A Tale of Two Cities: Rhetoric in Two Environmental Video Games

This is the first post from our new contributing blogger, Michael Springer. Michael is a Faculty Development Associate at Bryan University where he builds websites, manages a tutoring center, and gets to play with a lot of technology. He writes about video games and education on his blog, Playing with Education.

Few video games wrestle with tough environmental topics and Michael is very interested in exploring this issue. Some post-apocalyptic narratives use global warming as a backstory, explaining the social collapse that took place before the game began, like the Fallout series. However, video games that try to illuminate the problems that face our environment are scarce. This is the first in a series of posts exploring the rhetoric in a few of these games.


Why would Chevron fund a video game about global warming?

This was a question I asked myself after discovering Energyville, a simple “educational” game available at www.energyville.com. Designed by the Economist Group and financed by Chevron, the game’s apparent goal is to educate players on environmental issues. Another game with a similar premise is Energy City, which was designed by JASON Learning, a non-profit company that develops games focused on teaching science.

Screenshot from Chevron’s Energyville. Possible energy sources line the bottom of the map; current energy levels are on the upper right.

Screenshot from Chevron’s Energyville. Possible energy sources line the bottom of the map; current energy levels are on the upper right.

Both games are reminiscent of management simulation franchises like SimCity or Civilization, although the range of player actions are stripped down and simplified. The player takes an existing city and must find ways to generate enough energy to keep city life moving while also not destroying the environment. As years go on and more decisions are made, the environment will either improve or grow worse depending on the player’s choices.

Barometers in both games measure environmental impact and keep track of budget and the passage of time. In these major ways, the two games are identical. But in a couple of important ways, the arguments made by these games are quite different.

Screenshot from the JASON Project’s Energy City. Interest groups are on the lower left; current power level is in the glowing bar on the right.

Screenshot from the JASON Project’s Energy City. Interest groups are on the lower left; current power level is in the glowing bar on the right.

Political Pandering and Petroleum Perpetuity

While playing video games, players are “taught,” through a system of rewards and punishments, what actions will lead to the best outcome. For example, players of Super Mario Brothers will learn that jumping on turtles is usually a good idea, while jumping on fireballs is not such a good idea.

When the game world overlaps in a meaningful way with the real world—for example, when you are playing a video game about global warming—this procedural training of players can create a rhetorical argument. Players attempt actions and learn through trial and error which actions lead to negative outcomes. These players can then choose whether this rhetorical argument applies to the real world or not.

After repeated playthroughs of Energy City, one of the take-home messages is “Do everything your citizens tell you to do.” Several interest groups make suggestions about what you should or should not do on each turn of the game, and the consequences for ignoring these requests can derail your attempt to preserve the environment. Your Health Council tells you, “This city suffers from dirty air and obesity! Build bike paths right now!” The business lobby says, “You have to spend money to make money. Spend at least $40 this turn.” For each request you ignore or disobey, a financial or environmental penalty will effect you. The correct play in Energy City always seems to be to follow public whim. Once your people have been appeased, you can then evaluate whether you have the money left to do what you actually think will have the most impact.

A Request from the Health Council in Energy City

A Request from the Health Council in Energy City

This aspect of the game is unique in that it does not ignore the politics of policy change. I struggled for quite a while before realizing that my very first priority should be pleasing the public, and making the smartest decision should come as a second priority. That said, the player is beholden to only four interest groups, and all of these groups have reasonable and attainable requests, so it is still a vast simplification of the political pressures on those involved in making environmental policy.

Energyville does not illustrate the political complexity of making changes to the environment, but it does make an argument of its own: “Petroleum is really, really important.” During a playthrough of Energyville, I received a warning. “Though alternative fuels can reduce the need for petroleum, airplanes and a significant portion of ground vehicles will continue to rely on petroleum for fuel.” In Energyville, you cannot mix and match energy sources. Electricity and petroleum are distinct and each has their own uses. In Energy City, though, any form of energy can power anything.

