Sustainability + Zombies = Learning Game?


If you were asked to design a game about sustainability, that featured zombies, what would you create?  That challenge emerged from our pilot project. The project is best understood through the eyes of its stakeholders:

  • The nonprofit entity, whose goal is to engage their kids around their mission or topic.   In our case, the teacher was quite satisfied with the project because she saw how it motivated at-risk kids she couldn’t reach with normal methods.  She was delighted to see them attending school, participating in discussions, and writing their game design ideas.  At researchers’ request, she role-played a ‘customer’ with a more specific mission: promote sustainability with a video game.
  • The kids, who passionately embrace the opportunity to be co-creators, and are proud that their video game literacy can open doors to adult worlds. They enjoy playing the games, but they are more motivated by the presence of professional game developers in the classroom. They role-play, learn tools, demonstrate mechanics, consider balancing questions, as well as tease, praise, and generally seek a personal bond with the professional game developers.
  • The developers. Their goal is to understand the kids as end users deeply yet time-effectively, and discover innovative learning game designs that emerge from collaboration. They know that the best games are design for designers, and seek experimental alternatives to typical user/designer barriers in standard playtesting methods.
  • The researchers, whose goal is to discover and document innovative ways to increase well-being and resilience among the kids, through this engagement.

The project is in progress now.  As a byproduct, we have developed an exciting concept for a game: “Zombie Pollution.”   Here’s the concept:

Zombie Pollution is a 2D casual shooter/platformer that seeks to persuade “the 99%” to begin to think sustainably.  It puts the player on a tiny, dirty planet, inhabited by careless zombies who are trashing the place as they live their humdrum lives.   The player jumps over buildings on the slowly rotating world, shooting zombies, collecting coins and ‘cleaning powerups’,  which instantly clean the onscreen bit of the planet (this mechanic is the ‘initial hook’, engaging players in the first minute of play).

Money: The coins first fund player’s progression, then buy important gameplay powerups: The player starts with an old house that sucks money from the player’s moneypile.  As they gather coins, they buy a lovely ec0-mansion, which uses LESS money than the old house.  Their polluting, costly rusty car becomes a Tesla-style electric sportscar, nearly free to drive).  As their lifestyle costs less, and as they get better at collecting coins, their cash stacks up.

Persuasion: However, as play continues and the player circles around the planet, they find their clean areas are dirty again. The player eventually realizes that the zombies are dirtying the planet faster than they can clean it. They need to convert the zombies to ‘good zombies’ to win.   To convert, they must first shoot the zombies, then persuade them to become ‘good’. The shot zombies arise again, but with they’re aware that something’s wrong: with an icon above their head, they continue to pollute, but if the player buys community centers (which are expensive), the zombies will go in, learn how to become sustainable, and emerge ‘good’: they help the player by cleaning the planet offscreen. When enough ‘good zombies’ are present, the level becomes winnable, and harder levels are unlocked.

The game is a learning game.  The learning goal for Zombie Pollution is broad.

This game seeks to persuade low-income, blue collar people (the “99%”) to begin to think sustainably, taking the first step towards including sustainability in their life’s priorities.

Unlike a “skill and drill” learning game, This game has a persuasive goal. If successful, the game will change attitudes, not knowledge or behaviours, of players.   There are many elements of the game that address various aspects of the “sustainability” learning goal.  The top three are shown here.

MESSAGE 1: Being sustainable fits you.

  • Sustainable is common sense. Earn money, eat well, don’t be wasteful, don’t trash your home, and convince other people to do the same.
  • Normal people live sustainably.  Players are rewarded for making in-game choices that both fit sustainability goals, and don’t conflict with players’ existing worldviews.
  • Sustainable lifestyle ideals are cool.  Westerners’ materialistic lifestyle (with a ‘rock star’ ideal) is well established among kids, and usually features unsustainable objects such as gasoline-consuming sports cars, and wasteful McMansions.  This game gives an updated vision of success and wealth:   cool, fast electric cars;  stunning modern mansions with a clever design that uses less resources than normal suburban houses; healthy sustainable food in upscale fancy restaurants (e.g. Chez Panisse).

MESSAGE 2:  It’s up to us.

Unlike many sustainability stories which pit a few brave souls against giant, faceless corporations, this game encourages small, grass roots thinking about both its problems and solutions.

  • Normal people are the problem…and the solution.
  • One heroic person is a catalyst, not the solution.
  • To really solve the problem, lots of people must change their behavior.

MESSAGE 3: We can save the planet.

  • By making the game winnable, players get an optimistic message about the problem of sustainability. Optimistic attitudes are known to boost self-efficacy and increases motivation to engage with a topic.

Sustainability is  broad movement, with various goals, not always aligned.  For example, promoting an eco-mansion, and other fancy material lifestyles conflicts with ‘consume less’ and land use values, and clashes with the typical “hippie” radical lifestyle ideals of the old-school sustainability movement.  We chose it because it serves as a cultural scaffold: To persuade low-income, blue collar people to choose sustainability as a world view, the ‘rock star lifestyle’ message is too well established to attack directly. This game scopes its persuasive mission to redefine ‘rock star lifestyle’ to reflect sustainability ideals. The ‘consume less’ message is left for future work.

Zombie Pollution is exciting concept because it may be a game that many people enjoy playing, Building it is beyond the scope of this pilot project.  I look forward to future projects where we can let kids experience the real payoff in video game design: The shock, pride and connectedness when thousands of people around the world enjoy a video game they co-designed.    I believe that experience could change their lives.

title screen for Zombie Pollution concept