Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Turning Coral Conservation into Child's Play

I haven't posted in quite a while.  I wish I could say it was due to Screen Free Week and my virtuous decision to eschew all things electronic, but it wasn't.  It is because I've been so busy with the Cards, Coral & Kids campaign for my son's environmental awareness group, Healing Oceans Together (H2O).

The idea behind this project, which is to create a Pokemon-like card game that would teach people about coral reef life and ecosystems and actions they can take to help the corals survive, is explained here and here, so I won't go into that again in my blog.  What I wanted to talk about here is some of the thinking behind the project.

You know, young teens are interesting creatures.  They are old enough to realize some of the problems with the world, and most are hopeful and confident about being part of the solution.  They tend to be really into Earth Day and recycling, Save the Planet, Stop Global Warming, Protect the Rain Forests, and the like.

And yet, on a daily basis, we are still telling them "Shut the Refridgerator Door!"  "Turn Off the Lights when You Leave the Room!"  "Don't Leave the Computer Running All Night!" or the frustrated but perhaps dangerous question of "Why Does it Take You 30 Minutes of Running Water to Take a Shower?"

Maybe it's different at your house.  But for many of us, our children's grand rhetoric for saving the planet doesn't match up with their everyday life habits.  Of course, that's really true for most of us adults as well...

In H2O, the students have been studying ocean science and math since September.  We decided to hone in on coral conservation because coral reefs are really the marine equivalent of rain forests.  Although coral reefs only make up about 0.1% of the oceans, they are home to approximately 25% of all marine life!  Also, corals take a long time to grow, so our damage to reefs that may be hundreds or thousands of years old can not be replaced within many of our human generations.

But what to do that would make a difference?  There are already tons of books and videos and ads and educational resources on this issue, but people continue doing what they've always done.  As parents, we've trying nagging, threatening, bribing, begging, and everything short of bloodshed, and yet...we, too, are largely ineffectual.  So we needed to come up with something else, something new.

And then we had a brainstorm.  Instead of using guilt and threats and dire warnings of environmental catastrophes, what if we made saving the coral reefs fun?  What if we made it....into a game?

In approaching it this way, we were influenced by the work of Jane McGonigal, whose work is summarized in a video I included in an earlier post.  Her video on that page, a TED talk on how "Gaming Can Make a Better World," is a synopsis of her wonderful book, Reality Is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  In short, she argues that time people spend on video games actually helps them develop positive characteristics (such as working hard, cooperation, and optomism), and explores how to structure games so that we can channel all the time people spend playing games into social activism games that will help solve Earth's real-world problems.  It is a fascinating and inspiring book, and I recommend it highly.

So, in short, that is what we are trying to do with this game.  First, the game will teach students (and adults as well) the real science behind food chains and interlocking ecosystems in the coral reefs.  We think this is important because we think if people knew more about all these fascinating creatures, they would love them, and we take care of the things we love (for more of our philosophy on that, read the Family Educators Commons article that Maria Droujkova and I co-wrote on the Shareable website).  But secondly, we will build into the games a way for them to earn (or lose) points based on their actions in real life.  You insist that I drive you to the library?  You lose 5 points.  You walk or ride your bike there yourself?  You gain 5 points.  You stand there with the refridgerator open as you drink your water/milk/juice?  You lose 3 points.  You close the door and drink it at the table?  Well, I don't know that we'll give you points for that, since that should be normal behavior, but at least you won't lose points.  You keep your showers under 10 minutes?  You get 2 points.  You keep your showers under 5 minutes?  You get 5 points.

You get the idea.

Anyway, we think this game has the potential to give kids incentives for to change those behaviors that we parents have been nagging them about for years, but to no avail.  If we all make those small changes, maybe they won't completely solve the problem, but they will make things better.  And making things better is something that can make us all feel good.

If you would like to be a part of helping to make this game happen, then please visit our Cards, Coral & Kids campaign.  For a small donation, you could get a deck of the cards before they are released to the public, participate in our pilot trials and research project, or even give input into the cards themselves!  Also, please spread the word about this idea to all your social media networks, email loops, and friends and family.  Getting the funding we need to develop the game requires reaching lots of people, so anything you can do to help is greatly appreciated!

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