Can a Serious Game save the planet?

Illustration by Christine Sharp

Illustration by Christine Sharp

“I love eating croissants… being a baker must be 10 times as wonderful!”

This is the kind of naïve thinking that led me to making a computer game. While a croissant only takes 60 seconds to consume and is instantly satisfying, learning to bake good French pastry can take years of sweat, swearing and broken eggs. It’s the same with making games…minus the eggs.

Alternator is a futuristic online racing game, which inspires players to take an interest in clean and renewable technologies. The game came about thanks to ABC and Screen Australia’s serious games initiative. The brief was for filmmakers or screenwriters to team up with game makers to create a Serious Game.

I come from the film and TV side of the equation, including the creation of AFI award winning comedy show ‘Double the Fist’.  I had always wanted to make a game. I love playing games, I get seriously addicted, and I imagined making one was just like playing one only ten times more fun. Clearly I had never made a game before, and certainly not a Serious Game.

Serious Games… It sounds a bit like Boring Fun.

I know. The seemingly contradictory nature of the concept struck me the first time I heard it too.

A “Serious Game” is any computer game that has a primary purpose other than entertainment. Serious Games are designed for a variety of reasons: education, information, health, even advertising. You’ve probably seen those fun little animated flash games at the top of some websites that challenge you to test your hand eye coordination… the real purpose of those games is to get you to click the link. I hope others have fallen for it as many times as I have.

Teachers and parents have known for centuries that games are a great way to encourage children to learn, but as our digital capabilities have increased the rest of the world has finally realised the incredible power of games to change thinking and behavior.

How do you make a Serious Game?

Games use all of the core aspects from film making; script, character, story, theme; and add the complexity of audience interactivity and multiple options. Serious games then add the extra complexity of a specific outcome for the player.

Being a novice game maker, I made sure I did plenty of research before starting development. Basically I spent weeks playing games! It was tough. Luckily there were plenty of Serious Games out there to test (I’ve included some links at the end of this post). I decided very quickly what made a great Serious Game.

It was simple.

Make sure it’s a great game! Even though the primary focus isn’t entertainment, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be just as entertaining as a regular game. You could have the greatest message in the world, but if no one wants to play your game the message will be lost, so I knew we had to make a game that was first and foremost 100 percent awesome fun to play.

There’s often a lot of doom and gloom surrounding the future of the planet, so I wanted to go against the negativity and create something that gave young people a feeling of optimism by showcasing some of the amazing planet saving inventions that exist right now! Using the fast action of car racing felt like the perfect game genre to do this.

Racing games are usually all about gas guzzling. We took a lot of the classic racing game structure and twisted it to our theme. You can drift around corners to create boost energy, which is pretty standard for car games, but in Alternator if you don’t use the boost, any extra energy you make is sold back to the grid for extra cash!

The Team

We put together a small, but highly skilled team of people that spanned across Australia. Producer Dean Tuttle and I are based in Sydney. John Welsh, our serious games expert and co-producer was in Adelaide. Our music and sound FX team were from NSW. And our core game developers were based in Brisbane. Check out some of the work our Brisbane devs have also done.

We also had plenty of support from around the world. Scientists and engineers from every corner of the globe contributed to the game. We were lucky to have American gaming guru Noah Falstein as a mentor. Making Alternator has been truly collaborative on a global scale.

Because Alternator straddles the present and the future, we designed all of the game elements to reflect this.

The music, sound FX, and art design, are wild and futuristic and like nothing you’ve seen or heard before, but they all have links to today. For instance, one of the music tracks combines, a beat boxing didgeridoo with digital distortion, slide guitar and synthesised metal chords. It rocks!

We wanted the upgrading of the car to happen in a way that we’d never seen in any other car racing game. We fell in love with the concept of the upgrades creating the shape of the car. Milenko Tunjic our car designer, went to town and came up with some amazing designs around that idea. We had to work very closely with Shawn Eustace our Art Director, to make sure the concepts were achievable in 3D.

The Serious Bit

As well as being a great fun online racer, the game needs to deliver on its ultimate aim of inspiring players about the amazing world of planet saving technology that exists today.

Developing the serious side was a massive undertaking, we wanted to avoid it feeling like two separate elements; a car racing game and then some information about renewable energy. A lot of serious games fall into this structure, which is less than ideal.

All the game experts I spoke to while making Alternator gave me the same advice: “Never let the player take their hands off the controls”. Games are an interactive art form. We didn’t want players to stop having fun to read a Wikipedia entry. So we spent a huge amount of time with the team to crack the solution for keeping the learning aspect tied intrinsically to the game play.

The game is set 50 years in the future. Scattered around the race tracks are ‘tech pods’ which you must find and collect. Each one of these pods contains a different clean technology to discover. As you unlock these new inventions for your car the game flashes back to the present to show you the real technology it’s based on.

In fact researching these technologies was one of the most exciting parts of working on the game. I had no idea just how many amazing inventions are out there, and so many sound like they’re from a science fiction movie.

Solar panels made from spinach. Batteries made from viruses. A craft launched into the air with lasers. Even flying cars! And there’s plenty more in the game.

And the reward for unlocking all of this amazing technology? You get to use them. The game takes these inventions 50 years into the future, and they become the upgrades that help your car drive faster, drift better, and fly higher. It’s really cool!

From conception to completion has been a two year process. While it’s not as instantly gratifying as playing a game, making Alternator has been ultimately been a much more rewarding experience. Especially knowing that the effects will be longer lasting and much better for players than a buttery croissant!

But can it save the planet?

In ten days you can play it and let me know what you think. In a month I’ll let you all know how successful we were.

In the meantime, check out the website for more info or check out some of these serious games for inspiration:

California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)
National Geographic games
World without oil
Virtual world solar challenge

Habitat Heroes

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