Coping with the climate crisis is no game—but finding the solutions to it just might be.
This year, hundreds of middle and high school students from across the United States competed to design digital games that tackle timely issues impacting their communities. The themes were sustainability, voting, and building awareness of learning and cognitive differences. The annual challenge was hosted by the nonprofit Games for Change and supported by organizations like NRDC, which helped judge the Sustainable Cities category and provided educational resources to students as a Theme Partner.
Dozens of finalists squared off to win thousands of dollars in prizes, including a $10,000 scholarship from the video game company Take-Two Interactive Software and mentorship from game designers at Unity. Their entries, which can all be played inside a virtual arcade, prove that being an agent of change can actually involve, well, fun and games.
Playing for the planet
Given the stakes of inaction on climate for the youngest generations, it’s perhaps no wonder that the sustainability category had the most submissions.
Among them was the city-simulation game Sustainable Frogotropolis, honored as the Northeast regional champ. Maya Warshaw and Silvie Leaf, rising seniors at the Computer School in New York City, say that, like most of the contenders, they found themselves learning about environmental issues in-depth for the first time. “Taking a deep dive into it was scary, but also really educational,” Leaf says.
In their game, a player gets to act as the mayor’s assistant and imagine just what it’d take to turn their fictional city into “the most sustainable of them all.” Players amass coins by taking part in mini games, like picking up quickly moving trash piles, and then cashing them in to fund sustainability solutions.
“We tried to brainstorm as many issues as we could,” says Warshaw. “There’s flooding, forest fires, overheating, all that.”
Real-life mayors should take note: Frogotropolis city planners can install drip irrigation systems to deal with drought, build river dikes for flood protection, and require wildfire-proof building codes, all while receiving donations from grateful Frogotropolis residents.
For many of the designers, the competition not only required as much as a school year’s worth of work, it presented a steep learning curve in other areas too. Students designed the narrative, wrote scripts, coded, created music and art, animated, tested, debugged, and then debugged some more—all without any previous experience.
“We’d never done anything like this before, and sometimes we over-complicated things for ourselves, because we like to overthink things,” says Leaf, who plans to team up with Warshaw again for next year’s challenge. “We’d get the coding down and then realize there were [simpler] ways to do it.”
Simple and clean was the approach by the national championship-winning game Port Pickup, designed by soon-to-be-sophomores Logan Lawler and Drew Oleski from Utica Center for Science and Industry in Sterling Heights, Michigan. In it, players head out to sea to scavenge for pollution until they’ve maxed out their boat’s storage, and then drop their haul back on shore, where they can reload on energy.
In their race back and forth to port, gamers get a sense for just how big a task cleaning up the ocean would be—a realization its designers made too.
“There’s a giant trash collection sitting in the middle of the ocean that’s four times as big as Texas,” Lawler says. “I knew about that, but there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s just so much out in the ocean.”
The realization was illuminating, and after all of their effort, the prizes also felt like a well-worth-it payoff.
“We really still don’t believe it. Right after we won, I called Logan and said, ‘Do you want to just go to 7-Eleven?’ We treated ourselves to slurpees,” says national champ Oleski. “Our parents were jumping around screaming. We knew we had a good chance, but it was still shocking.”
Felicia Yan, a rising senior at Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, scoured resources online to learn how to code and drew all the graphics herself. In writing her game’s story line, she also had to learn far more about the existential threat that climate change poses.
In her narrative game Our Lonely Speck, an alien discovers the Golden Record—one of two disks that contain snapshots of human life that NASA actually launched in 1977 to inform any potential space travelers about Earth. Fascinated, the alien travels to the planet, only to find it lifeless in the wake of an environmental disaster. Players must then travel back in time to talk with former Earth residents who are living on the brink of the climate crisis (like, ahem, us) and help prevent its eventual destruction.
“By researching it more, I realized there are a lot of things that we can do, and that we are doing,” Yan says. “If more people knew about it, it would help us in the future.”
In order to write authentic backstories for the characters players meet along the way—like the fisherman coping with disappearing trout or the asthmatic biker who can no longer ride in the city’s smog—Yan read the real-life stories of people around the world who are on the frontlines of climate change. “I learned that climate change isn’t just one thing,” Yan says. “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 dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Yan agrees. “We’re out there looking for aliens, but the fact is, even if they do exist, they’re probably a long way off. It’s up to us to solve the problems that we have, like climate change. Ultimately, it’s up to us.”
Kim Morasse, entertainment partnerships manager at NRDC, got a chance to test out the various games in the Sustainable Cities category as one of its judges. She found the experience—and the gamers—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 of the winning games from the Sustainable Cities category in G4C’s virtual arcade:
- Energy Defense (designed by Aidan P. and Alex L., Hanover High School)
- How to Stop Climate Change from Home (designed by Matthew T. and Xavier S., Daniel Webster Middle School)
- Industrial Issues (designed by Andrew C., Urbana Middle School)
- Our Lonely Speck (designed by Felicia Y., Enloe High School)
- Port Pickup (designed by Drew O. and Logan L., Utica Center for Science and Industry)
- Steamy Garbage (designed by Nathan C. and Isabelle G., Venice High School)
- Sustainable Frogotropolis (designed by Silvie L. and Maya W., the Computer School)
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