This is a striking rhetorical difference, and both games make simplistic yet opposing points. Energyville argues that petroleum will continue to make up a “significant portion” of our energy. No other options are presented by the game. Moving all ground vehicles away from petroleum-based fuels is not an option. Reducing our reliance on airplanes is also not a possibility. No player action can move us to a sustainable set of energy sources, and the game does not present this as problematic.

On the other hand, Energy City makes it clear that conservation and research are both necessities in fixing current environmental problems. Players have the option to research new energy-producing technologies like fuel-cells, then use that research to begin moving away from the non-sustainable energies of the early game. Players also have a variety of conservation options, which cause gradual improvements in air and environmental quality.

In contrast, Energyville does not allow scientific breakthroughs, and you also cannot use conservation as a broad strategy for dealing with energy issues. In Energyville, “conservation” is a one-click option that cuts down slightly on your energy needs, and the gameplay does not make it clear what this concept even means. For each energy source, a red “Learn More” button can be clicked to reveal a wall of text providing sources and information. You can either click the “conservation” button or you can ignore it and click a different button. In neither case are you presented with a rhetorical argument about conservation.

Embracing Variety

The two games agree on one important rhetorical point: it is best to make use of a number of energy sources, not to rely heavily on just one or two. In Energy City, you must continue to rely on non-renewable energy sources through the early game as you develop alternatives. Only by embracing all available alternatives can you move away fully from fossil fuels. Energyville requires a set of energies that include both electricity and petroleum. Maintaining a variety of energy sources protects you from randomized events that occur between years. So, both games recommend diversifying energy.

The consequences for not doing so are similar as well. Relying too heavily on non-renewable energy will degrade the environment and cause you to lose. Adding renewable energies too quickly can cause you to run out of money, which also means game over. Both games require players to embrace variety and keep an eye on multiple metrics, considering both cost and environmental impact.

None of this answers my initial question, though, about why Chevron would finance an environmental game in the first place. In the next post, I will examine this question and take a look at what has so far been missing from the rhetoric of these environmental video games.

What We’re Playing for Halloween

What We’re Playing is a twice-a-month series from the Center for Games & Impact Innovation Lab highlighting some of the interesting games we have played, whether work-related or not. Please join in and comment with your takes on the games mentioned, or to share what you’ve recently played that has left an impression on you. Check out our last post here.


In this edition of What We’re Playing – setting the mood for Halloween! It should be no surprise that a group of gamers is excited for Halloween at the end of the month. When I checked in with the team to see what they were playing since the beginning of October, it turned out most of us were playing games that somehow turned up the creep factor, whether in large or small ways. As usual, click the game image to jump right to its section, otherwise scroll down to read our quick takes on Limbo, Papa Sangre, and Don’t Starve.

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papasangre

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Limbo: Disturbing… Dark… Beautiful

Kelly Tran, Graduate Student Fellow

Kelly Tran, Graduate Student Fellow

Learn more about Limbo: http://playdead.com/

I recently revisited the game Limbo, and found that it is still as haunting as ever. Although it may appear whimsical at first glance, the game has a pervading eeriness that makes it exceptionally creepy. The player assumes the role of a young boy who is traveling through.. a dream? The afterlife? It is up to the player’s imagination to fill in most of the details of the story. The game’s palette is a moody greyscale, and everything is shown in silhouette. The player never sees anything in the game in color or detail.

This makes it even creepier when the looming shadow of a giant spider emerges from a tree to impale the young boy, or an unseen bear trap in the tall grass ensnares him. The death animations here are brutal, and the player is sure to see them many times throughout the course of the game. However, despite the violent and often disturbing nature of this game, there is an undeniable beauty to it as well. The animations are fluid and elegant, and the world itself is rendered in a softly hazy way, reminiscent of a dream. Were it not for the multitude of dangers that the player faces, the game’s setting would seem almost serene. While Limbo is a very dark game, its uniquely haunting atmosphere makes it well worth playing.

