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Game On: Can Serious Games Help Inform Serious Environmental Challenges?

EPA researchers partner with IBM to provide data and science for CityOne, a serious game with real-world potential.

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By 2050, the population of the world’s cities is expected to double, meaning some two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. What will the quality of life be in such burgeoning metropolises?  Will they be thriving models of efficiency, with diverse, robust economies and plentiful municipal services delivering electricity, drinking water, and other necessities through cutting-edge technologies and “smart grid” networks?

Or will tomorrow’s cities look more like larger, more crowded versions of some of today’s most challenging places to live:  sprawling urban areas marred by stifling traffic, poor air quality, and overburdened, leaky public water infrastructure?

Delivering the right answers to what it will take to build the livable cities of tomorrow is the focus of a host of research in fields as diverse as economics, civil engineering, sociology, clean air, energy, and human health risk assessment. It’s also the focus of a game that takes advantage of real world EPA research and engineering efforts. 

The game, called CityOne, Exit EPA Disclaimer is in a growing genre of “serious games” developed as experiential learning tools to help users gain valuable insights into complex processes and systems. EPA’s involvement was sparked by scientists who recognized the opportunity to make environmental data generated by Agency-developed computer models more accessible to decision makers, and to develop more user interfaces for the models. 

“I realized that the core concept of the game was designed to do what we want to do with much of our research—give decision makers a more informed understanding of the environmental impacts of the decisions they have to make in a very complex and dynamic world.  If done correctly, the use of serious games can help non-scientists experience the ways in which their policy, investment, or purchase decisions can result in benefits or impacts to the environment and human health,” says EPA scientist Andy Miller, Ph.D., who approached CityOne developers after learning about their project.  

Introduced at the IMPACT software conference, Exit EPA Disclaimer the game begins by placing users in the shoes of a Chief Operating Officer of an urban company and challenging him or her to successfully advise consultants on how to “revamp and revitalize” the energy grid, retail sectors, banking, and water utilities of the city. Nancy Pearson, IBM vice president of Service Oriented Architecture, Business Process Management, and WebSphere adds "CityOne will simulate the challenges faced in a variety of industries so that businesses can explore a variety of solutions and explore the business impact before committing resources." 

CityOne urges the user to not only take into account monetary and structural factors, but to also consider business climate, citizen quality of life, and the environmental impacts of any actions taken.

According the game’s web site, the main goals of CityOne are to allow its user to “accelerate industry evolution, optimize processes and decisions, implement new technologies, and discover the impact” of their decisions.

The game presents challenges such as how to balance emissions and energy generation, and how to improve upon water systems that typically lose half their water to leaks before anything flows into homes and businesses. EPA’s own research includes extensive efforts on aging water infrastructure, and on the complex interactions of air quality, energy, and climate. EPA provides links to authentic research information as part of the game’s library.

In addition to supplying real world data and expertise, EPA work is also prevalent through hyperlinks that provides interested gamers and others with a source for those interested in learning more about modern, complex environmental problems.

CityOne will also draw awareness to EPA’s programs, providing additional info to CityOne users on environmental protection and associated issues. “EPA has a tremendous amount of environmental information that is available to anyone who is interested.  The game gives us a way to reach out to a broader audience and let them know about the resources that they can draw upon when they want to dig deeper into an issue,” says Dr. Miller.

Ultimately, this “serious game” has serious real world potential. The interactive game will provide industry and civic leaders with the means to build a better understanding of complex problems and to begin to make more sustainable decisions for the future. By building better awareness of ongoing research programs, Agency scientists think the partnership will prove to be a real winner.

 

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