Video Game Takes Kids on Environmental Adventure
A Rensselaer team has created a simulation video game that gives young New Yorkers an unusual, firsthand perspective on how water makes its way from the upstate watershed to downstate homes and businesses.
Flo: The Watershed Project will be available for download, free of charge, starting May 6. The game uses Kinect motion-sensing technology to simulate the experience of water as it travels the often treacherous journey from the peaks of the Catskills to the faucets of New York City.
Flo: The Watershed Project includes outdoor fieldwork, bridging the gap between the digital and natural worlds. The project also emphasizes the connection between middle school students at opposite ends of the West-of-Hudson (WOH) Watershed. Eighth-graders at the Bronx Academy of Letters and, 100 miles north, at Onteora Middle School were involved in game design and testing—a process that increased their awareness of their shared responsibility as stewards of the environment.
“This project is very much in keeping with the Rensselaer tradition of bridge building,” said Kathleen Ruiz, associate professor of integrated arts, who conceived and spearheaded Flo. “It bridges the distance between upstate and downstate students while furthering their understanding of complex environmental issues and the need for sustainable practices to protect the WOH Watershed and the New York City water system.”
Funding for Flo: The Watershed Project was provided by the Catskill Watershed Corporation, in partnership with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
The WOH Watershed supplies more than 90 percent of the 1.3 billion gallons of water consumed each day by New York City’s more than 8 million residents. That makes the watershed a lifeline for those who live downstate. But the work of safeguarding the watershed often falls to upstate residents.
Flo: The Watershed Project delivers that message “in an entirely new way that utilizes physically interactive and immersive game technology in conjunction with science and art,” Ruiz said. “It also taps the incredible talent we have here at Rensselaer.”
With help from her colleagues in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, Ruiz assembled a team of students to help bring Flo to life: senior Evan Minto, responsible for project management, Web portal design, and programming; seniors Colin Neville, Beth Werbaneth, and Beth Towns, game and interface programming; freshman Bryce Miller, codex development and 2-D art; seniors Randy Sabella and Rosa Tung and juniors Gabriella Ciavardoni and Anthony Szymczyk, 2- and 3-D art and level design; senior Dan Hawkins, lead game design; and senior Evan Gonzalez, music composition.
Ruiz also involved environmental scientists, education consultants, and science teachers and students from the Bronx and Onteora middle schools.
During the game, players take on the role of water and travel through waterway scenarios designed in accordance with watershed geographical data. Each scenario is another “level” of the game and includes a series of mini-games that players must complete so the water can continue cascading south. Challenges include reducing sediment, implementing storm water control systems, reducing pollutants, and engaging in other eco-friendly practices.
Many of the activities reflect input from scientists, environmental educators, and the middle school students. In fact, the Rensselaer team traveled to the middle schools involved and met with students to solicit their opinions of the prototypes. For Minto, that interaction has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the project.
“It was really cool to meet the people who would use the game and to see their reaction to the project,” Minto said. “They play a lot of video games and they were really excited to have a role in how this game was developed.”
The final quest of Flo: The Watershed Project requires players to conduct real-world fieldwork and upload their water-testing results, observations, and other impressions, including art, music, poetry, and photography.
Students from the Bronx and Onteora middle schools will perform this quest together, pending further funding, April 5 and 6 at the Ashokan Center in the Catskills. The Rensselaer team will be on hand, too, hoping not only that the game is a hit but also that its lessons take hold.
For an advance look at Flo: The Watershed Project, which is still in progress, go to http://watershed.hass.rpi.edu/.