AUSTIN, TEXAS — Philippe Cousteau, grandson of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, who’s taken up the family business of using film to shine a light on the world’s most important waters, has a unique new project that was turning heads at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive convention.
Specifically, he’s trying to find out if a videogame can change the world.
But that’s not actually a unique concept: green games are everywhere these days, but most are simplistic and aimed at children and teens, in an effort to help younger generations understand the importance of conservation attitudes in an overpopulated world. For Cousteau, along with his partners at the University of Virginia, that’s not good enough.
“We wanted a [game] that shows how a whole [ecosystem] works,” Jeffrey Plank, associate vice president for research at the University of Virginia, explained during a SXSW panel on Tuesday.
They set out to develop a green game for adults — more specifically, adult students, policy makers and corporations in and around the Chesapeake Bay’s watersheds — that shows how industrial activities and policy decisions impact the ecosystem’s health, and how each group can work together to advance the goals of everyone concerned.
It’s called the U. Va. Bay Game, which simulates 20 years of industrial activity in roughly two hours. Requiring the input of more than 100 people all at once, each participant role plays making key decisions that further their individual goals while simultaneously trying to work with one another to reduce pollution in Chesapeake Bay waters.
Cousteau’s for-profit group, Azure Worldwide, hopes to leverage the game as a tool to help corporations and others on Wall Street understand that it is in their financial interests to protect water-based ecosystems. “This is the greatest crisis we face on the planet today,” Cousteau explained.
“We give them financial portfolios, we give them environmental data, and then we give them decisions [to make], and we tell them what the environmental impacts of those decisions will be,” Plank said. “Players make decisions every two years. The game crunches their decisions and gives them information back about their financial situation and the health of the bay, and prompts them to make another set of decisions on this new information… Players begin to get a sense of how this system of interconnected parts works.”
The key to “winning” the game is communication. The first 10 years of the simulation are based upon real world data, and the second half of the game is left entirely up to the players, who must frantically talk with one another in order to advance their shared goals, which may at first seem to be at odds with each other.
“So after a few rounds, we see this cross-pollination of ideas between various groups, and that is what’s not happening in the real world,” Cousteau explained. “People have this ‘Ah-ha!’ moment that we find with this game, and we start to see the huge potential. People start off as adversarial, and all the sudden they start to see themselves as partners.”
Though complex in its operation, and demanding of large amounts of real world environmental and economic data, Cousteau said that he hopes the U. Va. Bay Game can be adapted to work with other watersheds around the world. They ultimately plan to incorporate new methods of data collection and implement online functionality, so that corporations and policy makers can play it with one another over the Internet — or, that’s the dream, anyway.
“Corporations have lots of employees and lots who could participate in this, so that’s what we’re looking at, to start to understand that in terms of crowdsourcing,” Cousteau said. “That’s what we’re taking baby steps toward right now.”
“The key thing is to get a lot of companies talking to each other and working together,” Carrie Freeman, director of sustainable business innovation for Intel, added. “The power [of this game] is in mass collaboration, not in these isolated games that only work in one watershed or one specific area.”
The video below is a promotional clip for the U. Va. Bay Game, produced by Azure Worldwide.