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This Dutch university is inspiring students to create games that could change the world
If you look at various video game design and development courses at universities around the world, they all usually share pretty similar aims for their students. In a perfect world, students will leave their course with a solid idea of how to work with video game engines, create their own solo projects that could be commercially viable as indie projects, work as part of larger teams if they go into developing big-budget studio games, and market their creations confidently to others.
However, over the last couple of years, one university in the Netherlands has set its second-year game development and design students a very different end of year task; create games that could change the world.
Taking place at a couple of university campuses across the Dutch city of Utrecht every spring, the Utrecht Sustainability Game Jam tasks its young students with creating video game prototypes in a week, and then fleshing them out over a further seven weeks, with specific aims to try and educate, engage, and imagine on the topic of sustainable, creative futures, both for the Dutch city itself, as well as for the wider world at large.
I was lucky enough to travel out this year to witness the game jam take place in person, and I was honestly blown away by the creativity and passion these students had for the huge task ahead of them.
While the scope of the project sounds initially daunting and wide-reaching, Utrecht University has gone out of its way to make the ambitious project approachable by bringing in experts from around the world to guide, judge, and direct these students, as well as help them create promising prototypes for games, over just a few short days. The over 100 students in attendance were split up into groups of six students each, then separated into one of four categories, each with their own dedicated judges to help guide them through the process.
One-quarter of the teams were tasked with creating games addressing The Future Roles of Science in Society, basically addressing topics like climate change skepticism, anti-vaccination movements, the rise of social media as a tool for spreading disinformation, and general growing disbelief in scientific evidence. These groups of students were paired up with the ethics department of the University of Utrecht, who helped them shape concepts from a perspective of the ethical implications of ways we can combat scientific disbelief. A daunting topic, for sure, but one really important to where our world is today.
The second batch of teams was given the theme Global Goals and a Sustainable Utrecht, which required them to focus on 17 different sustainable development projects that the local city council, as well as city councils around the world, have agreed to follow going forward.
With the help and support of actual city council members, these teams of young student developers were tasked with creating games that, while focused on this one city in the Netherlands, could help teach sustainable living concepts applicable all around the world.
The third batch of teams was tasked with creating games on the topic Opening up New Radical Futures in the Commercial Games Sector, which simply put meant making games that would appeal to general gamers and gaming media, but happened to imagine radically new kinds of futures, rather than just the same kinds of dystopias we so often see as the backdrop for modern video games. These teams were being judged by games critics, developers, as well as local funds designed to help financially support culturally valuable art developed in the area.
Lastly, a quarter of the teams were given the theme of Gender and Youth in Agriculture and Food Security Under Climate Change, a topic much more focused on the world outside of the Dutch city where the game jam itself took place. Under the support of CGIAR, an international organization that aims to reduce worldwide food insecurity, and better manage global food resources, these teams were focused on topics including land ownership inequality based on gender when it comes to farming in developing nations, or looking at the impact that our food consumption practices might have on other parts of the world producing that food.
Over the course of a week spent watching over the Game Jam, I saw a lot of ambitious ideas thrown at the wall that didn't quite manage to make it to the completed concepts stage by the end of their first week. However, I want to talk in a little more depth about a few of the more promising-looking prototypes that were developed and playable as early builds right now and have some real potential to create change going forward. Each of these ideas is still pretty early but feels well worth watching over the coming months as they continue to be expanded.
Harm to Table is a really impressive split-screen game where two players play through minigames encapsulating different sides of the food production pipeline. One player works as a farmer, trying to manage a profitable and sustainable farm in a developing nation, while another plays a customer in a big supermarket, rushing around chaotically while trying to buy items from a shopping list. The choices each player makes impact the other player, from overly high demand for certain farmed goods to low stock availability of other goods, as the two halves of the ecosystem try to co-exist.
