Building games together to help imagine and experiment with the many futures of food
How can we ensure food and nutrition security for everyone while making sure our food needs don’t wreck the planet? This question, one of the biggest challenges of our time, was the key question of the EU-funded TRANSMANGO project. To investigate this question from a European perspective, TRANSMANGO researchers have delved deep into a wide range of present day and possible future food practices, projects and ideas, with practitioners, businesses, citizens, policy makers and others. They have been particularly interested in finding new ways for people to experiment with and imagine what the future of food might look like. It is because of this interest that they have tapped into the unique potential that games offer.
Games are an extremely significant part of today’s media landscape – arguably bigger than films. More and more people and companies are developing games, big and small, and it is easier than ever for people all around the world to access them. Games also offer unique possibilities for people to engage with the big issues of our time. Games of all types – from board games to virtual reality experiences – allow players to directly interact with stories, settings, and systems of play that explore the present and future challenges that humanity faces. Moreover, games can allow people to engage with and learn from each other in new ways, too.
TRANSMANGO wanted to go further than just work with one game development company to build one game where players would only be able to engage with the future of food in one set of prescripted interactions. The project is all about an open exploration of the future of food – what completely new types of futures can we imagine, explore, experiment with, even (or especially!) if that means that each imagined future is completely different from the others?
Because of this appreciation for the need for diversity in engaging with the future of food, TRANSMANGO has been looking for ways to not just build one game, but to let game designers and developers work with practitioners and researchers to build many imaginative, experimental games, each representing different perspectives and experiences on food. Closely related to this interest in building many games about food futures was an understanding that building games together, as opposed to only playing them, can allow people from different backgrounds to come to new and exciting insights.
To make this desire for the collaborative development of many games on the future of food a reality, TRANSMANGO found the perfect partner – the JamToday project, also funded by the EU, and led by the Utrecht School of Arts (HKU). This led to a unique and very fruitful collaborative effort by the two projects and to a blossoming of many wonderful and inventive game prototypes during the ensuing TRANSMANGO game jam tour. During this entire process, the JamToday way of running game jams was used – namely, the game jam processes were themselves gamified – turned into friendly contests with game elements such as original ways for the team to win points by promoting their projects or helping other teams.
The tour: from Glasgow to Leuven
In 2016 and 2017, a number of game jams and game storms were organized throughout Europe to let game designers, practitioners and others use game design to experiment with food futures together.
Glasgow: weekend crunch time
The first game jam, in Glasgow, was organized together with our excellent JamToday partners from Glasgow Caledonian University. During three intense days, three teams and 20 participants worked on diverse game prototypes. The winner of this process was a game called Rhea – where the player is tasked with feeding the world population, racing against time. What the game doesn’t tell you is that you should not only increase agricultural production, but also deal with waste and consumption. The players have to figure that out for themselves. This subversive game is at once an educational game and a reflection on dominant narratives about the future of food that forget about waste and consumption when they discuss how to feed the planet. Further information on and photos of the TRANSMANGO Game Jam Glasgow 2016 can be found on its Facebook page.
Florence: in the business of game development
The second event, the 2016 TRANSMANGO game storm in Florence, was a shorter game jam that included 25 researchers and game designers from all over the JamToday network, as well as Italian TRANSMANGO participants. Five board games were developed in a morning session – and the game that won combined board game urban farming in schools with actual school farming practices. What made this game storm so special is that the participants then went on to develop a business model about their games. Further information on and photos of the TRANSMANGO Game Jam Glasgow 2016 can be found on its Facebook page.
Utrecht: from days to months of game design
The most elaborate event in the TRANSMANGO game jam tour was organized at the Utrecht School of Arts: the Living Lab Applied Game Jam in February 2017. For five days, 14 teams composed of 50 game designers, programmers and artists worked together with teachers from HKU and with researchers and students from TRANSMANGO, the University of Oxford, Utrecht University and Wageningen University and Research to develop game prototypes exploring the future of food. Photos of the event are available on the Living Lab’s Facebook page. After this game jam, something unique happened – the students worked on their games for two more months during a special course at HKU!
A number of games and concepts stood out for different reasons:
An Onion’s Journey is a dynamic and in-your-face experience of the journey of an onion through the food system. After physically crawling into an onion box, the player is taken from the point of production through the various stages and locations in the food system, learning about the emissions associated with each leg of the journey. Here they experience the incredible amount of energy that is used and wasted during this process in a thrilling combination of image, vibration,sound and light. For an insight into a player’s experience, a video of An Onion’s Journey can be viewed here.
CowPow is a highly engaging and exciting virtual reality shooting game. Players shoot (shoort) a huge corn gun to both fend off and feed oncoming cows. If you’re not quick enough you’ll be surrounded and killed! This game provides the player with a strong, fast-paced visual experience of the extraordinary and shocking amount of feed and energy that goes towards the production of meat. The team has more about the game on their Facebook page.
SSookssook is a game where you get to raise your own little monster, Tamagotchi-style, but you have to feed him (or her) with real food by holding it in front of the camera. Feed it too little or too much and it gets ill, but it also needs a healthy and diverse diet! The team has more about the game on their Facebook page.
Finally, two games were developed for the FEAST project in Japan, a sister project to TRANSMANGO, as part UU researcher Astrid Mangnus’ work. The most fully developed game, Let’s Kyoto, is a unique digitized board game experience where players pass a game controller around. Each player plays a different actor in the Kyoto food system – producers, distributors, and consumers – and each takes certain actions in a round, after which the group makes decisions together about food policies that affect everyone. You can view more on game jam team that developed Let’s Kyoto on their Facebook page. A second game, Kyoto Tama-Tama GO, about running a cooperative food store in Kyoto, is being further developed with the help of FEAST researchers. You can view more on game jam team that developed Kyoto Tama-Tama Go on their Facebook page.
