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Could Video Games Save the Oceans Someday?

December 20, 2021 by Kate Michael
ELIZABETH M H NEWBURY Deputy Director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program; Director of the Serious Games Initiative.

WASHINGTON — Over 227 million Americans play video games, according to a survey of the Entertainment Software Association. But while people want to play games for fun, industry sees games as a powerful communication tool that can inspire players to take action off the screen, and increasingly for environmental good. 

“I like to tell my brother that the games that his kids are playing do actually have educational purposes,” Elizabeth M. H. Newbury, Ph.D., director of the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative, said at a discussion hosted by the non-partisan policy forum. 

Newbury explained that serious games — a term used to distinguish those games used for positive impact — include either games designed for a purpose other than entertainment or commercial games turned into socially-positive uses. 

Games have been found to provide mental stimulation, inspiration, social connection and stress relief. But for environmental concerns especially, developers find that they motivate players to dive into topics they might otherwise not get too excited about.

“Games are used to make complex issues accessible, or put the worlds we might not otherwise experience … at our fingertips,” Alan Gershenfeld, president and co-founder at E-Line Media said. 

“They can make us heroes and they can also encourage us to keep going and learning when we might normally stop.”

One of E-Line Media’s products, Beyond Blue, a single-player narrative adventure that leads participants deep into the ocean and introduces them to real-world leading ocean experts, “puts policy at the fingertips of players,” since Gershenfeld said it is more engaging and effective if players come up with solutions by themselves.

“You can fail evocatively, and safely, but then you get feedback … to improve … toward the goal that you are investing in,” he said. “It’s essentially project- and inquiry-based learning and behavior change.”

Other industry leaders are using emerging technology to connect players to the physical world, and unlike video games’ more sedentary nature, encourage movement and exploration. 

Niantic, best known for developing augmented reality mobile games like Ingress and Pokémon Go, has as a core mission to use gameplay dynamics to encourage people to get out and think more broadly about the world around them.

“I think all of us could assume that it’s just a game, it’s something fun to do. But we have seen that when people … engage with one another they feel more included, and then they are more likely to take action on things like sustainability and environmentalism,” Yennie Solheim, director of social impact at Niantic Labs, said. 

“Serious games can be fun and fun games can be serious,” she added.

These game developers hope that the combination of impact, education and entertainment will lead to environmental and social good. The good could come through small lifestyle changes, career inspiration or previously unrealized policy actions that spark from gameplay.

Someday video games and augmented reality could provide a solution to plastics pollution, overfishing or clean energy. As Gershenfeld suggests: “In a game, we can build these aspirational but achievable futures and then … ask ourselves, ‘What are the steps to getting there?’”

Kate can be reached at kate@thwellnews.com.

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