 

Papa Sangre: Seeing with your ears

Juli James, Coordinator, Sr.

Juli James, Coordinator, Sr.

Learn more about Papa Sangre: http://www.papasangre.com/

Papa Sangre is an audio-driven horror game that I played on my iPhone. It was really interesting experience because it was the first time I played a game where I had to “see with my ears.” As a horror experience, Papa Sangre offers intense sounds that made the hair on my neck stand straight up. The story is that I am dead, trapped in the afterlife and I have to navigate a series of rooms to save my love and escape together. As an interesting game play experience, Papa Sangre is played with headphones the entire experience is sound – to get through a room I had to move using the top of the iPhone screen to turn toward or away from sounds, and by tapping alternately on the bottom of the screen to simulate walking. In each room there was a sleeping (snoring, snarling) monster that you must navigate around (WITHOUT WAKING), a light to pick up (a chiming sound that gets louder as you approach), and a door to exit (a beeping sound). If you wake the monster by walking too close to it or bumping into something, it would chase you and eat you while you shriek in terror and pain.

I enjoy mobile gaming and different gaming experiences, I came across this title while reading a piece on gaming accessibility and was not disappointed by the mechanics of having to navigate by sounds – which is a pretty interesting experience. It helps to close your eyes to play this game. If you are looking for a different kind of mobile experience full of creep factor and immersion where sound is not just the atmosphere but also the mechanic – I highly recommend checking out Papa Sangre. The sequel, Papa Sangre II, will be released at the end of the month and I am looking forward to playing it, perhaps right on Halloween!

 

Don’t Starve: Creepy Minecraft on steroids

Sam Robison, Innovation Lab Intern

Sam Robison, Innovation Lab Intern

Learn more about Don’t Starve: http://www.dontstarvegame.com/

I started playing Don’t Starve after scrolling around to find something to play on the Center’s PS4. Don’t Starve caught my eye and I decided to play it.

The game starts out with an creepy cartoonish animation. Your character, Wilson, is in his attic trying to ‘do science’ (and is failing). Then, his radio starts talking to him and claims to have the secret of knowledge and offers to share it with him. Wilson graciously accepts the offer and builds a machine that causes a set of shadowy hands to appear from the floor and drag him into a new world.Once Wilson is in the new world a figure appears and says something like, “You don’t look too good. Find food before night falls.”

At that point, I was then sent loose without any explanation of what to do next. I began to think of the game as a creepy version of Minecraft on steroids. The gameplay consists of exploring the world, dealing with monsters, managing hunger, maintaining sanity, and collecting supplies. The only goal of the game is to stay alive as long as possible. Unlike Minecraft, once you die you cannot respawn, but you can but you can play again and again, and try to get better.

What are you playing?

What are you playing that’s making the hair on the back of your next stand-up? Share your favorite Halloween plays with us in the comments!

ICYMI: Top social media reads for August 2014

What we’re playing as summer turns into fall

Welcome to the first of our new “What We’re Playing” blog series at the Center for Games & Impact. At the Center, we take the power of video games to bring about positive social impact very seriously. And, we also just enjoy playing new (or, new to us) games, sharing these experiences with you and hearing about what other people enjoy playing. This month a few of us spent time revisiting games for education and health, and one of us is enjoying navigating a world as his favorite DC superheroes.

Here are the games we are playing as we say good-bye to summer 2014 and beginning to dig in to the fall semester (*click on the game art to jump right to that summary):

 Portal 2  Zombies, Run!  

Thinking with Portals, again, in Portal 2

Angelica Monserrate, Innovation Lab Student

Angelica Monserrate, Innovation Lab Student

Click to learn more about Portal 2.