Harm to Table does a great job of putting players in connected roles with very different tasks and demands to meet and is honestly one of the best thought out concepts to come out of the whole Game Jam. Seriously, boot this prototype up and give it a play. I really feel like this game, with some additional time and funding, could become something incredibly promising, where a fun front-facing set of gameplay mechanics Trojan horse in some important lessons about sustainability in the food pipeline.
The idea behind Simfluencer is that you play as someone with a reasonably large social media following, tweeting reactions to real-world news events. From the fires raging across Australia right now, to issues of diversity around the world, players are given multiple prompts to pick from on how to respond to these events. These responses range from thoughtful and factual breakdowns of the events and how dire things are right now, to sensationalist clickbait headlines, tweets totally ignoring the issue, or gross inaccurate tweets that misconstrue world events.
Players can keep track of how their posts are impacting their social media follower counts, how they're impacting their credibility, and the impact they're having on the world around them. Sensational inaccurate clickbait headlines might get followers but lose credibility. Accurate headlines will raise your credibility, raise your followers by a much smaller margin, but too many depressingly accurate posts in a row might make the world outside turn grey and wet, representing the fact that humans really are not built to process non-stop doom-and-gloom reality.
Me Stadjie, a name that translates to roughly "My Town," is a minigame collection focused on getting players to engage with short silly games about sustainable living. The prototype currently contains two minigames focused on two of the 17 global sustainability goals the team was provided but acts as a fun and engaging way of teaching players about how to better support their city's efforts to be sustainable.
One minigame tasks players with very quickly sorting items into different bins, depending on if they are recyclable, and if so in which ways. The minigame contains deliberate items designed to trip players up, including both a takeaway pizza box stained with oil vs. a freezer pizza box that only ever contained frozen food. While both boxes are made of cardboard, the takeaway box cannot be recycled because it has been contaminated with food waste, which impacts the recycling process. The idea is to put pressure on players to very quickly sort items, dealing with their misunderstandings and gut responses as a result.
Each of the currently available minigames is fun, fast-paced, and educational. I can very clearly see how once completed it could work as a really nice interactive tool for teaching about these sustainable goals the city council hopes its citizens learn. It is a great example of gamifying education, something I could really see being used effectively to teach good practices to school children.
The last game I wanted to highlight, Life is Fare, has really managed to find what makes it unique and is now starting to really shine on its own merits.
You play as a train ticket conductor in a world where attempts have been made to remove inequality and prejudice. In a world where universal basic income has solved issues of extreme poverty, public transport has replaced cars to an extent that it has helped solve our climate crisis, and discrimination based on appearance is no longer an issue, your job is simply to check for fare dodgers on a train.
Unlike in games like Papers, Please or Not Tonight, you're not racing against the clock because of a pressure to avoid losing your job; you'll be able to survive on universal basic income no matter what, so you're doing this job because you enjoy it. However, there is a leaderboard ranking how quickly and efficiently other train conductors get their work done, and by politely checking each person's ticket one by one, you're unlikely to break even the top 1,000 ticket inspectors in the rankings.
Without our current real-world discrimination factors, the expectation is that players will still begin to discriminate based on observed factors. Do you have a couple of trains in a row where every person in a blue shirt is fare dodging? Maybe you take the risk and rush the train, giving a fine to every blue shirt you see. Maybe you get away with it and get a good ranking. Maybe you keep doing that and one day accidentally issue fines to a bunch of innocent people.
While all of these game projects are still pretty early in development, with only four or so days work put into coming up with the concepts, creating demos, and testing what worked, each of these games shows great potential and ambitiously attempts to make a difference in the world today. The teams still have several weeks to polish, refine, and flesh out their games before they release to the public in late March, but already these ideas show real promise.
While we obviously need educational institutions focusing on creating the next generation of commercial indie developers and staff for big-budget projects, it's comforting to know that somewhere in the Netherlands, one university in one city is teaching its students to think about how their games might one day change the world.