Student Spotlight

student spotlight

Many of the best games take their cues from real-life processes. Whether it is creating and maintaining a modern city, waging war, or sorting objects, humans find comfort in the familiar patterns of everyday life hiding in the workings of their favorite games. In a ground-breaking project, scientific process meets game design to produce something that could only come from the unique campus at UW Bothell.

Dr. Warren Gold, associate professor at UW Bothell and Director of the UW Restoration Ecology Network, is an expert on the restoration of freshwater wetlands. He also is technical advisor and de-facto conscience of the highly successful wetland restoration at the UW Bothell campus. The campus wetlands comprise 58-acres of restored natural habitat that served logging interests in the 1800s, and was a cattle ranch well into the 1990s.

While walking to campus along the nearby Sammamish Trail one day in 2009, Gold allowed his mind to meander through the landscape of how environmental science is taught: in classrooms, labs and in the field. He stumbled upon an idea. “I see my students living in their electronic worlds,” thought Gold. “How can I reach them there?”

That question became the seed that eventually grew into a new Facebook game set to launch to the world this fall. It took a while for the idea to take root, though. For several months, Gold considered various on-line approaches to extend his educational reach into the online realm.

In the spring of 2010, Gold contacted Wanda Gregory, director of the then-newly founded Center for Serious Play. The purpose of the Center for Serious Play (CSP) is to employ game narratives and methodologies to bring students together with faculty and industry partners and bring positive change to fields such as education, health care and sustainable environments. Gregory was intrigued by the prospect of working with Gold to drive out his science through a game narrative. So, Gregory and Gold met to discuss their overlapping objectives.

As far as Gold was concerned, a game would be fine, but it would have to be science-based. One key scientific rubric that Gold wanted to embed in a game was an ecological concept known as succession. “Put simply,” describes Gold, “ecological restoration has a time-frame. That time-frame and the sequencing of events that has to occur are known as succession.” For example, certain types of small shrubs need to be established before larger species can take root. Similarly, animals become established in a general progression of less to more complex. As succession occurs, biodiversity becomes more robust. This richness of flora and fauna forms the framework upon which a successful wetland can survive.

In addition, Gold wanted the game to convey the dynamic nature of the environment. Gold asserts, “The natural world does not seek a fixed balance. It is constantly changing, both in ways that we do expect, and in ways that we don’t expect. It is dynamic over short-term and long-term horizons.”

Gold’s desire to integrate real science into the game was grist for Gregory’s mill. One of Gregory’s goals for the Center for Serious Play (CSP) is to instill in her students and interns a sense of social entrepreneurship. The CSP, according to Gregory, is “more about narratives and the creation of content than it is about technology. My focus is on the educational and social aspects of games.”

Gregory envisioned a student-led project that would bring Gold’s science together with the wealth of regional industry talent in game design and technology. At the heart of the game would be the students. Students would provide the creativity, faculty experts the intellectual capital, and industry the tools to ensure that the game functions well in terms of front-facing design and back-end deployment.

Gregory assembled a team of professionals, students and CSP staff and interns to develop the game. The team was diverse and included Scott Berfield, executive producer at CSP; and CSP interns, Bradley Stafford and Simone de Rochefort. The key would be balancing the education with the entertainment. The team determined that Facebook would serve as an ideal platform for the game because the popular social network could dynamically support the ecological concept of succession.

The student interns spent weeks harvesting the scientific data required for the game. They interviewed Professor Gold and his assistant Lara Ramey, a former UW Bothell environmental science student, to assemble an elaborate data-set on all the wetland flora and fauna to be included in the game. In all, 45 animals and 30 plants come into play, including sawbeak sedge, small-fruited bulrush, violet-green swallows, cinnamon teals, painted turtles and river otters. Each animal and plant has an array of data associated with it, including life span, nutrients required, biodiversity ratings, scientific descriptions and more. While the interns populated the virtual menagerie, other members of the team focused on the game-play aspects of the project.

People who have played Cityville or Farmville will be familiar with the game’s basic format. A player starts with a bare parcel of land. The player can then add various water features and small plants which, in turn, will provide the nutrients or the shelter for other species. Under sufficient conditions, new animals will be attracted to the player’s developing wetland, enhancing the player’s total biodiversity rating.

A real wetland might take 50 years to restore, yet the developers knew from experience that something with a fixed lifespan would be more successful. The team decided that each player should have 25 days to develop his self-sustaining wetland. Doing so means winning the game, and the greater the degree of biodiversity, the more successful the player is.

According to Gold, this game format can provoke the player to ask questions such as, “why aren’t there any salmon in the stream in my wetland? How can I tweak things to make my environment more attractive to salmon?” This point is critical to Gold, for these are the kinds of questions that real-life restoration ecologists ask.

As with most other Facebook games, players can barter for or purchase accelerators. The concept has proven to be wildly successful with games such as Farmville. But in a unique twist, the design team plans to allocate a percentage of proceeds toward actual wetland restoration projects. For Gregory, this aspect is crucial. “The game models the real-life activities that UW Bothell engages in to raise money and awareness for a public project, such as the actual wetlands restoration, while at the same time being a fun experience.”

Excitement among the team members mounts as the launch approaches. How will the team define success? According to intern Stafford, success will mean that players think the game is fun and unconventional. For many design team members, they will look to metrics such as numbers of users or revenue generated.

Gold has two broad measures of success in mind. First, he is hopeful that the game will resonate with a wide array of ages: from primary- to college-age students and to the public in general. Secondly, Gold hopes that the interactive can complete an educational loop. “On one end of the loop,” imagines Gold, “our game could introduce important concepts before an actual wetlands visit. At the other end of the loop, it could provide wetlands visitors a post-visit venue in which to deepen what they learned in the field.”

For Gregory, success will also be measured in social terms. “Ultimately, it’s just a game. But is it socially and environmentally positive? Does the game open possibilities for students? Even considering the amazing support from industry and faculty,” according to Gregory, “the students were the rock stars in this project. Hopefully, the results of their hard work can serve as inspiration to future students.”