US Dept of Education Funds a Minecraft-like Enviromental Video Game Called Eco

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The US Department of Education has funded a Minecraft-like educational game called Eco, from developer Strange Loop Games. Eco is a global survival game where you must collaborate to build a civilization within a wilderness simulation, proposing and voting on laws in a player-run government, working together to build within your environment without destroying it.

In Eco, you must find a balance as a group if the world is to survive.

Educational trailer featuring classroom testing:

Eco is an online multiplayer game that addresses the need to engage middle school science players and prepare them to be environmentally literate citizens with 21st century skills.

Strange Loop Games (creators of the PC/PlayStation game Vessel and the biology simulation game SimCell) will develop a simulated ecosystem within a world virtually inhabited and affected by players as they build a society. The prolonged success of the players’ civilization relies on successfully gathering and analyzing data while collaboratively solving environmental challenges.

We anticipate Eco’s unique virtual-world will appeal to educational and commercial markets, and we plan to focus on both. Through educational partners (Amplify, BrainPOP, GlassLab) and commercial partner Valve (plus distribution through AppStore and Google Play), we can potentially reach millions of players and teachers. We will allow players to purchase the game in-development (through Steam Early Access and other channels), providing valuable feedback and growing the community organically.

Eco has received both Phase I and II funding through a US Department of Education SBIR (Small-Business Innovation Research) grant:

Eco is designed as an open-exploration game with specific civilization-building goals or events that can be triggered or emphasized by the teacher in order to meet specific learning goals. As outlined in Table 1, each scenario begins with a goal related to advancing technology and developing a civilization. Attempts to meet this goals cause related ecosystem events or crises, catalyzing player-led investigation and problem solving to manage the tension between advancing the civilization and protecting the environment. Each investigation includes data collection and analysis, and a legislative debate that prompts scientific explanation and argumentation from evidence.

Each scenario begins with a civilization-building goal that is introduced by the teacher through the teacher interface. Each scenario requires players to engage with certain scientific concepts and practices, allowing teachers to cater to the needs of their class. For example, the teacher would like to address concepts of resource availability and interdependence within ecosystems, so she triggers the appropriate scenario.

Players must work together to complete the civilization goal, because each goal is designed to require contributions from players with different roles in the game. Each avatar role (logger, farmer, miner, and hunter/fisher) has the ability to gain skills and knowledge related to two or more natural resources (wood, soil, plants, stone, metal, animal products, water). Player avatars can gain skills related to any role, but through a structured achievement system, the rewards of advanced skills motivate players to specialize in one role (expert farmers with advanced harvesting skills gain higher yields than novice farmers). Furthermore, players advance their avatar’s skills by spending energy, gained by consuming food products, while performing tasks (harvesting, chopping, mining). Thus, players coordinate their avatars with specialized skills to collaboratively achieve the civilization goal, all while consuming construction and food resources. Building a house for each player requires coordination between foresters and miners (for wood and stone resources), and farmers or hunters (for food resources to advance skills).

Simulated Ecosystem
The game world contains a simulated ecosystem that runs continuously, whether or not players are active. Plants, animals, moisture, pollution, and other environmental factors within the simulation can be influenced by player actions. In the process of reaching their civilization goal, player actions affect the simulated ecosystem within the game and trigger a related ecological crisis. For example, the rate of logging causes deforestation, which affects habitat and soil erosion, and limits progression of civilization goals that require tree resources.

The ecological crisis event prompts a player-led, and teacher-guided, investigation into the issue. During their investigations, players collect and analyze data from the underlying ecosystem simulation. In this scenario, players collect data on tree growth and populations, soil erosion, and animal species that rely on forest habitat.

In order to attempt to solve or mitigate the environmental crisis, data collected within the game is used as evidence to propose and support legislation. During classroom “council meetings” in the form of guided group discussion (supported within curriculum materials), players or player groups would propose their legislation as a design solution for the issue. Using in-game legislation tools, players propose and vote on laws that, if passed, directly impact game mechanics and what players are able to do within the game. Players propose and debate the pros and cons of strategies such as establishing protected lands, limiting number of trees each player can cut down, requiring a certain number of trees to be planted each day.

Players succeed when they can achieve both the civilization goal and effectively manage the ecosystem crises that result from their actions. Otherwise, players fail to cooperate and the world becomes damaged, resulting in the collapse of their civilization. Players monitor the success or failure of their legislation and determine if laws should be changed.

The Eco game delivers a simulated ecosystem within a fragile world that is inhabited and affected by players as they build a society. The prolonged success of their civilization relies on effectively gathering and analyzing data and collaboratively solving the environmental challenges that arise. There are two ultimate outcomes: players successfully cooperate to advance the civilization and manage the environment, or players fail to cooperate and the world dies, destroying everything players have built. Both outcomes will be hugely meaningful and memorable for players.

Press coverage
The Washington Post recently covered Eco here:

An article from the game industry news source Polygon here:

Extensive discussion on Reddit in the Games subreddit here:

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Email contact John Krajewski, designer of Eco and studio head of Strange Loop Games: john(at)strangeloopgames(dot)com

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John Krajewski
since: 11/2009
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