Behind the scenes at this year’s Green Game Jam 2023

by
August 29, 2023
“For too long, wildlife storytelling has been limited to just wildlife documentaries, which often do not reach enough people. It is absolutely critical that we find new channels to engage larger, younger, and more digitally focused audiences. Games are an obvious choice. They transcend all demographics and are played by more than half the world,” explains Gautam Shah, founder of Internet of Elephants

Dazzling mountain vistas or crimson forests form the backdrop to many of the world’s best-selling video games. Scenery captivates players, but here in the real world, nature is having a much tougher time. Wildfires continue to rip through ecosystems while rising sea temperatures break yet more records. Extinction is a shadow looming over more species than ever before.

In the face of this, it’s easy to feel powerless. What can we do? This year’s Green Game Jam will fight that apathy as some of the world’s biggest studios - including Ubisoft, Supercell, Bandai Namco, Tencent and Gameloft - release games or activations to educate and inspire gamers about the value of the planet’s wildlife, in the hope it will inspire change through understanding, and from that, action.

Three ecosystems home to three iconic species living were chosen as this year’s cause: the Western Indian Ocean (Manta Ray), the Himalayas (Snow Leopard) and the Amazon (Harlequin Toad). Studios came up with creative ways to flag engagement with these species.

Why was wildlife chosen as the theme?

"We’ve been really impressed with the stories and experiences that studios have come up with that not only engage players but also show how critical wildlife is for our planet," says Lisa Pak, Project Lead for the Green Game Jam.

“For too long, wildlife storytelling has been limited to just wildlife documentaries, which often do not reach enough people. It is absolutely critical that we find new channels to engage larger, younger, and more digitally focused audiences. Games are an obvious choice. They transcend all demographics and are played by more than half the world,” explains Gautam Shah, founder of Internet of Elephants and one of the people who advocated for this year’s theme. “There’s so much you can do with animals, their stories, their personalities, their superpowers. I think wildlife conservation topics need a lot more attention, but also a much better quality of attention.”

Lisa Pak, Project Lead for the Green Game Jam adds: “There are many games out there that already feature an element of wildlife, we hoped that this year's theme would appeal to many studios.  We’ve been really impressed with the stories and experiences that studios have come up with that not only engage players but also show how critical wildlife is for our planet."

Choosing which animal to include wasn’t straightforward. Shah points out that using the Harlequin toad as a mascot was initially seen as slightly risky because it’s not a cute, cuddly animal. But then, on reflection, he realised that if anyone could generate sympathy with a Harlequin Toad, it would be a creative lead in a games studio.

Why did studios choose to take part in the Green Game Jam?

It’s Trailmix’s first year in the Jam, and they’ve entered with their game “Love & Pies”. As part of the Jam, they educated players on the Amazon and created brand new in-game content to meet the Jam’s criteria. It’s been an ‘incredible’ experience for the studio. Rebecca Weiss, a game designer at Trailmix, explains how she thinks the Green Game Jam is a really important initiative. “We’ve always been really big on making a difference, and one of the most pressing issues we want to have a positive impact on is climate change – it’s built into the heart of our studio. It’s really important to us on a personal level. I think the Green Game Jam is a truly special moment in the year, coming together as a Games community to share a common goal. Regardless of discipline, we were all excited to take part.”

The studio worked hard to make the game achievable for the audience, and the player reaction was really strong. “Seeing how our players responded to the theme was really touching, and reminded you that there are lots of people sharing our positive visions for the future.”

“Seeing how our players responded to the theme was really touching, and reminded you that there are lots of people sharing our positive visions for the future," says Rebecca Weiss at Trailmix Games.

The Jam also changed the way Trailmix approached new games. “We are spending a lot of time thinking about how we can validate the idea that games can have meaning. Learnings from the Jam open up possibilities around how we can implement environmental goals and messaging into future projects. I think a lot of us are experiencing climate anxiety at the moment, and exploring a new approach has been refreshing. That’s one of the reasons we found the Green Game Jam so empowering,” says Weiss.

Another studio, Outfit7, also joined the Green Game Jam for the first time this year, and they submitted two games: My Talking Tom Gold Run and My Talking Angela 2. With these two games alone, they have a massive reach. But they were also excited by the potential for collaborating and putting their heads together to build the theme into their games.

Urška Leskovar, Product Manager at Outfit7, says: “When somebody mentioned gardening in My Talking Angela 2, everyone's face lit up with excitement. From there the whole concept was fleshed out very quickly because everyone had amazing ideas. And the one thing we all agreed on was that we must include bees because they are an integral part of all wildlife. Plus, bees and beekeeping are very much embedded in Slovene culture, so we are all aware of the importance of their role in keeping this planet thriving.”

For Pixel Federation, another studio, it felt natural to enter three games into the Jam. They’d been overwhelmed by the impact they had had last year. “We didn’t expect much as we were the newbies. But the impact that we made last year, the huge number of trees that we raised money to plant, was so satisfying that we decided to join again this year,” says Filip Polasek, CPO at Pixel Federation.

The wildlife theme fit easily into the same titles they submitted in last year’s Green Game Jam. “As one of the protected species to include was Manta Ray, it was an easy interaction with the port city as it’s set on the water.”

“We didn’t expect much as we were the newbies. But the impact that we made last year, the huge number of trees that we raised money to plant, was so satisfying that we decided to join again this year,” says Filip Polasek, CPO at Pixel Federation.

Has it changed the way studios create games?

“I think games can impact how we think about the environment, but it takes time,” says Gautam Shah. “We need to think about sustained messaging, creating habits and making wildlife part of our daily life. This means introducing really thoughtful, nuanced messaging that comes along with the joy and fun of wild animals being part of someone's playing experience”.

The Green Game Jam helped Outfit7 realise that environmental messaging is something they want to do more of in the future. “The Jam highlights some serious issues in a way that can reach a huge number of people. People who perhaps aren’t already engaged in these topics, and whose interest we can spark so that they dive deeper and take action. We all carry responsibilities for our shared planet and if we can make a difference, that’s something to be proud of,” says Leskovar.

Pixel Federation were already active in the environmental scene, which is why they originally became an Alliance member. “We’re already doing a lot in this space but of course, it brought us new ideas on how to address the themes in our games. We know more about what players like and dislike now.”

But building a bridge between games studios and conservation causes can be difficult. To address this challenge, Milkywire built a bridge to conservation charities that were in need of funds to support these species. Another critical factor was putting on a series of expert lectures from leading game designers and conservation experts so that studios could learn from others, which was made possible through Google partnering to support the initiative for the first time.

“The Jam highlights some serious issues in a way that can reach a huge number of people. People who perhaps aren’t already engaged in these topics, and whose interest we can spark so that they dive deeper and take action. We all carry responsibilities for our shared planet and if we can make a difference, that’s something to be proud of,” says Leskovar, Product Manager at Outfit7.

Fundamentally, what the Green Game Jam offers is an opportunity to inspire and be creative, while thinking about environmental messaging. And this year, again, with 40 entries, and incredible player feedback, the studios have done this again. As Rebecca Weiss, games designer at Trailmix says: “It doesn’t matter where you are in relation to these subjects. Let’s think about what we do with the place we’ve built, and think hard about how we can collaborate, work together, and bring this subject home.”

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