How One Dutch City is Encouraging Young Game Developers to Save the Planet – Day One

Whenever I travel to the Netherlands, I’m always caught off guard by the prevalence of bicycles in every major city. Whether you’re in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, or Utrecht, every road, junction, and empty space around city centres is littered with bicycles popped up against every wall and railing. The roads are all quiet, with cyclists replacing the hum of major city traffic. I know stereotypes about Dutch Cyclists are common, but they’re common for a reason. The Netherlands is a country built around cycling. While the nations cycle heavy roots may have begun as a push back against road fatalities, it has undoubtedly become a matter of environmental pride in parts of the country over the last few years.

I bring this up, because it feels like important context for my recent trip to visit Utrecht, where a Game Jam has been taking place focused entirely on university students developing games aimed at helping to create sustainable futures for the city, as well as the wider world. The Netherlands is a country that on the whole is struggling to address its environmental impact on the planet, with Utrecht as a city at the forefront of the nation’s sustainable efforts, making this a perfect part of the country to explore how games might be used to explore sustainability as a concept.

The game jam, taking place across several Utrecht University sites, features around 100 game development students, split into small groups of six, each developing games for one of four clients.  Each of the clients is designed to provide the students with a real world target to develop for, with their own specific needs, wants, and topics to cover. By providing these students with a real world target, they’re given something concrete to work towards.

I’m sitting down to write this at the end of the first day of the game jam, which has largely focused on setting up student teams, introducing them to the ambitious themes they’re trying to tackle with their games, and setting the tone for the event. While most of the students are still busy brainstorming their game concepts, I wanted to write about the major themes and clients the teams have been assigned, as well as some of the works this game jam has produced in previous years that you can play for yourself right now.

The first theme for the game jam, which has four student teams dedicated to exploring it, is Gender and Youth in Agriculture and Food Security Under Climate Change. The client for the theme is the CGIAR Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security.

CGIAR is an international organisation that aims to reduce worldwide food insecurity, and better manage global food resources. It’s up to the student developers to decide for themselves how they want to tackle this broad topic, be it developing games designed to be played in developing nations teaching sustainable food practices, or games designed to approach the topic to players in the wider world.

The second theme in the game jam is much more my personal area of expertise, Opening up New Radical Futures in the Commercial Games Sector. In this theme, teams are tasked with trying to create a game that has commercial appeal, but just happens to be about radical imaginations of the future. This could be games about utopia’s rather than dystopias, or about creating a game played in a radically different way, or designed for a radically different kind of player. It’s a very open theme.

The client for this theme is gaming media and critics, including myself, a representative from Dutch Game Garden, and Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie, a government run media fund that supports local creative projects, including video games.

The third theme, which a quarter of the teams will be provided, is The Future Roles of Science in Society. Basically, these teams are tasked with creating games which address growing distrust societally in science, and traditional media reporting on widely accepted science. Think anti-vaxxers, global warming deniers, and flat earth conspiracy theorists.

With the Ethics Department of the University of Utrecht as their client, these teams are tasked with addressing the fact that the world is increasingly ignoring science and research which could make the planet a better place, a daunting topic, but one with a very clear and applicable focus.

The final theme for the game jam is Global Goals and a Sustainable Utretcht, with projects being developed for Utrecht City Council. These teams will be focused on making games that address areas of sustainable development important to the city, such as ending poverty, or ensuring clean safe water access, focusing on active practical solutions to problems that while applicable to the city, are also applicable to much of the world.

Basically, the local city council wants these students to really get weird and creative with game concepts that might encourage new people to engage with the wider conversation of how to fix sustainable development problems within the city. An ambitious aim to be certain, but one that the students will be able to present to people with ability to get things done on a local level.

While this year is the first year I have travelled out to check out the game jam in action, it is not the first time that University of Utrecht, or these sustainability organisations and areas of local government, have come together to encourage young game developers to create works around these topics. Over the past few years students in the city have created a bunch of really interesting games that are well worth playing, if you’re interested in projects that think about the future of the planet in narratively and mechanically interesting ways.

Lifestock, a game that came out of the 2019 game jam, is set 150 years in the future, where people can basically opt to live in the Matrix to reduce their carbon footprint. You play as an AI managing keeping carbon emissions suitably low, while also trying to keep its human processing units happy, and is well worth checking out as a fictional imagining of a solution to our current climate crisis.

Kever Fever, another game created during the 2019 game jam, is a co-op game, about the relationship between humans working a farm, and the ecosystem that helps the farm thrive. One player controls a human, attempting to keep their farm profitable and active, while the other player controls an insect on the farm, trying to survive the land conditions the farmer has created.

PopUp, the last of the 2019 game jam games I want to highlight, is a really interesting puzzle game about a radically different future, in which humanity has decided to take up as little space as possible, and tried to give as much of the planet back as possible.  It’s a fascinating and polished puzzle title I really urge people to check out.

Beyond those, one 2018 game jam title from the event I wanted to highlight was Our Little Planet, which is available now on Android. In it, you play the ruler of an entire planet, making large scale decisions about how your planet should be run, later being graded on the impacts your choices had on the populous.

As the first day of the game jam draws to a close, and the various teams involved all continue to brainstorm their prospective game concepts, the teams that I am most excited about are the teams that rather than focusing on specific games they want to emulate, or mechanics they want to make use of, have started off the game jam with broad brainstorms of aspects of the world they might want to see change, emotions they might want to elicit from players, and allowed themselves to explore contradictory or unusual aspects of the society.

A bunch of these students are excitedly looking at ideas for the future that are optimistic and exciting, even if they’re not practical, and those are the teams currently that have me excited.

Right now, the game jam has barely begun. Teams have tones and themes they’re excited to explore, but it won’t be until the next few days that we start seeing firm game concepts start to take shape. I will be reporting on the game jam as it progresses. For now, I’d recommend checking out the games this jam has produced in the past, linked above, as we wait to see what this year’s crop of students produces.

Prototypes of this year’s student projects will be available at the end of this week, with polished finished projects completed seven weeks later. I will be reporting on all the finished games once they are complete.

Categories: Gaming

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