You're living on the last remaining piece of land on Earth. You have limited resources, but need to ensure your small community grows and survives into the future. Welcome to Last Island.
Last Island is an interactive board game with a serious mission – to better understand how human behaviour and the choices we make can impact the transition to a more sustainable future.
“We’re successfully destroying our planet – the science is pretty clear about that,” affirms Distinguished Professor Alexey Voinov in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology’s School of Systems, Management and Leadership.
“The fact is we're doing something wrong, and that's basically how this project came up—me asking, ‘How can we use games and gaming technology to convey this message to the people?’”
Enter gaming gurus and co-directors of the Games Studio research group William Raffe and Jaime Garcia.
“Alexey has a lot of experience with systems modelling,” says William, who along with Jaime is responsible for Last Island’s design and development. “This helps us to understand what the future may be, where we're going to end up, but it does not tell us how to persuade people to take different courses of action, possibly changing their behaviour towards creating a better future for our children. That’s where games can help.”
Last Island is a computer-supported board game. That means it’s played with both cards and a computer. Players use the cards to make decisions that impact human population, economic development or the environment.
Each time a player places a card on the table, the corresponding card is clicked on the computer screen, changing the parameters of the game’s simulation model that shows how the decision has affected the island’s chances of survival. For example, if the island’s population is too high, a player may choose to decrease the birth rate by adding a family planning clinic or increase the death rate by building a fast food restaurant.
The variations in the system are clear as the game progresses, with a red line reflecting population, a blue line showing production and a green line signifying environmental impact.
Each player also has an individual goal to achieve – scoring points to win the game. But (and it’s a big but), there’s no winner if the whole island system collapses.
“The idea,” says William, “is if these three variables change too much, and any of these lines go into the red bars above or below, it's game over. So, you all have to work together to keep the island within a safe operating space. Everyone takes turns to make sure they’re balancing out the effect of what other people have done, while trying to maximise their own points.”
“The takeaway,” he adds, “is that throwing the system out of whack for one’s own greed will always have consequences.”
The creation of Last Island was funded by a $19,000 Blue Sky grant from the faculty. With that money, the team hired second-year Bachelor of Science and Games Development students George Mitri and Sebastian Du Toit, and PhD student Firouzeh Taghikhah to help build the game over two months.
“The undergrad students were enthusiastic and had great ideas around developing the game. It was an opportunity for them to really put what they’ve learned into practice,” says Jaime. “Firouzeh brought the research angle. She had the understanding of what questions needed to be answered and the means to get to that.”
Firouzeh says, “There was no road map – Last Island was built by sharing knowledge. Each member of the team brought something different to the table, and the integration of ideas and the multi-disciplinary nature of this research taught me to think outside of the box.”
To test the playability of the game, the researchers ran a workshop with 24 staff and students who played the game and reported their impressions.
“These kinds of games for change need to be fun but also educate or persuade someone to change their mind, change their behaviour or even just reflect,” says William.
“We found, in our experiment, that all the groups lost at least one round but wanted to play again. By the time they played the second or third time, they'd found a way to collaborate and maximise their own cards.”
Assessing people’s behaviours on a larger scale is something the team hopes to explore further. They hope new funding applications will enable them to launch the game on a digital platform and capture perspectives across different places and demographics.
“Seeing how people's perspectives are changing and what influence the game is having on their behaviour. That's the ultimate goal,” says Alexey.
It’s an important part of the newly created faculty research centre on Persuasive Systems for Wise Adaptive Living (PERSWADE).
The idea behind PERSWADE is that human choices and behaviour have a huge impact on our life support system. Tracking and understanding social attitudes, values, beliefs, and biases can help us to change behaviours.
“Last Island proves that games are powerful,” says Jaime. “We’ve got to be wiser and think about things that change the way we live.”
William agrees. “Behaviours and attitudes can change over time and between demographics, so we're not trying to target a specific audience and say this is what the people of Sydney believe in 2018.
“It's about finding a more holistic understanding of global choices and what can be done, not what can be done for a specific government's policy.”
Marketing and Communication Unit