Portal 2 has won awarded to numerous awards including winning the title of “Ultimate Game of the Year” in 2011. As a result of its success and fame, I was curious to play and see what the game was about. At each level, the Portal 2 teaches the player new ways to solve puzzles – whether it is getting a laser to point into a certain direction to open a door, or learning to use the different gels in the game – the player learns to manipulate tools and the space around them to advance to the next level. The concept sounds simple, but the puzzles get pretty complex.

I found myself really studying my surroundings in the game to  strategize ways to get objects and move lasers around the room. Since this was my first time playing the game, it took me a while to understand what my task was, and find ways to  solve the puzzles at a faster pace. The game really challenged me to think about how to use portals to think critically about how to use the space around me in the game. A few levels in I had to move my companion cube from another area of the room I was in, onto a moving platform, while I could not leave the platform… Without spoiling the puzzle, I’ll say that I really had to think beyond the obvious to place portals in the right place to move the cube. I enjoy the feeling of strategizing ways in order to solve the puzzle. Overall, I enjoyed playing this game because of its unique features and concept and I understand why so many people are in awe about the game.

Using Zombies to Rebuild a Running Grove

Juli James

Juli James, Sr. Initiative Coordinator

Click to learn more about Zombies, Run!.

This week I started replaying Zombies, Run!, a mobile running game that I spent some time playing when I was just starting a new workout program. In Zombies, Run!, the player is a runner who is sent out on missions to collect supplies and weaponry for a survivor camp after, of course, a zombie apocalypse. There is also a bit of mystery built in for the player, trying to figure out what (or, perhaps who) caused the zombie outbreak, and what is happening in rival survivor camps. The game is a neat experience, and keeps your mind engaged in a story while working out, which can help when building up mental stamina for a new distance running program. It can also genuinely creep you out with zombie sound effects and chases, all while running in what looks like your very own neighborhood.

To play the game, I downloaded it to my iPhone, opened the app and made a few choices: 1) Do I feel like sprinting? Then, zombie chases = On. And, 2) How long do I feel like running? The player can set 30 minute or 1 hour workouts.

I noticed a few updates to the game since I first played. I liked discovering that it is now three seasons long (with each run equaling an episode) and includes a lot of new customization features for workouts. The developers added side missions where the player can pick up supplies in the real world by dropping a pin on the map, create unlimited length runs for supplies, customize interval training workouts, and complete races at various lengths (5k, 10k, 20k). There is also a 5k training plan (for an additional cost) for new runners (or those building up to the 5k distance). It is also important to know that this game can be used for a walking program as well, players do not have to include zombie chases to play the game, and, if a player chose to activate that feature for a walking session, the acceleration from casual walking to speed walking might be enough to evade zombies… (Or, maybe not!)

Role Playing as a Favorite DC Superhero 

Mike Garcia, Innovation Lab Designer

Mike Garcia, Innovation Lab Designer

Find out more about Injustice: Gods Among Us.

I am playing Injustice: Gods Among Us, from the new developers of Mortal Kombat series. Injustice uses the heroes of the Detective Comics (DC) universe, such as Batman and Superman, and pits them against each other in hand-to-hand combat using their powers, abilities, and tools in each match. The game’s story is an alternate universe where Superman is out of control and Batman must use a time warp device to bring other versions (not corrupt) of iconic DC superheroes to work together try and regain control. The game also has a challenge mode, where the player can fight against a series of random characters to climb the ranks of superheroes or villains.

Getting to play as my favorite superheroes and fighting and winning against my least favorites (cough… Superman…) was what drew me to Injustice: Gods Among Us. In comic books these heroes rarely fight each other, but the question of who would win if they did, interests me. Injustice allows for these fights to happen, and levels out the superpower-playing-field, so to speak.  Generally, the game is a fun way to pass time, the rounds go quickly, and are a fun test of either your skills or button mashing abilities (depending on your fighting style). If you are a fan of superheroes, and fighting genre of games, I recommend giving Injustice a go. Play with a friend, and go head to head with your favorite superheroes to settle your debates over who is better.

