Left: Game play from Todd Little’s BeeCycle, Upper Right: Michael Ren’s Night Flyer, Lower Right: Chelsea Brtis’ Local Goods

EarthGames was thrilled to work alongside the rest of the Games For Our Future team and IndieCade this past April to put on the Climate Game Jam in honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Game jams are hackathon style events, often taking place over several days, with ‘jammers’ working next to nonstop at the venue, before eventually submitting their final game. However, this was the first entirely online game jam EarthGames has worked on, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Despite some uncertainty and last-minute changes, the online Climate Jam proved to be a huge success, with international game submissions from as far away as Ecuador, England, and more! To hear more about the process of a game jam, and what inspired the game designers to keep working on their games even after the Climate Jam was finished, EarthGames caught up with three jammers, Chelsea Brtis, Todd Little, and Michael Ren. 

The Climate Jam attracted a broad range of participants across the globe, from first time jammers to veteran participants, all connected on their passion for games and the environment. Chelsea Brtis received her Master of Fine Arts with a focus in game studies and explained that during her time at the University of Texas-Dallas, “I had one professor who really drilled in why we were there and the role of video games beyond just entertainment. During this time, I reflected on my childhood and the time I spent in nature which inspired much of the work I did, exploring how the environment is represented in games”. From there, Brtis focused on designing games that focused on global environmental problems. Despite Brtis having a background in game design and environmental games, this happened to be her first game jam, and her game Local Goods won the jam’s Most Adventurous award. 

Similar to Brtis, Todd Little also pulled on his own background as both a UX Design Engineer at FairWorlds and his undergraduate experience in the natural sciences for the Climate Jam. At FairWorlds, Little works on creating VR and AR experiences for clients such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “The experiences range from the invisible threat of methane with the Methane CH4LLENGE, to the plight of the Monarch Butterfly and its loss of habitat with the Monarch Effect”, Little explained. However, his path to game development wasn’t necessarily conventional. “On a personal level, I’ve had a life-long passion for imaginative play. In college, one of my roommates was a computer science major and opened my eyes to indie game development. After college, I didn’t know what to do with my natural sciences major, so I started teaching myself how to code”. Little also explained that participating in previous solo game jams like Ludum Dare, helped him develop his skills as “the time constraint really forced me to pick up skills and techniques quickly”.

Michael Ren is also a longtime game jammer and an Asian-American indie game developer currently living in Shanghai, but originally from New York City. He has been working in the video games industry for approximately six years and has worked in AAA games at Ubisoft and mobile games at Perfect World Entertainment. Ren explained that “Game Jams are an awesome outlet for creativity and I’ve been doing them ever since college. Even today, I enjoy doing a game jam once or twice a year to test my own abilities”.  Similar to the sentiment shared by Little, Ren emphasized the value in the fast-paced nature of jams. “The short amount of time really pushes you to think about what you can make, the scope of it, and it’s a great way to learn new skills. I’d highly recommend anyone who wants to make video games try to participate in a game jam!” 

Despite the participants’ diverse backgrounds and experience with game jams, they all shared similar sentiments when explaining what drew them to this year’s Climate Jam. Brtis explained, “I was interested in the Climate Jam because of the opportunity to work with others and see games with the shared environmental experience. Reflection of the environment in games is not always emphasized, so I wanted to participate in an event addressing that”. Little shared that his own passion for the environment led him to the jam just as it had last year, “I’m passionate about climate change activism, but usually I don’t feel like I can make a difference, so this felt like a great opportunity. I also participated in last year’s Climate Jam with an AR experience called Seed Our Future”.

Ren shared that his passion for social impact projects and the environment led him to the Climate Jam, but is also a consistent theme in much of the work he does in his free time. “My games have ranged from air pollution in Hazy Days: A Breathing Simulator, to complex racial issues in Yellowface: A game about being Asian in America.” Ren shared that this year’s jam themes of Adapt, Engage, and Protect were especially inspiring to work with. 

These themes guided all the jammers as they created a diverse set of games focusing on a plethora of topics from wildfire, climate politics, deforestation, and more. These themes influenced jammers in many different ways as they drew on their own inspirations, often based in their individualized experience with the environment and environmental issues. Brtis took a direct, personal approach with her submission, that is accessible yet poignant to many players, as her game explores individual consumption choices and environmental impacts. “For Local Goods, I wanted to show how humans effect the environment in a simple way that mimics what happens in reality. I wanted to highlight the production cycle of our individual choices that we may often feel detached from on a day to day basis.” Brtis has a hope that “players will have a reflection of how their own consumption is impacting the environment, and how to make smarter choices and be more mindful”. 

Little’s BeeCycle, also came from personal interests, despite being a completely different topic: the importance of bees. “I had two big influences: My dad and the VR game Fujii. He’s a master gardener and climate change activist, so naturally I consulted with him on this project. He and my mom actually helped out on the initial research. The family home has a wonderful garden in the back. My dad had just ordered mason bees so we wanted to understand the benefits of having mason bees in our garden.”

Little’s love for Fujii especially played a strong role in the development process, “Fujii is a magical VR adventure gardening made by Funktronic Labs. If you haven’t played it, it’s very whimsical and delightful. When I first played the game, I wanted to blend both being in a real garden, but also playing the VR game at the same time. I strapped my phone to my Oculus Quest and captured this experience of playing Fujii in our backyard“. This inspired Little to use the family backyard as the setting for BeeCycle. “My hope is that players will have an increased appreciation for mason bees and the natural world. I also hope players consider raising mason bees in their backyard”.

