It’s not uncommon to find today’s youth spending extraordinary amounts of time on their devices or plugged into a video game. But what would happen if there were a game that not only entertained but also was designed to get thousands of players creating undersea civilizations to cope with the threat of drastic climate change/sea level rises on the surface of planet Earth? For two Wasatch Academy students, that is just what they are doing.
Two students from the junior class, Jimmy Sliskovich and Raymond Zhang, have come up with a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) designed to harness the 2 billion hours a day spent gaming around the world. The two students were inspired to look at gaming a little differently after reading research by Dr. Jane McGonigal. Dr. McGonigal is a world-renowned designer of alternate reality games—games that are designed to improve real lives and solve real problems. She believes game designers are on a humanitarian mission—and her #1 goal in life is to see a game developer win a Nobel Peace Prize. Her research focuses on how games are transforming the way we lead our real lives, and how they can be used to increase our resilience and well-being.
“We had the same question that Dr. McGonigal’s research had, which is “What exactly are gamers getting good at?” states Zhang. “At that moment, we realized we needed to do something to change the fact that playing video games is unproductive. As a result, when we heard about the University of Utah’s IDEA challenge, we decided to team up and make an educational game that changes the way the world looks at gamers. We hope through our project, the world of gaming changes and playing video games becomes less about messing around and more about solving real-world problems.”
The students will present this revolutionary new model of game design at the Utah Entrepreneurship Challenge hosted by the Lassonde Institute at the University of Utah and sponsored by Zions Bank. The competition is designed to introduce and encourage high school students to explore innovation and entrepreneurship, offering $30,000 in cash and prizes.
Blending aspects taken from the Kerbal Space Program and Subnautica video games, Sliskovich and Zhang created the game Underwater Civilization (UC), where players work on the task of building undersea cities that could help them survive the undersea environment. Players must also look for locations where it would be possible for mankind to live.
During the gameplay, the player is focused on dealing with issues such as water pressure, lack of oxygen, volcanic activity, faulty technology, and species tampering with the environment. The cooperative aspect would involve collaboratively building a submarine and operating the submarine in accordance to certain “levels” of the journey. During the process, the player gains knowledge about marine biology, underwater conditions, and the importance of cooperation/teamwork. “The nine hours of weekly gaming is no longer wasted time. Players are actually learning and benefiting from games just like other activities such as reading and sports. Although there are many educational games out there, very few of them are specifically designed as a tool of teaching. We combine the aspects of education and gaming to create a game that satisfies the needs of both gamers and teachers,” says Zhang.
Both students are heavily invested in the co-creation of the game design. As an excellent game design student and through the guidance and assistance of his esteemed Wasatch Academy teachers, Sliskovich is the primary game developer. Zhang, who happens to be a hard-core gamer, views the game from a gamer’s point of view, giving suggestions to make the game fun to play while being attractive in the gaming community. “At first, it was frustrating to create a prototype to show people the potential within video games. We went through several designs such as Terraforming Mars, Pacific Garbage Island, and many other concepts for the game. Pacific Garbage Island is a game that requires gamers to join together and try to stop the expansion of the garbage island on the Pacific Ocean. This game is significant on the educational point of view; however, after we started creating the game, we suddenly realized that this game is not fun. Other games have similar problems. Some games are fun but not really teaching gamers anything. Some games are fun and educational but take too much effort to make, even less affordable for us to create. After balancing between fun, education, and cost, we came up with the game Hurricane Rescue which is about building resilience to climate change on the Gulf Coast,” states Sliskovich and Zhang.
The frustrations of developing a concept have allowed the students to grow as individuals in monumental ways. “Teamwork is really important when it comes to success. During the process of making the game, we shared our knowledge and started teaching each other. Fortuitously, we are from different cultures so we had different ideas to share with each other to make the game better. We are very different people and yet we share the same goal. Jimmy understands the making of video games and can turn ideas into reality. Raymond knows what gamers and students want and he is able to advertise this project,” said Sliskovich and Zhang. Without Zhang, Sliskovich would not be able to combine gaming and education. Without Sliskovich, Zhang would not have the knowledge to even start the project. “We learned a lot from each other, but most importantly, we now truly recognized the meaning and importance of teamwork.”
Now with conception and initial prototypes created, the students are looking forward to the upcoming IDEA challenge on March 12, 2019. Zhang states, “Winning the IDEA challenge is only our first step, our goal is to change the world of video games. Winning is a way for us to get recognition from people and earn money to help us in our future study. We both are wanting to go into game design in college so that we can launch a company and create the world-changing games we really want.”