By John Houser

Teaching Sustainability Through Game Design and Interactivity

Board games have gone through a renaissance starting from the early 90s.

Originally published on SOVOMAGAZINE

The board game, Settlers of Catan, ushered in an era of gameplay that delved deep into strategy and provided players a meme worthy catchphrase of “Wood for Sheep”.  Board games today are much more than a roll of the die.  Nowadays, you can find a board game that covers almost any theme you can think of.  Want to play a game about creating a fireworks display in Japan?  There’s the card game Hanabi.  What about a game that simulates the hardships of growing crop, raising farm animals, and feeding your family in 17thcentury Europe? Try Agricola.  Themes span the gamut of fantasy, science fiction, historical, and even horror.

Even with all these themes available, only a few of them touch upon the theme of sustainability. Hardcore gamers will know of C02, a game where players are CEOs of energy companies in a world where pollution is so bad that it is poised to destroy the world.  They might also know Eco, a card game themed to simulate the difficulty of getting rid of trash.  But those are among the small handful of games that teach about sustainability and the environment.  There aren’t any games that teach people about where our food comes from.  To fill that void, Terrill Thomas created a game called Go Garden, a game that showcases our food from sapling to edible product.

Thomas is a web designer, photographer, artist, and educator.  On top of all that he is a father.  As part of a way to teach his children about life and death after a particularly tough year of personal tragedies, they started to grow a garden on their property.  It was luck that their house already had fruit trees there when they bought it and they ripped apart the rest of the yard to fill in the gaps.  They grew everything from oranges and kumquats to pineapple tomatoes.  In the end, they ended up with around fourteen fruit trees and another dozen or so vegetable plants.

“Having young kids and teaching them about life and death, it coincided with us starting a garden. The blackberry drops to the ground and it starts the next generation for the next life. To have them see that connection was an important element.  Gardening was a way to tie in everything in terms of our desire to be healthy, our desire to go outside, our desire to show the benefits of cultivating and growing. It’s a meditative quality to put your hands in the dirt.” said Thomas.

He explained how his background as an artist led to a natural extension of creating a game around gardening. “What I like about graphic design is the ability of the tool to document what you’re doing.  Go Garden is a spinoff of Go Fish in that you’re trying to create a set of cards. They’re from everything we grow in our yard.” The cards of Go Garden feature vegetables and fruits from Thomas’ garden.  Each set of cards depicts a plant in four stages of growth.  For example, the zucchini set depicts the leaf, the squash blossom, the whole zucchini, and zucchini slices.  When players collect the set, they can see the progression of life and how our food became food.  It is from the leaf I might see on a young plant to zucchini slices that I might find in my ratatouille or stir fry.

Thomas hopes to use Go Garden as a starting point to tie into future initiatives.  One of the non-profit projects he is involved in is the GREEN TOPS project at LA Design Center in South Los Angeles.  The project was spawned by the question “What if every warehouse had a roof top garden that was growing vegetables?” The area has a lot of industrial space and there is a need for a higher quality of food.  Initially, the idea is to bring middle schoolers to come grow the garden.  They would document, photograph, and learn from cultivating the gardens.  It is an educational tool while fostering a sense of community.

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Gardens help students understand the process of developing something from a seed to a fully formed object.  Thomas explained “Where I teach at La Sierra University, we created a garden.  I created design projects off of what they observed.  In the summer, we found that it was a natural way to build community.  Every two weeks alumni and students would come back, invite their friend, we’d harvest the garden and cook dinner.  It was a way of building in growing stuff mirroring their creative process.  Growing something also teaches you about consumption. If you grow fifty tomatoes, you can only one or two tomatoes before the rest go bad.  Gardening forces you to share and create community that way.”

Having Go Garden and the roof top garden would allow student to interactively learn about where our food comes from.  He also has other board games in various stages of development and testing.  A board game he has in development called Mysteries of the Universe, has to do with acknowledging the elements in a garden that could be scary for a kid.  Things like bees, wasps, and worms.  They all have a part to play in the ecosystem of a garden.  And the game shows how they involve themselves in different stages helping nurture plants from seed to maturity.  They all help grow your food in one way or another.

For any TV viewer who has seen Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the moments in the first few episodes when kids can’t identify simple vegetables are so cringe worthy that the next generation will literally feel the repercussions if we don’t act soon. Through interactive educational tools in the form of board games like Go Garden and hands on initiatives like GREEN TOPS, parents and educators can make learning about sustainable food and growth enjoyable.  World renowned chef and food advocate Alice Waters once said, “I know once people get connected to real food, they never change back.”  When games are interactive and social, it leaves a lasting impression.  Let’s teach our kids early and teach them the right.