Ren chose to take an approach that focused on current events, specifically the coronavirus outbreak and its connections to environmental topics, for his game Night Flyer. He explained that misinformation and misrepresentation of bats and their potential connection to COVID-19 was the main inspiration for his submission. “This misrepresentation has led to under-informed communities targeting bat populations for extinction and a general fear-mongering towards bats. However, the truth is far more complicated. Human actions in deforestation and illegal wildlife trading is putting us at risk.” Specific to the game itself, Ren was inspired by Game Boy Color games to give his game an old-school feel. “The mechanics are also very simple to play and I was really inspired by a mixture of Vlambeer’s Luftrausers mixed with Dong Nguyen’s Flappy Bird. I wanted to give it an Oregon Trail, edutainment-like vibe, hence targeting the game for kids and adults alike”.  “I wanted to capture the exciting life of a bat by providing players a fun and simple way of exploring their world. Through hooking players in the mechanics and narrative, then the game can begin to educate players on the role of bats in natural ecosystems”. Ren’s main goal was to show deforestation as a serious issue caused by humans, and have players live through it. “By associating the player with deforestation up-close, I hope that its effects, specifically lack of food and protection for animals native to an area, can resonate towards positive change”.

Above: Game play from Ren’s Night Flyer. In Night Flyer, players get to see the world through the life of a bat, and the many challenges they face. Players also learn facts about bats and conservation efforts in the game.

While game jams require jammers to submit a game under very short time limits, many of the jammers were further inspired by the Climate Jam to continue working on their games after the event concluded. Brtis has already done some refinements and expansion on Local Goods for IndieCade after winning the Most Adventurous award, including updating some of the audio and music. She hopes to continue working on the game further, and her goal is to make a mobile version of Local Goods in the future that can be accessible to a broader range of users. 

Similarly, Little has expansions in mind for his submission Bee Cycle stating, “there’s something to the snapping your fingers mechanic to planting seeds. I also want to make it even more immersive like making a much better photogrammetry scan of the backyard, add plant physics, and giving the user an opportunity to change scale to mason bee size, so they can sit atop the Bee House and watch the mason bees at work”.

Above: Game play from Little’s BeeCycle. In BeeCycle, players use VR to learn about the role of mason bees, and the importance of protecting their habitat, through planting wildflowers.

Ren states that he hopes to continue working on the narrative of Night Flyer as well. “There are many future ideas I’m developing right now, specifically looking at the long narrative arc. As the game’s name implies, it’s a Bat’s “Journey” and I hope the journey will be interesting for all players”. Additionally, since his final submission to the Climate Jam, Night Flyer has been localized into four different languages, thanks to helpful bat researchers he connected with through this project. 

After submitting the project, scientists and educators around the world contacted Ren about using the game in their educational outreach programs. From this network, Ren was introduced to the World Bat Twitter Conference in May, where he shared Night Flyer. “The conference was amazingly fascinating and inspiring to watch. I learned so much cool information about bats that it really pushed me to rethink the game’s scope”. Ren also gained valuable connections in the bat community, which proved to be especially meaningful. “I was connecting with people around the world, who reached out either with feedback, suggestions, or just positive comments. For many people in bat research and conservation fields, I feel this game was exactly what they were looking for. I’m really glad to have made something that can be useful to others”.

Beyond the jammers’ own deep dives into their respective game topics, the Climate Jam prompts a broader dialogue on the intersection of games, art, storytelling, and the sciences. While educational games like the Oregon Trail series have been around since the 1970s, educational gaming continues to grow and educate broader groups of people, in an increasingly diverse range of issues, including climate change. Brtis explains that with indie games becoming more mainstream, that she hopes educational games will also follow the same path. “Educational games often have a reputation as being ‘less fun’ or only for people already interested in the topic, but really, it’s not like that. Hopefully educational games can reach more people and make a broader impact in the future”. Tying back to her passion for making games that serve as more than just entertainment, Brtis shared, “I think games can bring awareness to any type of global issue. Games are a great way to educate people but often are overlooked by the public and framed poorly by the media, so I hope this will change moving forward”.  

Similar to Brtis, Ren wants to see educational games reach new audiences as the technology grows. He stated, “as technology improves and people have easier access to digital environments in the palm of their hands, I think the interactive nature of video games will provide a great way for players to experience new emotions. This emotional attachment to playing games can be leveraged to create more immersive educational experiences that help to educate and entertain in new ways we haven’t seen before”. 

Little also would like to see educational games improve their approach, specifically through more open-ended games with multiple creative potential solutions to a problem. Pulling from his experience as a UX Designer Engineer working in VR and AR, he also hopes to see more educational game designers taking advantage of these technologies. 

While this year’s Climate Jam faced some unprecedented challenges, the current state of affairs and complex global challenges we face served as a source of inspiration for jammers as they created games centered on the importance of protecting our planet. As Little shared, “I think in the last few months – we all have been shaken by how fragile our political and economic systems are with climate change looming in the background. We only have one planet, so we should use all the tools we have to protect it. That’s why I think we should be simulating, playing, and designing resilient and adaptive systems using both science and games”. 

To learn more about the work of Brtis, Little, and Ren check them out here:

Chelsea Brtis:

Todd Little:

Michael Ren: 

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