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Bonus Round: ELI Brainstorms New Ideas for Serious Games

Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Emmett McKinney

Emmett McKinney

Former Research Associate

Azi Akpan

Azi Akpan

Science and Policy Analyst; Manager, National Wetlands Awards

Lovinia Reynolds

Lovinia Reynolds

Policy Analyst and Environmental Justice Coordinator

John Hare-Grogg

John Hare-Grogg

Former Research Associate

Games are not always, well, fun and games. Or maybe they are—which is their greatest strength. As noted by a 2011 article in The Economist, “The main reason why games are different is that they marry the power of modern technology to the insatiable human desire for play.” Lengthy reports often fail to reach their target audiences or deliver information in an engaging format. “Serious games” can be tremendously valuable for developing new approaches to address social challenges. By allowing their audience to interact with the content, play different roles, test out ideas, fail and learn, and change their strategy, games provide effective frameworks for engaging with (and maybe finding solutions to) emerging social, economic, and environmental challenges.

ELI’s award-winning game Cards Against Calamity, developed in part by the Technology, Innovation, and the Environment Program, explores coastal communities’ ability to respond to crises such as natural disasters or economic shocks. Originally conceived as a multi-player board game where players work together to build community resilience, Cards Against Calamity is now being transformed into a digital game for mobile devices.

Games can produce valuable insights for tackling pressing environmental challenges (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)In the meantime, ELI has been brainstorming ideas for new serious games. Last week, a team of ELI Research Associates traveled up to American University to bounce a few ideas off of the experts and master’s students at the AU Game Lab. The Game Lab “serves as a hub for experiential education, persuasive play research, and innovative production in the fields of games for change and purposeful play.” Through the Game Lab’s design studio, students and experts incubate new game concepts that produce valuable research or policy insights.

So how are these games built? The Game Lab starts with research questions that span a range of topics, from community empowerment to artificial intelligence-driven narrative games to health-oriented games that use data from body sensors. After getting to know a particular question or issue and sketching out the basic architecture of game play, the Game Lab creates an interactive prototype. These working models are then tested and refined to produce persuasive game tactics and strategies.

The finished products can not only engage players in important policy discussions, but also shine light for policymakers on how the public responds to new challenges. Building on the success of Cards Against Calamity, ELI took the opportunity to float a few new ideas.


One concept is Justopolis, an environmental justice game where the player acts as a policymaker for an up-and-coming metropolitan area. The game starts out with a series of four non-player characters, ranging from the most environmentally privileged Justopolites (who have access to the cleanest air, water, and green space) down to the most environmentally disadvantaged Justopolites (who live in a food desert next to a congested, air-polluting highway). Throughout the game, the player is confronted with development decisions, opportunities, and obstacles that impact the four characters in different ways.

For example, the player may decide to expand the Justopolis highway, which would benefit some characters (more job opportunities, faster commute), and harm others (lower air quality, lower property value). The player’s goal is to balance the needs of all four characters while also elevating the environmental justice scores (represented by health and wealth) of the more disadvantaged characters. By forcing the player to balance individual character needs and collective community interests, Justopolis could build understanding of the complex role privilege and disadvantage plays in urbanization, policymaking, and achieving environmental justice.

Get There

A second concept that ELI floated is Get There, a game about public transit targeted toward urban planners, transit developers, and anyone who uses public transit. As cities grow and new transportation technologies appear on the horizon, understanding movement around cities is important to ensuring mobility and access to necessary resources for all city residents. Decisions made during gameplay could inform policymakers’ understanding of how people use city transit systems, while the gameplay itself could help players think about the various impacts of different transportation options.

In Get There, players are challenged to get from one location to another navigating various obstacles (such as traffic jams or slippery roads) in a cityscape. Players have the option of choosing from and switching between various modes of transit such as public transit, cars, or bicycles. The player’s aim is to solve the puzzle as quickly as possible while selecting a route that is cheap, fast, safe, healthy, or produces little or no greenhouse gas emissions.

Pantry Panic

Lastly, ELI pitched an idea for a game about household food waste called Pantry Panic. With up to 40% of the food grown in the United States going to the landfill, food waste comes at enormous cost—as measured by both spending on food and by the water, energy, and land used to produce food. Moreover, an estimated 43% of this wasted food is lost in households. Engaging families and individuals (really, anyone who buys groceries) in waste prevention can therefore produce significant environmental and social benefits.

One might think of Pantry Panic as a cross between Tetris and Scrabble, with food items taking the place of blocks or letters. In each round, players are presented with a random assortment of grocery items, which they must compile into healthy, balanced meals. After a set number of rounds, unused items “expire” and must be composted or thrown away. The game is over when the garbage overflows.

By rewarding players for using up odds and ends, and penalizing the disposal of food into the compost or garbage, Pantry Panic could prompt families and consumers to think more carefully about how they buy and use groceries, as well as the resource impacts of various foods.


All of these games are just early concepts—but we are excited to keep collaborating with the AU Game Lab to refine and develop them. In the meantime, we’re putting our heads together to conjure up some new ideas!

Do you have a great idea for an environmental “serious game?” Let us know by sending a message to the Technology, Innovation, and the Environment program at Rejeski@eli.org.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.