Brains and Beakers: Gamifying Air Pollution

By Kayla Garrett

Could video games save the environment? Maybe with the kind Greg Niemeyer is trying to build. Niemeyer specializes in digital art, and his most recent work focuses on games that seek and support cultural change. He’s an assistant professor for new media at UC Berkeley, and presented at the last Brains and Beakers event, Youth Radio’s quarterly science dialogue series.

Niemeyer demonstrated his new open-source game, “AirQuest,” at this event. It blends BMX bike racing with real world challenges like managing asthma and responding to air pollution. The air pollution data in the game is based off of actual air quality measurements around Fresno, CA. Niemeyer set the game in the Central Valley partly because of its high pollution levels and partly because of how much we rely on that area to grow our food.

You start the game as a character riding a bike down the highway, dodging potholes and trucks. You are trying to make it to the airport before you miss your flight. If your character doesn’t make it to the airport on time,  you have to go back to town to make money. Your character works at a recycling factory, sorting garbage until you’ve earned enough money to buy the medicine you need. Next you have to navigate a hospital maze to find inhalers so that you can try to bike to the airport again. The plot of the game was designed with the help of students in Fresno who wanted the goal of the game to be leaving Fresno.

Niemeyer and his team of undergraduate game-makers explained the technical side of the project. Air Quest was created on a program called Unity, which allows people to create games for various platforms, like iOS and Android, while eliminating the long process of optimizing for each platform. The Air Quest demo is currently a web app but will be launched on other platforms later.

Finally, we got a chance to try out a demo of Air Quest on a tablet. The game was interesting because it related to real life but it was pretty simple. In a final version I’d like more challenges added, like seeing how much electricity you can save by unplugging appliances and turning off lights. They could add another level where you earn money by harvesting organic fruits and vegetables. One question I have about the game is that winning means getting out of Fresno. Why not win by staying to figure out ways to help Fresno become less polluted?

We recommend you check it out for yourself once it is completed. For more information on our guest at Youth Radio, visit Greg Niemeyer’s site.

More from Youth Radio’s science desk here, including past Brains and Beakers: Reinventing musical instruments, Green Chemistry, and the Science of Taste.

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