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Online games address sustainability, civic engagement and community building

Katie Donnelly

As we’ve noted before, games can be a great way to educate, inform and inspire groups of people to coalesce around particular issues. In the past, we’ve written about some of the great work being done in this area by organizations like Games for Change and ITVS. Below are more examples of games that address topics of environmental sustainability, civic engagement and community building.

American Public Media has achieved an unlikely feat with its new game, Consumer Consequences – turning an educational exposé about our own roles in environmental degradation into a fun, interactive activity. Part of American Public Media’s series on the sustainability of the American lifestyle, Consumed, Consumer Consequences was “designed to illustrate the impact of our lifestyles on the Earth.”

This interactive game asks users to answer questions about their own impact on the planet. Throughout the game, Consumer Consequences tallies how many Earths would be necessary if all 6.6 billion people on Earth lived the user’s lifestyle. (In my case, it’s 2.1 Earths.) Each user’s lifestyle is converted into an “ecological footprint,” calculated with the help of American Public Media’s research partner, Redefining Progress.

There are reasons to quibble with some of the methodology (For example: why doesn't it ask how many children I have? Why does it ask how much wine I drink but not whether that wine is locally made?), and some of the questions are worded a little strangely, but the game provides a great basic overview of how users’ personal lifestyle choices affect the health of the planet. Throughout the course of the game, the background graphics illustrate the user’s toll on the planet (including waste produced, energy consumed, and natural resources used up). After playing, users can go back and modify their choices, and compare their footprints or share their knowledge with other players.

News and Civic Engagement
There are also plenty of games that encourage users to delve into news, current events and politics. For example, Play the News is an initiative from Impact Games (the creators of Peacemaker, which we wrote about last year). The game invites users to explore news items by taking on stakeholder roles. For example, in Burger Ban, which examines a one-year moratorium on new fast food franchises in economically depressed areas of Los Angeles, users are invited to take on the role of the California Restaurant Association or of LA Mayor Antonio Vargas.

Similarly, My US Rep: Role Play Congress! allows users to role-play their Congressional Representatives using real voting data. My US Rep is less information-heavy and more typically game-like than most of the other games described here. According to the site:

My US Rep is an online, casual, role playing game where just about any House Representative from the US Congress can be a game character. In My US Rep, you work to increase your rep's popularity while navigating a challenging game space of computer characters and interactive objects.

Based on XML feeds of real-life voting data, players must locate bills to see how their congressperson voted on key legislation, and then indicate whether they approve of the rep's vote on each bill they find. Your input affects your rep's Popularity characteristic.

Additionally, Budget Hero from American Public Media allows users to manipulate the federal budget based on their own values. The game was intended as a starting point for discussion during last year’s election year, but it remains salient, as users can play from the vantage point of up to 20 years in the future.

Budget Hero “seeks to provide a values- and fiscal-based lens for citizens to examine policy debates.” Users can print out the full results of their budget and “identify deeply researched, expertly validated, non-partisan policy options and their financial consequences to use when reaching out to your federal representatives.” They can also discuss their own beliefs in the game’s forums. This game is extremely comprehensive (although some users in the forums found it confusing) and a terrific resource for provoking conversations about the federal budget.

Community building
Games can also be used to strengthen communities. One example is Picture the Impossible, an alternate reality game from the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. The seven week game, which just ended last month, encouraged Rochester residents to explore the city and raise money for charity by playing games-- some web-based (such as Rochester-specific online jigsaw puzzles), some incorporating physical events throughout the city (such as scavenger hunts), and some involving the Democrat & Chronicle directly, as the newspaper was the starting point of the game.The three teams that competed in the game were comprised of random interested citizens, who competed on behalf of local charities, and they ended up donating $17,000 at the end of the seven-week period.

According to Elizabeth Lane Lawley, Director of the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology in this video, “There are lots of web-based games out there, but there are not a lot that really leverage the kind of strengths that a newspaper brings to the project.” In the end, Picture the Impossible was able to bolster both community pride and interest in the newspaper.

For more information on Picture the Impossible, see this video overview:

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