Tevi: a mobile game for natural awareness

I was detached from my job at the Université of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines from July 2018 to April 2019. During that period, I was working at Falmouth University (United Kingdom) at the MetaMakers Institute, an EraNet Chair research project (EU funded). I was given a lot of freedom, so I launched a research project called Tevi.

One of the outputs of the project was a prototype of a mobile game also called Tevi, presented in the video below:

Tevi is a mobile video game designed to increase nature awareness.
Nature awareness can be defined as a person’s ecological knowledge and their awareness of the form and features of their local environment.  Tevi has been created in partnership with the Eden Project (full credits in the video description). It uses interactive evolutionary computation to simulate a garden.

We were seeking to raise awareness of young adults on nature, botanical and conservational issues. The aim was to create a game matching 18-25 years old interests, especially those with low interest towards nature.

We were focusing on the following research goals:

  • Explore the possibilities of increasing nature awareness through video games, with a focus on how people relate to nature.
  • Develop new gameplay mechanics to create meaningful interactions with the environment.
  • Experiment procedural content generation (PCG) for the creation and representation of natural elements and their evolution in real-time 3D video games.
  • Measuring the impact of a video game in the development of a target audience in a cultural and educational site.

We wanted to know whether a gardening mobile game could effectively promote nature awareness. 

Playtest of Tevi during EGX Rezzed in London, Leftfield Collection ( 4th to 6th of April 2019) , picture by Giovanni Rubino

This prototype is playable here: https://apps.apple.com/gb/app/tevi/id1451988673

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.MMInstitute.Tevi

At the moment, I feel that there are many things I would like to change about the game, even though we had positive feedback from the players. These changes are the result of the distance from the creation process that time gives, from reading interesting papers, from the playtests we conducted, and from analyzing this prototype for a research paper I wrote with Dr. Rory Summerley, Giovanni Rubino, and Tim Phillips (not released yet 😉 ).

I am especially questioning the narrative (Mars conquest) and the choice of exotic plants as being colonialistic and not as benefic as could be a domestic setting. More on that soon!

Literature review on nature and video games

I haven’t found many scholarly papers on video games and natural heritage, so my references are mostly from non-specific game studies, natural heritage, and environment education papers.

However, there are a few interesting papers and books that look at the intersection between nature and video games/digital media!

Here is my favorite list (so far), with some comments:

  • Chang, A. Y. 2012. « Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game ». Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. Vol. 19, n°2, p. 237‑252.

Great paper and a must-read! It is a critical analysis of agricultural representations in Farmville, considered capitalistic and dangerous for ecological awareness. This paper questions realism and authenticity in terms of simulation than can be compared to historical games. One criticism: very American-centric.

  • Smith, Bradon. 2017. « Resources, Scenarios, Agency: Environmental Computer Games ». Ecozon@. Vol. 8, p. 103‑120.

The paper defend that « god games » (Sim City, Civilization) support the American myth of second creation with wild abundant world to be colonized, and thus are anti-ecological. Minecraft has a similar issue (everything is a resource), but the game can still be subverted for environmental thinking. Environmental games that like Fate of the World are disempowering because they are top down and their challenges are too big in term of scale and complexity. World without Oil (an alternate reality game) is more successful. It is also American-centric.

It seems that positive impact on player’s environmental thinking is, in the case studied by the paper, done by an anxiety-provoking context, except for Minecraft, but the transfer to the real world behaviour is not clear.

Great blog post, from a talk. The author discusses the fact that gardens are colonialistic by essence (I don’t fully agree, but very good points there) and that video games function like gardens, and, as such, are colonialistic. This point has been defended by other scholars, but never using that angle (for what I know). Very inspiring, a must-read as well.

  • Ahn, Sun Joo (Grace), Jeremy N. Bailenson, et Dooyeon Park. 2014. « Short- and long-term effects of embodied experiences in immersive virtual environments on environmental locus of control and behavior ». Computers in Human Behavior. Vol. 39, p. 235‑245.

This paper is not about video games, but virtual reality. It is a pilot study, on using virtual reality for environmental education. It is compared to watching a video or reading about the same topic. The effect of the studied media on users is studied through an experience of napkin consumption: weird but clever. The use of « locus of control » notion was very inspiring to me.

  • Longan, Michael W. 2008. « Playing With Landscape, Social Process and Spatial Form in Video Games ». Aether: The Journal of Media Geography. Vol. 2, p. 23‑40.

This is a paper about the landscape from the point of view of geography and labor. It is particularly interesting because it raises the question of landscape production (by whom, when, how), for which video games could be the perfect medium, but they hide the labor of game developers.

  • Woolbright, Lauren. 2017. « Game Design as Climate Change Activism ». Ecozon@. Vol. 8, p. 88‑102.

Climate change activism (CCA) in games is questioned is this paper around two interesting indie games « The Flame in the Flood » and « Little Inferno ». I would have liked interviews of the developpers as it bothers me that their intentions were never questionned (probably the biais of being a poïetic scholar myself). The CCA in this game is indeed seen only through the eyes of the researcher-player. It includes interesting reflections on game design for CCA.

In addition, if you are interested in the topic, I suggest you to follow Alenda Chang (@gamegrower) on twitter, as she should be shortly releasing her book « Playing Nature » (December 2020)! She was one of the editors of Ecozon@ edition on Green Computer and Video Games, that I recommend very highly as well.

Please feel free to suggest your own recommendations!

Current research projects on video games and natural heritage

Screenshot of the videogame Tevi

I am currently working on three research projects:

  • Tevi: a mobile video game for nature awareness,
  • Vestigia: a set of video games around the natural and cultural heritage of Port-Royal des Champs,
  • Biosys: a videogame focusing on the relationship between humans and nature.

Tevi and Vestigia are projects I develop in a team with research-creation and user-research methods. It means I am both designing, developing games on these projects, and analyzing their reception on players.

Biosys is very different as I didn’t participate in the game creation. It was a commercial game released in 1999. I am studying it from an external perspective, using a method called « poïetics ». The principle of this method is to focus on the creation process of an art piece, rather than analysing the result only.

In this blog, I will discuss these projects and their evolution, as well as the underlying theory and the literature review associated with the topic of video games and natural heritage.