TRANSMANGO final conference: a game storm to close the project
In December 2017 TRANSMANGO came to a close with a two day final conference in Leuven, Belgium. With this event was the final game storm, where the winners of the Glasgow and HKU game jams came together with TRANSMANGO researchers and stakeholders to design a European food systems game. With this end goal in mind, the day started with participants warming up with a Europe-focused TRANSMANGO adaptation of the Kyoto Food Policy Council game, a live roleplaying which was used in Kyoto for Astrid Mangnus’ Master thesis work with FEAST, a sister project to TRANSMANGO. This game was, in turn, adapted from games developed by the global Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project, a global-level counterpart to TRANSMANGO, and featured food Seed initiatives from that project from all over the world. Each player assumed the role of a different stakeholder, with the team as a whole tasked with coming up with new and innovative initiatives for nascent Leuven Food Council. Players had to ensure that needs and priorities of each stakeholder were taken into account while also sticking to a reasonable budget, not such an easy task apparently! After a few practice rounds, participants were then asked to experimentally modify/hack the game, giving them further insight into its mechanics and what does and doesn’t work in game.
Fresh with ideas and inspiration from the previous two rounds, five teams composed of a total of 30 game design students and TRANSMANGO researchers and stakeholders began designing their very own food systems game. Prototypes ranged from simple card-based games to encourage a balanced diet, to an elaborate game aimed at helping players understand the complexity behind food bank use.
The winning game, FAHST FOOD FACTORY, is a card game where players use current and future foods to assemble sustainable, healthy and tasty (and sometimes not so tasty – corn syrup, vegedog jelly sandwich!) meals. The judges were particularly impressed with how the game fostered awareness of the trade-off in the food system between health, environment and demand. A true TRANSMANGO-themed game! FAHST FOOD FACTORY, along with the HKU and Glasgow game jam winners, was tested and enjoyed by all during the conference break moments the next day. Photos of the day’s activities can be viewed here, and the announcement of the on the HKU website here.
Emerging from the brainstorm: games reaching new audiences
Game jams always generate more ideas and prototypes than can be used, and some are more developed than others – and these prototype ideas offer a lot to analyse by themselves. The best games from all the game jams were played by policy makers and other stakeholders at the final TRANSMANGO conference. Significantly, however, a number of games coming out of the most involved process in Utrecht have been exposed to wider audiences and stakeholder groups.
CowPow was taken to the Belgian music festival Pukkelpop, where over 250 young and old festival goers had the opportunity to fend off murderous cows and experience the sheer amount of corn that goes into producing a rather meagre amount of beef. After their go, each player was required to fill out an extensive questionnaire that dove deep into their perceptions of meat consumption, and how the game may have influenced this. Researchers at Utrecht University, the Utrecht School of Art (HKU) and University College Leuven Limburg (UCLL) are currently analysing these results, and hope to publish them in 2018.
SSookssook was exhibited to dieticians and other dietary practitioners at the European Federation of the Associations of Dietitians (EFAD) Conference in September 2017 to explore the potential of the game as a tool for educating children about healthy and sustainable dietary choices. The game received an enthusiastic response and other avenues further development are currently being explored.
Let’s Kyoto was used in Astrid Mangnus’ research project with TRANSMANGO’s sister project FEAST in Kyoto – to let urban food system stakeholders in Kyoto experiment with different roles (producers, consumers, distributors) and make decisions about policies together. The game was used together with the Kyoto Food Policy Council game and other foresight methods related to TRANSMANGO research. You can read all about it here in her excellent thesis.
How are we researching all of this?
An important goal of the TRANSMANGO game jam process throughout Europe was to have the entire collection of game prototypes together represent a big and diverse set of different ways to engage with the future of food in Europe. So how can we analyse all of these games together? Researchers from TRANSMANGO and JAMTODAY are collaborating to investigate how the games represent different futures, how the core mechanics of the games allow players to experiment with them, what games are complementary to each other, and what key differences are. We understand each game as both the result of a collaborative investigative process, and as a future scenario in itself. The research conducted on this rich collection of games and their functions will provide important insights into the use of games as a tool for exploring the future.
The next steps & implications
Next to the exciting research insights emerging from this process, a number of next steps are being taken to capture the work and move it forward. Possible actions to develop the best games further are being discussed with partners like FEAST. A filmmaker, Jonas Klinkenbijl, has captured the entire game jam tour and is creating a short documentary about the process. The collaboration between TRANSMANGO colleagues at the University of Oxford, Utrecht University and the Utrecht School of Arts (HKU)/JamToday has continued in a very fruitful manner as well. UU and HKU worked together to organize a Summer School game jam on food and climate for international students, where nine teams and a total of 50 participants took part. Photos from this summer school can be viewed here, and a UU news article here. We are also organizing next year’s game jam and game design course in a process with students from both institutes to develop a sustainability game for students. Lessons from this great collaborative process will be spread far and wide among game developers, researchers, policy makers, educators and others working on sustainability challenges.
Reference for the game jam format used in Glasgow and Utrecht:
Hrehovcsik, M., Warmelink, H. and Valente, M., 2016. The Game Jam as a Format for Formal Applied Game Design and Development Education. In Games and Learning Alliance (pp. 257-267). Springer International Publishing.
Reference for using games to model complex systems and future scenarios:
Richard D. Duke, 1974. Gaming: the Future’s Language. Wiley.
Charlotte Ballard (UU)
Micah Hrehovcsik (HKU)
Joost Vervoort (UU)