GDC Summer 2020: Better living, climate awareness, and citizen science through games


Way back during GDC 2018, I covered several panels relating to gaming for good. Things like citizen science projects, games as medicine or for health education, charities, and more. Considering how much COVID has impacted our societies, it should be no surprise that some of this year’s GDC Summer 2020 panels addressed that and other global concerns, such as climate change, and much like last time, these panels weren’t so much as what’s possible but what’s happening now.

Health checkup

Noah Falstein, President of The Inspiracy, did his yearly update on the Games for Health Panel. One thing that came up quick that was kind of funny for anyone with longterm memory is the same World Health Organization that – under political rather than scientific pressure – made gaming disorder a thing in the eyes of the psychology world… is now supporting games in conjunction with big game companies, while also still pushing its gaming disorder agenda on its own site. It’s obviously hypocritical that almost no other potentially addictive activities were mentioned as a way to deal with the mental stress of isolation. Alcohol and drugs, of course, were specifically noted, but only as a reminder to avoid consumption as a way of dealing with stress and anxiety, making warnings about gaming seem particularly tame. In all, it’s been a super weird 180 turn for the WHO.

I say this less to take a jab a clear past mistake that should be rectified but more as a reminder that games really can help. For example, just this June, we had our first FDA approved prescription video game, EndeavorRX, to be used alone or with drug-based medicine to help people deal with ADHD.

Puzzle game FoldIt created a mod to help with COVID research via citizen science (the outsourcing of simpler scientific work to the general public to help speed up research), having players interact with the virus to “design” a potential cure. Even better, Foldit scientist Brian Koepnick in the video below noted that the most promising designs would actually be sent to and tested by scientists. And were.

Speaking of citizen science, CCP and EVE’s 3rd generation citizen science project was also COVID-centered, having players analyzing flow cytometry and measuring characteristics of cells. There might even be more COVID-related citizen science on the horizon, as Falstein is working with a Swedish Professor, Emma Lundberg, on a proposal to use players to help investigate a kind of lung occlusion that’s a characteristic of COVID-19.

As a brief note, Falstein actually did work with people from Niantic while the company was internally part of Google, but despite his work, he’s never approached them for a citizen science project, even though scientists and educators have been suggesting the game’s potential real research opportunities since Pokemon Go’s 2016 release. Let’s hope some gentle panel poking leads to something!

Falstein also noted other various ways games and game-related tech are currently helping. We’ve got VR game Healium trying to help people de-stress, Magic Leap focusing more on medical applications of AR/mixed reality, and games that simply educate people on their illnesses, like Re-Mission helping kids understand why they need to stay on their medication even if they suddenly start to feel better.

In fact, game developers themselves are now being urged to attend medical conferences, as many have digital therapeutics sections according to Falstein, and that’s where you might meet medical professionals eager to work with a game designer. Falstein himself has noted that he’s more of a science nerd than a medical professional, but the two need each other, and many doctors he’s met these days grew up with games, so the barriers preventing the two merging are being lowered. Of course, I’m sure players asking their favorite companies to consider citizen science projects might get community managers to reach out to the team and see what’s possible too.

Normalizing environmental discussions

Mathias Gredal Nørvig, CEO of SYBO games, and Trista Patterson, Co-Founder of Playing for the Planet, both spoke at length about climate change during their panel Playing for the Planet: How Video Games Can Tackle the Climate Crisis. Nørvig and Patterson started off with a barrage of statistics, noting that 21% of known species are endangered, that we’ve destroyed half our reefs, we may have 20 years of seafood left, and other things I know are hard to swallow. On my end, I’ll simply remind people that there are and will be more large animal species lost within our lifetime, and some are directly the result of human pollution.

It’s probably not useful to argue about this at length, but at the very least, I think we can agree that pollution is bad, right? But not all of us think about the pollution caused by the games industry, and it’s significant. All the plastics and computer parts add up. Not everything that can be recycled actually is. And with one out of every three people participating in our hobby, that’s a lot of potential pollution. Bad pollution. As one example: A waste-contaminated chicken egg in a neighborhood in Ghana (which is one of the largest e-waste sites in the world) exposed a person to 200 times the annual safe consumption limit for seven different kinds of toxins.

Large companies like Ubisoft, Sony, Google, and more have made pledges and reduced their pollution output, and that’s great. High-ranking game representatives and developers hopefully found some of this information useful, and Patterson’s group’s report should allow publishers to better understand the situation and rally to help. But gamers themselves have other outlets: As the speakers noted, climate change is something players will actually seek out information on and give positive feedback on. Games that discuss climate change within an appropriate context are nice, but educating actually leaves a bigger imprint on the audience. As an example, here’s The Climate Trail, a 100% free, no-monetization game a la Oregon Trail. Give it a whirl, book-club style, and then hit up Steam for environmental-themed games if you’d like.

As you can see from Steam’s list, not all the games bludgeon you over the head to deliver the message (though ECO has always been intriguing even before you think about its education factors). In fact, I’d argue that even games like Fallout 3 normalize the idea of discussion climate, in that it’s almost assumed that we’re going to fall victim to ruining the planet at some point. Small things like the setting, in-game recycling bins, and quests that involve reforestation can inspire gamers who aren’t even necessarily thinking about saving the planet. Sometimes we just need constant reminders humming in the background to take something from weird and inconvenient to something we all assume is part of the landscape. Or a potentially ruined one.

Again, talking is a great start, especially for players, but developers can emphasize recycling and salvaging more than just sending “vendor trash” to the virtual garbage bin. Players really would probably prefer this too; consider how Animal Crossing: New Horizon finally made the garbage people fished up into crafting materials and special recipes. I still don’t want garbage, and it reminds me a lot of when that happens in real life (which is why I don’t throw stuff on the ground or in the ocean), but it takes the sting out. Plus, I know that got a lot of series vets like myself to smile. And to donate some clothes, as it was a good reminder that I had extra things to pass on. See? It works.

Massively OP’s Andrew Ross is an admitted Pokemon geek and expert ARG-watcher. Nobody knows Niantic and Nintendo like he does! His Massively on the Go column covers Pokemon Go as well as other mobile MMOs and augmented reality titles!
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