. I think that our team worked very well together because people who are interested in climate action know that teamwork is foundational. Do you agree? Thank you Lukas, Noah, Gabor, Guillaume, Iggy, Kat, and the many other friends who popped in to participate for a portion of the day.

I think that our team worked very well together because people who are interested in climate action know that teamwork is foundational.

Our team brainstormed a game idea and came up with a neighborhood garden dealing with drought. On that theme we each wrote post it notes of how we -- in our individual areas of expertise, could help to develop that game idea. We stuck our post-its on the circle over our area of expertise.

The next step in our game jam, fundamental to all game design -- sorting ideas into quadrants of hard vs. easy to implement and high vs. low impact.

Neighborhood Garden Game High vs. Low Impact, Easy vs. Difficult to Implement. Yes, that's horrible printing for an architect, but to be fair, I was writing upside down.

One fun fact that I learned in this section of the workshop: The gaming industry uses a tremendous amount of energy, comparable to the amount of energy used by the country of Slovenia. We are a part of the problem. Video Games are Finally Waking up to Climate Change.

In my mind as more of our lives become fully game-ified -- education, banking, government, etc., this problem of energy consumption will increase. Designing less complex environments, graphics, physics, and characters can mitigate energy consumption. Hearing these facts, my eyes went wide and my jaw dropped open. The programmers on my team smiled politely at my narrative naïveté. One mouthed "Duh" and smiled sympathetically.

So how does this work in Martial Arts Tycoon Brazil (MATB)? Chance Glasco of Good Dog Studios explained how climate awareness and action is naturally integrated into the game.

Your player avatar Lukas. ©Good Dog Studios

Here's the premise: You play as Lukas. You've inherited your uncle's rooftop Martial Arts Training Gym in a favela with magnificent views of beautiful Rio de Janeiro.

But... the gym needs cleaning, the equipment needs building, and you need to figure out how to optimize the location to train fighters to win fights. Up on the roof you become very aware of Rio's temperatures and occasional heat events. Note: Heat events, also known as heatwaves, are a series of days that are hotter than normal temperatures for the region.

You've cleaned up the roof top, fixed and placed the equipment, let's get some fighters in here. ©Good Dog Studios

To optimize your fighters you need to determine the coolest time of day to train, which fighters are most susceptible to heat exhaustion due to age and underlying health concerns, and keep all fighters hydrated. Temperature, weather forecast, and player health are all indicated to assist your decision making. Eventually you level up and put a roof over the gym.

Environmental obstacles have always been a part of game play.

I went to Steam to look more closely at MATB, where it is currently available for wish listing. Of the promotional materials: Gameplay, Sneak peak, Stills, and Teaser Trailer, there is little mention of heat events. It's not part of the sales pitch. Climate change doesn't need to be. Heat is a natural obstacle in the game play and a realistic concern for running a rooftop gym in Rio.

Shading the roof top gym radically improves your fighters' performance. ©Good Dog Studios

We don't have to telegraph the climate issues in the gameplay. Environmental obstacles have always been a part of game play.

And how do we know that implanting these environmental obstacles into game play will help the planet? During the workshop, two main principals caught my attention: Call to Action & Behavioral Transference.

Quoting from the Climate Crisis Workshop Slide Deck:

Call to Action: "Players want to act but don't know how. Games Prepare and encourage players to take action in real life. Repeated exposure to Calls to Action prime our brains, making us more likely to answer the call later. Players already primed can be activated by the right nudge at the right time!"

Behavioral Transference: "Build emotional resilience. Push Players out of their comfort zone. Normalize eco-conscoius behaviors. Teach useful skills for the future. Let players experience the power of community. Allow peaceful resolution of conflict. Discourage negative behaviors such as hoarding."

Both of those concepts seem realistic and practical to integrate into our game design. Let's do it!

One of the last speakers was Nidhi Upadhyaya from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. She has worked in Chennai, India to create mobile vegetable gardens building resilience to extreme heat and food insecurity. The mini-gardens need to be mobile as workers migrate with employment. It was wonderful to hear about a real world mitigation.

Mobile Vegetable Gardens ©atlantic council ©arsht-rock

I identified with Nidhi because coming from a non-gaming NGO background and now working in games, she outed herself as a "new gamer". She has only played games for about six years. After the workshop I introduced myself to her and revealed that I have only been playing and working in games for three and a half years. That gave her a smile.

We agreed that as every aspect of our life becomes game-ified, more of us will feel the pull of the power and potential of games.

This workshop was highly inspiring, fun, and practical. I recommend it to anyone who attends GDC and is interested in our climate. I would recommend joining the IDGA Climate SIG And... I believe that this workshop is offered at other game conferences around the world. Look out for it.

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