Share your favorite plays this month with us!

Have you played any of these games? Tell us what you thought of Zombies, Run!, Portal 2, or Injustice: Gods Among Us. We are always looking for new games to play as well, share links to what you are playing right now, too.

E-Line Scaling Learning Games and Impact (via Getting Smart)

The Storytelling Series: Narrative Mechanics in The Last of Us

This is the second post in a series on narrative in videogames. If you have not yet read the introduction to the series, we recommend you do so here.

Discussions on narrative in videogames often involve the choice and control a player has over the plot and its characters, the decisions they have to make and the consequences of those choices. The form these narratives can take run the spectrum, from branching paths where the player’s choices determine what they experience from an existing source of narrative content, to sandboxes where stories are created from the emergent possibilities of its mechanics. Instead of arguing for the merit of any of these approaches in particular (although I encourage you to make your case in the comments below!), I will discuss the ways in which interactivity, and the resulting immersion, can improve storytelling in otherwise conventional narratives using The Last of Us, developed by Naughty Dog for the PlayStation 3, as my focus.

A conventional narrative, in this case, is simply the kind we are used to in other mediums – stories that are static, wherein the audience is given no direct power to shape its events or characters. There is a linearity to its content, with a defined beginning, middle and end. These are often difficult to communicate in videogames, as the actions the player is able to perform often do not conform to the story’s tone or are at odds with the character’s intentions. To some degree, these problems will always exist, with designers only able to go as far as pushing the player in a given direction and shaping the sorts of interactions they can have. In communicating the core of the narrative, Naughty Dog’s solution to this problem lies in its use of cut-scenes. Dialogue and plot details are most often depicted in these scenes, and although it will lose much of its nuance and impact, its story could prop itself up and survive on these alone. But it is a videogame, and relying so heavily on that device can be problematic for the medium – and by embodying the player in the world of the story, and forcing them to confront the many obstacles it presents, a depth and intimacy is established that would not exist otherwise.

lastofus1

The Last of Us tells the story of two people, Joel and Ellie, and their journey across a post-apocalyptic United States decades after a zombie-like fungal infection has ravaged its population and left its society in free-fall. Joel, the central protagonist, is a middle-aged man whose small family was torn apart by the outbreak. This puts him in a very different place than Ellie, a fourteen year old girl who was born well after those same events. Their interaction forms the core of the narrative, which primarily takes place twenty years after the virus initially breaks out. The strength of The Last of Us lies not in its ability to show us this upsetting future – to portray the run-down, abandoned buildings in the process of being reclaimed by nature, or the harsh conditions of failing quarantine zones that struggle to impose order; it does a spectacular job of doing so, and we know the magnitude of the events in the story from these images alone. But The Last of Us‘ straightforward narrative succeeds because it lets the player into that world, allowing them to dig through what is left and struggle against what drove it to this point.

Exploring a World Gone By

One of the central gameplay mechanics in The Last of Us is exploration. Largely functioning to pace the intense nature of the rest of its gameplay, the brief moments you are given to explore are invaluable in building the world’s narrative. Potentially at odds with the our expectations of what exploration should be in a game, these segments are limited in scope – the game space is fairly constrained, and players can never deviate from thelastofus6 path clearly laid out ahead of time (typically established in a cut-scene). By limiting what the player can do and see, it allows for a focus on the smaller details of its locales. Instead of roaming through the streets of a large city, exploring in The Last of Us takes place on a more personal level; for example, looking through the contents of a master bedroom in an abandoned home. What you can take note of in these areas builds its own back story – the pictures on the wall, what was left behind and what might be missing. But the storytelling is often more explicit during these segments; letters, notes, and military correspondences left behind detail people’s lives and worries during the outbreak, and context-specific dialogue between the game’s characters reveal pieces of their history and strengthens their personalities. It is entirely up to the player to seek these moments out, but their availability suggests a world larger than them and the characters in the story. There is no area in The Last of Us that seems new or untouched – everything has been lived in and is now wearing away. By looking through these environments, players come to understand that the story of Joel and Ellie is just one of many worth telling.

