Spaceship Earth Lands at Calit2@UCI

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Falko and Allegra
Falko Kuester listens as Allegra Fuller Snyder makes a point.

05.20.05 – Spaceship Earth: The Game, landed at UCI last week.

Designers and scientists came together for an interdisciplinary workshop at UCI’s Calit2 Building. Their goal: to create a massively multi-player 21st-century online game inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s visionary World Game.

In the 1980s – fueled by Fuller’s claims that there were enough resources on the planet to sustain a growing population – his colleagues created a multi-player, hands-on simulation called World Game Workshops. Played on a world map the size of a basketball court, the game was a unique and immersive visualization of the Earth and a simulation of its complex systems. It gave players an opportunity to solve global-scale problems by using prudent design and good science. Players worked to develop the world's technology and resource use while maintaining the Earth’s ecological integrity. Fuller envisioned Spaceship Earth as a metaphor for understanding the earth as a closed-life support system for which we are all crew members and stewards.

Fast forward 25 years. The Buckminster Fuller Institute and Calit2’s Game Culture and Technology Lab collaborate on designing a new game for a much more sophisticated audience. Recognizing the potential of digital networked technology and cutting-edge scientific simulation and visualization techniques, they held a two-day design “charrette,” May 11-13, to create a blueprint for a game inspired by the World Game and Spaceship Earth concepts.

The designers’ challenge was to create an online game that would use real-world Earth and planetary system science data and real-time Earth Science visualization tools, while appealing to gamers’ sense of fun. Ultimately, Spaceship Earth players should be able to explore environmental scenarios to understand how geophysical systems and events can be altered through individual action, shifts in industrial practice, changes in environmental policy and other events.

Jim Fournier
Katie Salen
Planetworks' Jim Fournier, and game designer Katie Salen give designers guidelines.

Games are the fastest-growing segment of the entertainment industry, and have withstood high-tech downturns by appealing to a growing range of socio-economic groups and age ranges. Research has shown an increase in middle-aged players, especially women, and has also indicated that adults like to play games with their children. Spaceship Earth designers hope to make the game an intergenerational tool to help parents teach their children ways of attaining global sustainability. This goal, along with a desire to teach people the importance of self-motivated discovery, was a key mission of Buckminster Fuller.

According to industry experts, in order to remain competitive, the digital entertainment industry needs to create games that are more socially significant. Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) referred to this goal in his 2005 State of the Industry Speech, delivered to industry executives this week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. “We … need more games that are socially and politically relevant. If we can make games about terrorism, why can't we make compelling games about politics or global warming? Why can't there be games which force players to struggle with weighty moral and ethical issues within compelling game worlds?”

BFI posters
Posters describe Fuller's philosophies.

Celia Pearce, senior research associate in the Calit2 Game Culture and Technology Lab, and lead game designer on the project, co-organized the charrette with BFI’s Executive Director Elizabeth Thompson, who initiated the project two years ago. Pearce was heartened by Lowenstein’s comments and the response of E3 attendees to the project. “At E3, we encountered an enthusiastic response,” says Pearce, “from a number of quarters – the games-in-education people, the newly formed Games for Change initiative (also project partners), mainstream industry folks, and even the ESA itself.”

Charrette participants were briefed on their mission, including important terms and scenarios they would need to incorporate into their design. They were also reminded to keep the fun in the game, and then broke into groups to begin work. The designers were given criteria for game development, but cautioned that their ultimate goal was the game play, not the technical implementation.

Allegra Fuller Snyder, who serves as chair of the Buckminster Fuller Institute board of directors, participated in the charrette. Snyder, an energetic, articulate emissary of her father’s message, was pleased with progress made during the two-day event.

“We’re quite a diverse group, so when we all got together, I initially wasn’t sure how it would go,” says the dynamic septuagenarian. “I feel there’s been a great sense of participation; it’s been a very successful two days.”

Snyder views a 21st-century online game inspired by her father’s work as a good way to bring important knowledge to the public. “I’m a believer in the importance of play and games,” she says. “When players go through a stimulating and enjoyable learning process, which is what I think gaming is about, they have the potential to acquire bodies of knowledge and really begin to make use of them.

“The importance of this game is that it asks a lot of questions about our collective responsibility for understanding our Spaceship Earth and all of the changes we’re making, both as individuals and as a people, in our environment. If we really begin to understand this, we can begin to make some other changes in our behavior.”

Snyder thinks the work accomplished at the charrette will ultimately lead to development of a mass-audience version of Spaceship Earth, and Celia Pearce agrees. “‘Sim’ games, that model complex simulations of dynamic systems, have long been a staple of mainstream gaming. Blockbusters like Sim City, Civilization, The Sims and Roller Coaster Tycoon, some of which are now being used in the classroom, demonstrate the immense popularity and educational value of this genre,” she says.    

“New technologies have precipitated a boom in online multi-player games. We believe that if we combine the two with real-world scientific data and effective visualization techniques, we can harness the energy of play and apply it to real-world global problems.”

In addition to Pearce, Calit2 participants included Robert Nideffer, director of the Game Culture and Technology Lab; Walt Scacchi, from the Institute for Software Research; Charlie Zender, director of the Earth Science Modeling Facility;  and Falko Kuester, from the Center of GRAVITY. In addition, Calit2 provided funding for Adrian Herbez, a graduate student in the Arts Computation Engineering program to research desktop Earth visualization software and game engines in preparation for the charrette.

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