This possibility has been creating buzz since Pokémon Go swept the nation this summer, when fanatical hordes searching real neighborhoods for fictional characters rescued abandoned animals, thwarted would-be robbers and, yes, picked up trash. If augmented and virtual reality gaming can lead to such unintended payoffs, imagine the result if social change was built into the game. If the nearly-$24-billion-a-year video game industry throws its weight behind the proposition, could vigilante gamers use their powers for good — say, cleaning up real oil spills, identifying real poachers in Africa, reducing the size of real giant garbage patches in the Pacific?…
Here in the US, Congress has issued grant money for the development of climate change-related video games. And a game developed by Cody Karutz while he was a student at Stanford University, The Crystal Reef, takes players on a virtual scuba diving trip through the corals of Ischia, Italy. Players take on the persona of a marine biologist, observing and collecting marine life samples from a healthy area before moving over reef that’s been affected by ocean acidification, a byproduct of climate change. Here, snails and octopus are clearly hurting, and algae and seagrass are taking over.
The drama is less obvious than in a shoot-em-up adventure — there’s no chance your biologist avatar will die from lack of oxygen, and none of the octopi morph into murderous robots. But researchers say the focus of the game aligns with the values of a generation that prioritizes experiential purchases, like travel.
“If you’re a millennial who cares about environment and doesn’t want, or can’t afford, to waste jet fuel flying around the world — something that affects the very reef you’re traveling to see — you may be willing to pay $.99 to have that virtual experience, one that’s more ecologically sustainable,” Karutz told Salon.