Survival

Those brief sections of reprieve are ultimately compensating for what makes up the bulk of the gameplay: the violent encounters against other survivors or the mutated humans affected by the virus. These sections do the best job of highlighting the most significant theme in The Last of Us –that of survival. Given the state of this world, it is important to its storytelling that the game forces the player to take part in its ugly, violent realities. It wants the player to feel the same desperation as its characters. To allow this, these combat scenarios are where the player is given the most agency. lastofus3 There are several tools and weapons at the player’s disposal, and the level design often allows for multiple paths (for both the player and the A.I.-controlled enemies). Even so, and despite the player’s best efforts, these levels are a messy, imperfect process. Supplies and ammunition are heavily limited by design, forcing the player to take risks by dodging in and out of buildings and rooms, hoping to find just a few more items that might help them. Design decisions are sometimes deceptively simple – the crafting mechanic happens in real-time, ensuring that the player finds the right time and place to craft important resources. The artificial intelligence of the human survivors is just as persistent, searching every room for supplies when unaware of Joel’s presence, and tirelessly flanking him when in full alert. It’s a cat-and-mouse game that relies on improvisation and quick-thinking.

At their best, these encounters are a tense, frustrating process that the player struggles to get through each and every time. The Last of Us often falls short of connecting these pieces to the larger narrative in a seamless way, however. On lower difficulties, the player can easily become too powerful, and the sheer amount of enemies can stretch the believability of an otherwise (relatively) grounded narrative. What is ideally being communicated, however, is that how the player manages to survive and progress in the world is made to be the same worried struggle that it is for Joel.

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If The Last of Us is successful in reaching its narrative goals, if the world it creates is a much richer, more intimate one, it is because the player has been a part of it, discovering and experiencing it for themselves. It ideally places the player in the mindset of Joel and Ellie, allowing them to better understand what is at stake, and why the characters will ultimately act as they do. Even so, we can begin to see the difficulties, and limitations, that this particular design has. Player expression is limited to a focus on combat, and as a result the relationship between Joel, Ellie, and the other characters is rarely reinforced through player action. And there is so much more to discuss – the events and characterization itself, to the way parallels are reinforced and built upon not only by these details, but through gameplay and visual storytelling. Even if we find this approach too limited in scope or that the player still lacks agency, we can at least see the potential of interactivity in telling an otherwise conventional story.


Alex Cope is an Innovation Lab Manager and Designer with the Center for Games & Impact Innovation Lab. You can follow him @aecope on Twitter.

Play2Connect: Research Experience + Course Credit for ASU Undergrad and Grad Students

Play2Connect: Bringing Families Together Through Gaming

The Play2Connect project is looking for undergraduate OR master’s students who are interested in understanding the research process and developing their research skills in out- of-school settings. The focus of the research experience will be on investigating how families learn together at home, in museums, and other after school settings using digital media technologies, in particular video games. In addition to gaining research experience, students will gain insight into how learning takes place beyond the classroom, and how our understanding of such informal learning is inspiring innovative activities in school.

You will be working with Professors Elisabeth Hayes and Sinem Siyahhan in the Center for Games & Impact, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College on a research project that is part of a national study of family media engagement.

Students can receive course credit in Education (TEL 494). Who is eligible to participate?

Students who…

  • Are Masters or Undergraduates (2nd year or beyond)
  • Have transportation (Gas will be compensated)
  • Are available to work 3 or more consecutive hours each week (Monday – Sunday)
  • Can make a semester commitment (with the option to continue in Spring 2014)  Are professional and responsible
  • Can speak fluent Spanish is a plus but not required

I’m interested! What do I do next?

Limited spots are available! If interested, please contact Professor Sinem Siyahhan ASAP for an application!