Take a course, build a video game, change the world
Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost
One of the best educational experiences we as the Anticiplay research team have been a part of in recent years is the course we’ve developed between Utrecht University and the Utrecht University of the Arts (HKU). In this course, students from across the bachelor programs at Utrecht University who have backgrounds and interests in sustainability work closely together with teams of game development students from HKU to develop games that engage with sustainability issues and better futures.
This blog serves two purposes: if you’re a BSc student eligible for the course, it’s to tell you about it so you can see if you’re interested. And if you’re interested in game design for sustainability, or educational design, it’s to tell you about a cool thing that we’re doing, and how we are thinking about it.
In the course, the HKU teams are made up of programmers, visual artists, game designers, and sound artists and musicians. Our Utrecht University students act as the sustainability specialists in these teams — but they also often get involved in game design decisions and in worldbuilding and narrative writing.
The course takes place in the third period of our university year, and takes about 2.5 months. Each team focuses on the development of one game project. They also get extensive classes in game design (from HKU teachers) and on games, worldbuilding, future scenarios and sustainability from (from myself and other UU teachers). Every year, about 15 to 20 game prototypes are created — see last year’s examples here. Students also write essays about games and sustainability like these ones. Here is games journalist Laura Kate Dale’s experience with the course in 2020; and here is journalist Pim van den Berg’s reflection that features the course in VPRO gids in 2021.
Meaningful and resonant games, not chocolate covered broccoli
The course is built on an idea that is also core to the Anticiplay research project: that games that are aiming to actually be impactful should be good, meaningful, resonant games. My HKU colleagues have told me about the concept of ‘chocolate covered broccoli’ as a way to describe bad ‘serious’ and educational games. These are games that take the supposed ‘broccoli’ of serious subject matter like climate change and aim to gamify it, to cover it in a layer of chocolate to make it go down more easily. This is bad design based on a misunderstanding of what games are and can be, but surprisingly common.
By contrast, the best entertainment games resonate deeply with players — with their imaginations, their hearts, their minds, their bodies; and beyond that, with communities and whole ecosystems of players, journalists and more. Such games appear to have pretty transformative impacts on people given that they were designed for entertainment, artistic expression, and of course for commercial success.
The core philosophy of our course is that games for better futures should be — strangely obvious as it sounds — good games. By this we mean games that have artistic merit. Games that work well with the core strength of the genre: agency and player expression. Games that resonate with people in many ways. This also aligns with the philosophy of the HKU’s game design program and its identity as a university of the arts.
An example from last year: Musa Simia, a game about flooding, power differences and privilege, with a beautiful art style and engaging writing and world exploration. Or Umbra, a game about invisible and expendable workers that uses shadows and light to great effect in its stealth-based game play. Another example from a previous year: Jia, a game about a culture where people go into the heart of nature to die.
Working with partners: games as engines for societal imaginations
In previous years, work with a societal client or partner has been important to the course. This is part of the educational challenge for the students — how do I respond to the needs of a client with my game design? We have worked with some great clients in the past: with the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the UN Environment Programme, TNO’s energy transitions team, the Dutch Planning Bureau for the Environment (PBL), Oxfam Great Britain, the CUCo Playing with the Trouble project, the CGIAR programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, and more.
These are often international collaborations. This year, we are taking an approach that is more rooted in the city of Utrecht. Utrecht is a hub for creative game development. Our partners are the Utrecht City Council, the Regional Development Company (ROM), and the Social Impact Factory (SIF). This allows the game teams to make games that are connected to the city and its potential futures, and to be part of the Utrecht game development ecosystem.
Games that go on
An exciting moment in the course is showcasing the games — not only to clients, teachers and other students, but also at the Pathways to Sustainability conference held at TivoliVredenburg. This conference is attended by hundreds of researchers and practitioners in sustainability from throughout the Netherlands and beyond. In previous years, students have been able to demonstrate their games at the conference, with great success. Not all games go on to have new lives of their own once the course is over; but some do. The game Windswept, about controversial renewable energy planning decisions, was played with energy researchers and energy company representatives recently. The game SustainaBuild became a fully developed game-based project in East Africa. And the game Let’sKyoto about the Kyoto food system was played with people across Kyoto and beyond. One of the game teams from the first time we ran the course went on to become a professional game studio and make a game, Here Comes Niko, released on Nintendo Switch, that won a bunch of awards. This year, with the collaborations being focused on Utrecht as a city, the direct application possibilities of the games are expected to be higher than ever.
So, if you’re a BSc student thinking about what course to take next year, consider getting involved in this one! We asked students from the previous year what they would tell people in the next year who were wondering about taking the course. They said to tell you that it’s more accessible than you think. You can come from anywhere in the university as long a you bring some previous course work in sustainability. You don’t need to know game design beforehand or be super familiar with many games. Find the course here!
If you’re otherwise interested in this course, and Utrecht-based, let me know. We might be able to connect you to the other clients! Or if you’re just interested in the results, keep an eye on this space!
Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! In short: we’re all about Games For Better Futures and Futures for Better Games. Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!