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Can a Video Game Teach Sustainability?

Designers of the new "City Rain" believe that it can.
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Eco video game, screenshot

Can a video game teach sustainability?

Image by City Rain.

In the video game Grand Theft Auto, players perform crimes ranging from theft to murder to rise through the ranks of organized crime. In Civilization IV, players are European settlers in the Americas—they can win the game by conquering, colonizing, and building a standing army.

A team of students from Brazil’s Universidade Estadual Paulista wanted to design a different kind of game, one that focuses “on ecology and environmental sustainability," according to their website.

The result is City Rain, a student winner in the 2009 Independent Games Festival and the winner of Imagine Cup, a competition for sustainability-themed games sponsored by Microsoft.

City Rain is considered to be a hybrid between Sim City—another game in which players plan cities, but which focuses on development rather than sustainability—and Tetris, the famous puzzle game.

The game is a simulation puzzle of a green city, and yet is also action-packed—players must quickly construct an urban environment onto the playing area, making sure that is both pleasing for the residents and environmentally friendly.

City Rain has several modes. In the main mode, you play a member of RAIN, the Rescue and Intervention Nonprofit Organization, an elite environmental Swat Force that is in charge of restructuring polluting cities before they are penalized by the World Environment Protection Agency. You restructure the cities by placing homes, schools, community services, factories, green spaces, landfills—all of the elements of a contemporary built environment—onto the grid surface in a way that creates a balanced environment.

It's all about creating and maintaining infrastructure that will make the city greener. You attempt to maximize all of the aspects that make life for your city dwellers enjoyable: economic opportunity, leisure, safety, renewable energy, minimal environmental impact, and more. Your performance is helpfully displayed as progression bars in the bottom-left corner of the playing area.

One of the game challenges is the fictional company Bane Industries, one of the last corporations in the world that refuses to submit to WEPA environmental standards and wreaks widespread environmental havoc.

In a review, The Gamers Daily News said that "While City Rain is one big environmentalist pitch to start caring about the environment, it is also a genuinely fun and well-designed game. It’s simple enough that anyone can play but also complex enough that the hardest of the hardcore can challenge themselves to its puzzles."

Some users have complained that the game focuses too much on negative reinforcement: If you make a decision that’s not environmentally friendly, you will be scolded by your "advisor." Players have suggested that, rather than just telling players not to be environmentally irresponsible, the game should give players practical incentives for responsible behavior. For example, instead of telling you not to cut down trees, the game model could show that when trees are cut, pollution increases and the contentment of the residents goes down.

In another game mode, called Campaign, you become a member of a task force with access to the mayor's budget. Presented with all the challenges that real cities face, you have to learn how to use that budget wisely.

The game is being played around the world. If you want to give it a try, you can download a free demo version here.


Rik Langendoen bio pic Rik Langendoen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Rik is an environmental consultant with an emphasis on sustainability.

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