Fighting climate change from a player’s perspective

Logan Lawler (left) and Drew Oleski (right), who won the 2022 Games for Change National Championship for their creation of Port Pickup

Facing the climate crisis is not a game, but finding solutions could be.

This year, hundreds of middle and high school students from across the United States competed to design digital games that tackle current issues affecting their communities. The themes were sustainability, voting, and awareness of learning and cognitive differences. The annual challenge was organized by the nonprofit Games for Change and supported by organizations such as NRDC, which helped judge the Sustainable Cities category and provided educational resources for students as a theme partner.

Dozens of finalists competed for thousands of dollars in prizes, including a $10,000 purse from video game company Take-Two Interactive Software and mentorship from game designers at Unity. Their entries, all of which can be played in a virtual arcade, prove that being an agent of change can actually involve, well, fun and games.

Play for the planet

Given the stakes of climate inaction for younger generations, it’s perhaps no surprise that the sustainability category received the most submissions.

Among them was the city simulation game Sustainable Frogotropolis, honored as a Northeast Regional Champion. Maya Warshaw and Silvie Leaf, rising seniors at New York’s Computer School, say that, like most applicants, they found themselves learning environmental issues in depth for the first time. “Dive deep was scary, but also very educational,” Leaf says.

In their game, a player must take on the role of an assistant to the mayor and imagine what it would take to transform their fictional city into “the most sustainable of them all”. Players collect coins by participating in mini-games, such as picking up fast-moving piles of trash and then cashing them in to fund sustainability solutions.

“We tried to think through as many issues as possible,” says Warshaw. “There are floods, forest fires, overheating, all that.”

Left to right: The fictional town of Frogotropolis and a drip irrigation mini-game from the game Sustainable Frogotropolis, designed by Maya Warshaw and Silvie Leaf (Computer School, New York)

Real-life mayors should take note: city planners in Frogotropolis can install drip irrigation systems to cope with drought, build river levees for flood protection, and require building codes to be enforced. forest fires, while receiving donations from grateful residents of Frogotropolis.

For many designers, the competition not only required as much as a school year of work, but it also presented a steep learning curve in other areas. Students designed the narrative, wrote scripts, coded, created music and art, animated, tested, debugged, and then debugged some more, all without any prior experience.

“We’ve never done anything like this before, and sometimes we make it too difficult for ourselves, because we like to think too much,” says Leaf, who plans to team up with Warshaw again for next year’s challenge. “We would get the coding and we would realize that there was [simpler] ways to do it.

A boat collecting marine pollution at Port Pickup, designed by Logan Lawler and Drew Oleski (Utica Center for Science and Industry, Sterling Heights, Michigan)

Simple and clean was the approach to the National Championship-winning game Port Pickup, designed by future sophomores Logan Lawler and Drew Oleski of the Utica Center for Science and Industry in Sterling Heights, Michigan. In it, players head out to sea to scavenge pollution until they’ve maxed out their ship’s storage, then dump their loot on the shore, where they can refill with energy.

As they race back and forth to port, players get a sense of the scale of the task of cleaning up the ocean, an achievement its designers have also achieved.

“There’s a giant garbage collection sitting in the middle of the ocean that’s four times the size of Texas,” Lawler says. “I knew it, but there is much more than that. There are so many things in the ocean.

Scenes from Lawler and Oleski’s Port Pickup Game

The achievement was illuminating, and after all their hard work, the prizes also seemed like a worthwhile reward.

“We still don’t really believe it. Right after we won, I called Logan and said, ‘Do you just want to go to 7-Eleven?’ We treated ourselves to slurpees,” says national champion Oleski. “Our parents were jumping around screaming. We knew we had a good chance, but it was still shocking.

The beginning of Our Lonely Speck, created by Felicia Yan (Enloe High School, Raleigh, North Carolina)

Felicia Yan, a rising senior from Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, scoured online resources to learn how to code and drew all the graphics herself. While writing her game’s story, she also had to learn a lot more about the existential threat posed by climate change.

In his narrative game Our Lonely Speck, an alien discovers the Golden Record, one of two discs containing snapshots of human life that NASA launched in 1977 to inform any potential space traveler on Earth. Fascinated, the alien travels to the planet, only to find it lifeless following an environmental disaster. Players must then travel back in time to speak with ancient inhabitants of Earth who live on the brink of the climate crisis (like, umus) and help prevent its eventual destruction.

“During further research, I realized that there are many things we can and are doing,” Yan says. “If more people knew about it, it would help us in the future.”

A character from Our Lonely Speck describing environmental issues to the main character

In order to write authentic stories for the characters players encounter along the way – like the fisherman struggling with missing trout or the asthmatic biker who can no longer ride in the city smog – Yan read the stories stories from people around the world who are on the frontlines of climate change. “I learned that climate change is not just one thing,” says Yan. “It impacts people differently and has a wide range of harms.”

The game’s name was inspired by a favorite quote from one of Yan’s idols, Carl Sagan: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic darkness. In our darkness, in all this vastness, there is no indication that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Yan agrees. “We’re out there looking for extraterrestrials, but the fact is, even if they exist, they’re probably far away. It’s up to us to solve the problems we have, like climate change. In the end, it’s up to us.

Your turn

Kim Morasse, Head of Entertainment Partnerships at NRDC, had the chance to test out the various games in the Sustainable Cities category as one of her judges. She found the experience – and the players – inspiring. “Their creativity has the power to help us envision a healthier and more equitable future,” she says. “Together we can bring about the transformational change the world needs.”

Play all the winning games from the Sustainable Cities category in G4C’s virtual arcade:


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