For many people, the allure of video games is unparalleled. These games provide hours upon hours of entertainment for dedicated players, many of whom are enticed by the prospect of hunting zombies and defeating alien empires. But of course, video games aren’t just about fun these days. Since the late 1980s, video games have been used as teaching tools in the classroom, at home, and in other informal education settings. More recently, there has been a surge in the development of games that are being used not only to educate students, but also to enlighten scientists, policy makers, and others who hope to make use of the players’ collective brain-power to help solve real-world problems. Stepping into this arena, a group of scientists and educators from the Midwest are trying to harness some of that time spent battling otherworldly marauders, and refocus it around answering questions related to an important agricultural puzzle: how to sustainably manage a biofuel farm.
Although there is general agreement that we should be growing crops that can be turned into biofuels, scientists and farmers are still debating the best way to proceed. There are questions about which crops to grow and how to raise them sustainably —as well as the larger question of what it means to be “sustainable.” Is a sustainable farm one with the best soil quality, or one that produces the most fuel, or one that yields enough income to support its farmers?
To answer some of these questions, scientists at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have teamed up with ecologists and educators to create a video game. Their hope is that the game will lure players into channeling the kind of critical thinking used in entertainment based video games, which will in turn provide insights about the best way to grow biofuel crops.
In the game, whose working title is Fields of Fuel, players plant plots of energy-dense corn or more eco-friendly switchgrass — and then decide if they want to till the soil and whether or not to add fertilizer. After the virtual harvest, graphs display their income, energy production, and ecological impact, and compare those values to other players’ scores and to their own performance the previous year.
Fields of Fuel started as a student project in an interdisciplinary computer-science class taught by three WID scientists: Ben Shapiro, now a professor of engineering education at Tufts University; Michael Ferris, Professor of Computer Sciences at UW-Madison; and Steve Wangen, a postdoctoral researcher in UW-Madison’s department of Forestry and Wildlife Ecology.
When the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center realized the project’s potential, they contributed funding to keep it going. Rosemary Russ, a professor in the department of Curriculum and Instruction at UW-Madison, came on board to study players’ learning strategies and apply that knowledge to future iterations of the game. Fields of Fuel has been piloted in high-school classrooms and is slated to appear in courses at UW. During my conversation with the developers, they asked me to play it, too.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that maximizing your score isn’t straightforward. When I wondered why fertilizing switchgrass hadn’t increased its yield, Shapiro reminded me that no effect has a single cause: “it’s choices you’re making, it’s changes in the soil, it’s choices other players are making; there are all these things that make the mapping between cause and effect harder to think about.” For players, it quickly becomes apparent that the notion of “sustainability” is more complicated than they might have expected. Having to think critically about all of the options in order to make decisions is part of what gives video games an edge as a teaching tool.
Despite the simplicity of the interface, the game developers relied on complex computational modeling and ecological expertise to create a set of situations that resemble real-life scenarios. As a result, scientists can assess the players’ decision-making process, and use what they learn to better understand how real farmers make analogous decisions. For example, when players decide what to plant for the next season, on what data are they basing these decisions? Do they weigh their “environment” or “economy” scores more heavily?
Fields of Fuel should be ready for roll-out in classrooms by this fall. And after they nail down the features they want to include in a broader release, the developers hope they’ll be able to make Fields of Fuel publicly available. That could yield a huge volume of data about learning and decision-making, and a get a huge number of people thinking a little more deeply about sustainable choices.
Biofuels research isn’t the only area of study poised to benefit from these video games. Other games developed at the WID engage players in forest management and algae remediation. As for Ferris, Shapiro, Russ, and Wangen, they’re full of ideas for additions to their model (like utilizing fertilizer runoff from another player’s farm) and ways to improve the interface (like color-coding the field to show soil health).
Their motivation to continue refining and expanding these games stems, in part, from the fact that Fields of Fuel hits close to home for researchers based in the agricultural Midwest. As Shapiro explains, “One of the things that we’re really excited about is how we can have the courses we teach at the university produce tools and systems that have an impact on our community.”