Friday 25 February 2022

Games Sustainability Hackathon

Tim Peacock & Lauren Watson

Dr Tim Peacock is Co-Director of Games and Gaming Lab and a Lecturer in History, working on areas including nuclear history, spaceflight history, games/(war)gaming, and politics.

Lauren Watson is a research assistant with the Games and Gaming Lab. They are currently finishing their masters research thesis looking at retro-gaming and contemporary media memory.

On Saturday 13th November 2021, the Games and Gaming Lab ran our Games Sustainability Hackathon, part of the Being Human Festival and drawing on the creative atmosphere around COP26, open to participants of all backgrounds, knowledge, and experience. While a traditional Hackathon involves an intense few days of coming up with creative ways to modify technology through programming languages and writing/modifying code, we decided to make ours more open-ended and ideas oriented. 

Participants could contribute both physically and digitally, with our physical satellite group dialling in at the University’s Library, randomised and split into five teams. They could tackle any aspect of the electronic or card/board game industry, focusing on the development or distribution process, or indeed the contents of the games themselves and how the environment is represented in them. They could approach their projects as problem solving for existing issues in the industry, or the development of entirely new games. We intended for the day to unite people from local businesses, gaming groups, and academia in order to generate new and interesting ideas.

We had several great collaborators lending their expertise by joining us digitally on the day, ranging from the Scotland-based charity Tinderbox Collective to New York University’s Game Center. Most of our participants came and went throughout the day digitally, as we planned for our Hackathon to subvert that traditional image of a high-pressure event. Breaks were encouraged, as well as working at your own pace, teams understanding that their teammates may have different needs and work patterns. This allowed for a greater diversity of participants, as well as an easier and healthier working environment for all. 

The day began with our introductory presentation, in which I defined Hackathons, and the specifics of a Games Sustainability Hackathon. I also outlined how we drew inspiration from Global History Hackathons, the schedule, and ground rules, demonstrating a short playthrough of the game Terra Nil by developers Free Lives.

Terra Nil was an example of an environmentally themed reverse-city builder game, to prompt discussion and ideas for the teams. The game includes resource management and intriguing balancing mechanics for players to build up and rejuvenate once desolate land. This allowed us to contrast any implication that such games need to be softer or easier because they involve care for the environment by default. Climate crisis and restoration can be an intense and difficult topic involving large amounts of planning and strategic forethought, and such problem solving can extend to those other parts of the game distribution or production process outside of game contents. We had a very positive response, including input from the Zoom chat, which allowed us to ask how these video game mechanics could be translated or represented in tabletop games, especially ones that require quick and frequent changes to terrain and environment; the problem solving and challenges that sustainability themes represent got quickly underway!

You can find our introductory presentation with the short playthrough here:

Over the course of the day, team discussions diverged between Wallace and Gromit, Rube Goldberg machines, and tabletop games oriented around simulation. Every so often, our collaborators would touch base with the teams, offering their expertise and discussing their own works. What soon emerged from one team was a request for a deck of cards, with their idea being based around the mechanics of solitaire. This enabled them to create a highlight of our Hackathon, their game “Landfill”, focused on recycling, with a pile in the middle acting as the ‘landfill’ which you need to clean-up by moving cards into their respective recycling groups. However, there were rule limitations as to when and how you could do this. The game was intertwined with traditional card game rules and randomised selection, so no two games are the same, and players were oriented to work together to clear the landfill rather than against each other competitively. This team was built up of a blend of digital and in-person participants, developing the game with the ease of a digital platform representing a card deck, alongside the realism of a physical deck. The combination allowed them more clearly to visualise how players would be positioned, and how they would move the cards as they would be in four separate corners, each with their own pile. It was one example of a successful project generated from the Hackathon and which the team plan to develop further.

As Landfill was built upon existing card game mechanics, during the final presentation we highlighted how it fitted into our core idea of sustainability not just in terms of game contents and themes, but materially. The participants took a standard card game deck to make it, and ensured that it could be played with the traditional deck. Thus, older, and universally popular materials were taken, repurposed, and rejuvenated with new themes, subsequently discouraging waste. While the team thought about custom graphics to represent the different piles, the underlying traditional deck graphics within a card set could be used: players’ imaginations are always present.

An idea running through the projects and contributions was how enticing games were as an interactive medium, and how we may better understand environmental themes from that direct interaction. Multiple groups were orientated towards creating a game with environmental themes in order to convey different stories and situations relevant to their backgrounds, whether it was recycling or nature/wildlife conservation. In particular, games can reflect the give and take of realistically dealing with environmental and sustainability issues, and the delicate, strategic balancing acts that Terra Nil had implemented. Tackling environmental crises in games are not intended to be easy, nor do they manifest with the rules that you would expect. Landfill’s intention was to subvert common competitive/conflict-oriented play to demonstrate the necessity of collaboration. Our event thus stands as a small example of how games can help to generate a keener understanding of nature and the complex human networks impacting it. This is what our Lab’s Hackathon was able to reflect, with the hybrid approach we took between digital and in-person contributions allowing for that greater diversity in participants, and those perspectives coming through in the projects produced.

Overall, the Hackathon was a fantastic success owing to the hard work of both our participants and organisers. We were able to create new connections and networks with local academics, games and ecology enthusiasts, and partner institutions, and developed novel ideas reflecting the passion in the industry for looking at ecologically themed games and storytelling. 

We at the Lab are always open to exploring ways of taking forward any projects produced as a result of this Hackathon, and hope to organise similar collaborative, diverse, and ideas-oriented events in future.

Related event

Games Sustainability Hackathon