Bridging the gap between the technical and non-technical
in approaching global issues.
As part of ATM S 495: EarthGames Studio in Autumn 2017 and Spring 2018, I was the developer on a team of four students working on National Park Adventure, a video game that teaches middle school students about the impacts of climate change on National Parks. EarthGames is a group offering a studio course to develop video games on climate change issues. My team had a mix of undergraduate students and PhD candidates from different disciplines: Erin Riesland, a PhD student in Education; our artist Rikki Parent, an undergraduate student studying Atmospheric Sciences; and Emma Kahle, a PhD student in Earth and Space Sciences; and me as the programmer.
Cover photo: A panoramic photo of Crescent Lake as seen from the NatureBridge camp. A similar panorama was used in the reflective end sequence of the game.
I had previously worked on an EarthGames project through a high school program, and I was excited to be further involved as a student at the University of Washington. There are many practical and societal changes needed to address the climate crisis, and I was excited to be involved in EarthGames because video games have the capacity to reach and influence people in a way that traditional educational efforts cannot.
Through working on the Park Adventure project, I was happy to develop a video game that communicates important information about how National Parks are affected by our changing environment and the ways in which individual behavior matters. I continue to find ways to combine my technical abilities with my environmental issues to teach climate issues.
Developed an educational video game with 17 scenes and 4 minigames that was featured in a geophysical sciences publication.
Researched how video games could complement existing youth educational efforts through a collaboration with NatureBridge – an environmental education non-profit – by shadowing an elementary school nature camp and interviewing an administrator.
Continually maintained and further developed the video game 2017 - 2020, beyond the scope of the ATM S 495: EarthGames Studio course.
Leadership Competencies Gained
In collaboration with others on my team, I did research to understand how video games could complement existing youth educational efforts. We worked with NatureBridge, an environmental education non-profit.
In the early phases of our game development, our team visited a NatureBridge camp at Olympic National Park for two days to shadow a group of elementary students to understand how they learn and what they do at camp. This first-hand case study provided valuable insight for our initial vision of a video game that would prepare students for what to expect at summer camp.
After we had a demo completed, our team went to the NatureBridge offices to show our demo, get feedback, and set a direction for further development of the game. In our discussion, we focused on understanding how our game relates to the education NatureBridge participants receive. This interview provided valuable insight that led to a refined vision of a game that focuses on teaching how climate change impacts National Parks to a broader audience of all high school students beyond NatureBridge.
As a small step towards addressing the climate crisis, I believe it is important to educate the public on relevant environmental issues. For me, an impactful way to accomplish this has been through developing engaging and concise educational digital experiences: a video game can accomplish many practical educational outcomes in a short time. Each of the scenes in our game communicates one learning objective around the common theme of “Leave No Trace.”
The National Park Adventure project helps players understand how climate change affects their local National Parks and facilitates making personal connections to this issue. This ultimately builds awareness, and perhaps is a first step in players engaging with nature in-person. Every scene in the game demonstrates how climate change affects our National Parks, making it a local issue that affects us. We also designed reflection prompts that encourage players to make a personal connection to the parks and these issues.
My personal objective as the developer of the team was to create an architecture for our game’s code that could be built upon by my non-technical teammates, that could support many scenes of the game, and that could be flexible as we iterate upon our story.
I used the software engineering approach of abstraction to accomplish these goals. Abstraction is the process of removing details in a system to focus on the important and general elements.
I recognized that although our game has many kinds of experiences including minigames, journal entries, and story scenes, they are all fundamentally “levels” of different complexity that could be connected together. By structuring the game as non-linear levels, our game could be easily rearranged and expanded on by adding, removing, and connecting different levels.
Scope of Competence
In this experience, “leadership” meant being a reliable, consistent resource in the technical elements of game development. The graduate students of our team had a deep understanding of environmental science and education, so although I was involved throughout the research and design processes, I wanted to defer to their expertise by enabling these non-technical teammates to build upon the game. This would maximize the ability of others on my team to use their strengths in working on the game and minimizing the common issue of developers being bottlenecks in working on a project.
For this reason, I developed a scene editor so that my teammates could create and edit scenes of the game. Most of the game consists of scenes where the characters speak and the player makes choices, and this editor enables these scenes to be made and exported into the structured data that is used by the game.
Throughout the process, I worked to help others in my team by implementing their design of the game according to their specifications. For more complicated levels like interactive minigames, this meant understanding their intentions and independently writing code to accomplish the vision. For simpler levels, the scene editor is a tool I built to help others have agency in their work: my teammates could build a scene, export the data for the level, and I could paste that into a folder to add it to the game.
In Autumn 2019 – two years after we initially started the project – Emma Kahle, a PhD candidate member of my team, needed more direct access to the website as she was refining the game for use in her Graduate Certificate in Climate Science capstone. I met with her to set up her computer, explain the workflow for making changes, and teach her how to directly make changes to the game. After this, Emma was empowered to independently refine the game.
Through this project and my involvement in UW EarthGames, I found that I enjoy working on interdisciplinary projects, and I was excited to find opportunities to combine my technical skills with my environmental interests.
Working on the Park Adventure project prepared me for other opportunities where I worked in teams of mixed skill sets. As a student in INFO 102: Gender and Information Technology, I was able to effectively facilitate delegating and prioritizing tasks in a team where each person had a distinct strength ranging between design, code, and writing.
The Park Adventure project also made me excited to find additional opportunities to combine my technical skills with my environmental interests. I later took OCEAN 452: Marine Geographic Information Systems where I ran an experiment on a University of Washington research vessel to collect seafloor data and then use software to process, analyze, and visualize the results.
I also continue to seek ways to develop the environmental literacy of others in everyday ways. For instance, as a Teaching Assistant for INFO 201: Technical Foundations of Informatics, I used environmental and climate change datasets to demonstrate how to work with and visualize data. These lessons were primarily taught technical skills, but required providing important environmental context.