GUEST POST – Video Game Development for the Environment

A couple autumns ago, I moved back to my suburban hometown in Massachusetts after working in the Sierra Nevada for six months as an ecology field technician. I had been involved in a project studying the effects of forest treatment on tree mortality that took me as far North as the Eldorado National Forest and as far South as Sequoia National Park. During this time, I was lucky enough to witness a marten along the Pacific Crest Trail, a prescribed forest fire at night, and a total solar eclipse. I have so many beautiful memories of that summer that I will treasure forever. 

Back in my hometown, there were fewer natural wonders to behold and I began to long for the wilderness again. I wanted to bring a fantastic landscape to life in a way that people in central Massachusetts could experience. I had always been fascinated by video games, having grown up playing games like Zelda and Kirby. That winter I started learning how to code in C# for game development in Unity, but I found that the project I envisioned was too difficult for one person with a full-time job as a research assistant to accomplish.

Soon after, I met Jon and we connected over our shared love of nature and video games. I told him about my ill-fated venture with C# and we had a good laugh. We didn’t start thinking about game development seriously until a year later when Jon discovered Construct3, a game-making software with less of a learning curve. After making a short platforming game for his sister as a birthday present, Jon brought up the idea of collaborating as a game-making studio. Swampa Studio was born.

As explained in episode 10 of Disruptive Environmentalist, video games are quickly becoming one of the most pervasive modes of entertainment. One third of the population will identify as a “gamer” by 2020. The games industry is already five times the size of the music industry.

Games are an especially powerful mode of communication. Unlike articles, tv, documentaries, or lectures, they capture the full attention of the player for up to hours at a time and are necessarily interactive. “Edutainment” games are being used by educators to capture the attention of their increasingly distracted students. The key to making a good “edutainment” game is to make it so fun that it doesn’t feel like you’re being taught anything in the first place.

Video games are a largely unexplored avenue for environmental outreach, though many games have a strong connection to environmentalism. High budget game studios are clearly capable of reproducing ecosystems and allowing people to explore them from home. In the last few years we’ve seen stunning recreations of natural environments in games, as in the fantastical Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the beautiful Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and the hyper-realistic Red Dead Redemption 2. Other games, like Horizon: Zero Dawn, offer post-apocalyptic visions that hint at some of our current-day environmental problems. Indie games like Stardew Valley and Rain World offer their own ecosystem-themed insights to players. However, these games don’t place our hero in a position where they can reverse environmental degradation, let alone prevent it. 

Most people don’t feel like they have any agency when it comes to environmental issues. It’s true that just a hundred companies are responsible for the vast majority of pollution, carbon emissions, and habitat destruction. It’s true that consumers don’t always have the power to make a difference by “voting with their dollar” when so many brands are owned by the same parent conglomerations. And meaningful political change is painfully slow. Playing games from the perspective of an environmental scientist or activist would allow the average person to experience the front lines of the fight, a point of view most will never get to experience. And what are video games for if not power-tripping fantasies? I have to confess; my ideal environmental video game would allow me to take direct action that I’ll never have the opportunity to in real life.

The day-to-day challenges faced by environmental advocates are the perfect subject for all kinds of video games. You have to be creative to solve problems like in a puzzle game. You have to talk to people who live in the environment and who will be hurt by its degradation like in a story-based RPG. A less nuanced (but more exciting) environmental story could be told in an action RPG. At its core, the story of the environmentalist is the same story being told in many games already: you (the player) have to save your friends, your community, or the world. If this story could be told using elements of real-life environmental problems, people would feel more connected to those issues. Maybe younger players would even be inspired to become environmental scientists or activists!

And let’s face it: environmentalists could use a PR makeover. A lot of people don’t understand the connections between environmental and human health. People that care too much about the environment are seen as annoying or uncool. The Average Joe is unlikely to sympathize with someone like that. We see a need to hijack popular media and redefine environmentalists as strong, powerful, and cool–or at least relatable.

These are ambitious goals for two people who have never made a video game together. That’s why we started small. I had already written a short story about conservation science, so we decided that turning it into a game would be a good test.

Swampa Studio’s first release will be called Grace, a game about two field technicians studying quail in the Sierra Nevada. The two protagonists, Grace and Kiran, discover that human impacts on the ecosystem are preventing the quails from nesting. They must decide whether or not to talk to the nearby townspeople about the problem. If they don’t, the town’s tourism industry could collapse since it heavily relies on bird watchers and hunters. 

This game explores the trade-offs conservation scientists face when balancing research and public outreach. Kiran represents the desire they have to make an emotional appeal to the public for grassroots action. Grace represents the reticence environmental scientists have about public outreach. Environmental scientists are afraid of misspeaking, backlash from people who doubt their claims, and having their statements misinterpreted or misrepresented. Maybe one more study will convince the world to take action. But is just doing research enough to make a positive impact on the environment?

We had our idea before we had even chosen our game engine. After a bunch of research, we went with Construct3 because of how easy it was to tinker with the example games and find tutorials. Within a week we created the basic mechanics, including camera movement, character movement, and dialogue. Our games are only going to improve as we learn everything that we can do with Construct3.

After that we started making art for the game, including 13 bird species, 10 flowers, and a collection of shrubs, trees, and grasses. Creating game art is by far the most time-intensive part of this project. We decided to launch a Kickstarter to fund professional illustrations for the in-game field guide (a book that shows more detailed images of the pixel art birds and plants). We think it would add a lot to the visual appeal of the game while also giving players a taste of what it is like to be a naturalist. 

The Kickstarter is also a way for us to gauge interest in Swampa Studio games. If we get funded it will be a sign that we should devote more of our time to game development. We hope that we’ll have the chance to bring the bigger games we envision to life!

If want to find out more, you can check out our Kickstarter here! 

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