Emerson game lab aims to fix local, global problems

The game itself is really quite simple. Its purpose, though, could have a profound effect on its players.

Every year, seasonal rains flood the giant Zambezi River in Zambia, often displacing tens of thousands of people who live along it.

So the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre is getting Zambians who live near the river to play a game: text their predictions about changes in the river’s water level, with the best guessers winning points toward a prize.

But the real objective is to get residents to be more attuned to the river’s fluctuations, so they are better prepared as water levels rise, and can escape well before flooding hits their homes.

“The game can literally save lives,” said Pablo Suarez, associate director of research and innovation for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.

The game used by the international organization is a product of the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, a group of play-oriented programmers, designers, and researchers who see video and computer games as a promising medium for promoting civic involvement and solving problems from neighborhood planning to global warming.

The Cape Cod Commission is currently using the Emerson lab’s platform to run Cape-2-O, as part of a communitywide exercise to gather input on solving the region’s waste-water problems. Players watch short videos about Cape Cod and the water issues it faces, then provide their own answers and suggestions. They can also view and comment on other responses. Some 330 players have enrolled in the Cape Cod game.

To move on in the game, players must answer multiple-choice trivia questions about Cape Cod’s water systems.

Advancing players earn virtual coins they can use to make the trivia questions easier or to make pledges to local nonprofits. The three charities with the most pledged coins will each get $1,000 at the end of the game, while the Cape Cod Commission will use the suggestions from players to help develop a countywide waste-water plan.

Similar Community PlanIt games, as the Emerson lab calls them, have been played by residents in Detroit, Salem, and Quincy. The games all have the same elements, but with features and details customized to the location.

“If we can produce games that are integrated into civic life, then we can create meaningful platforms to make people feel like they can make a difference,” game lab founder and director Eric Gordon said.

Using video games will allow organizers and officials to reach younger people who might find traditional community meetings too staid or too daunting, Gordon said.

Games give people “permission to participate in a way that doesn’t feel as high-stakes as it might otherwise,” he said, and it makes it easier for people who might be reluctant to speak before a public audience to voice their opinion remotely.

The Emerson lab has developed a game, “Civic Seed,” in collaboration with Tufts University. Tufts students interested in doing volunteer work will play characters wandering through a gray landscape, seeking botanist characters who will give them colorful “seeds” they can plant to brighten the drab world.

To earn those seed rewards, players will have to answer questions about civic engagement and their own experience and goals.

Each player is assigned her own hue, so as color spreads through the game, students can track their own progress and that of their classmates. The game will serve as an orientation experience, preparing them for volunteer work in the Somerville area.

“The very act of pursuit in a game — where you’re trying to figure something out and trying to accomplish a goal — actually helps the brain to retain learning,” said Nancy Wilson, interim dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts.

The Engagement Game Lab was born from a series of loosely related research projects Gordon was working on, including one with the City of Boston to incorporate virtual online worlds into urban planning.

That effort led to a game in 2010, called Participatory Chinatown, in which players wandered a virtual version of the neighborhood, searching for resources and exploring potential development sites. Residents could play on their own or at meetings set up by the game developers.

Holly St. Clair, director of data services for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency that sponsored the game, said the Chinatown exercise triggered strong responses from players.

“People were talking to each other. That’s what a planning meeting should be like,” St. Clair said. “You should be making connections, you should be learning, you should be trying to problem-solve together.”

The game’s results, along with more traditional community meetings, informed the 2010 Chinatown master plan. Furthermore, the experience convinced organizers there was potential in using games to spur community engagement.

Since its formation in 2010 the game lab has expanded rapidly, to a staff of seven and its own space on Boylston Street. The staff includes full-time professionals as well as student researchers from Emerson and other schools in the area.

The lab is funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as contributions from its client communities.

And the list of clients is growing.

The lab has games in the works for South Central Los Angeles and Cape Town, South Africa.

“Street Cred,” a game set to be launched in Boston this summer, will encourage people to report potholes and broken street lights through their phones.

Within a few weeks, a pilot version of the Zambezi game will get underway, and this fall Gordon will teach a class at Emerson in which his students will design games to tackle problems presented by Suarez’s team at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.

“We’re trying to push a little farther on what a game can do,” Gordon said.