“Here's the deal: Adults are not doing enough to protect our planet. In fact, some of our worst problems are being caused by people! It’s time for kids like us to step in!” And with a wave of his arm, Dash, the animated action hero of Adventure Ecology, invites gamers to join him and his raven-haired sidekick Bay as they battle adversaries like Agent Waste, Professor Ignorance and Miss Lies in their quest to halt pollution and defeat the ultimate enemy: the mighty, sharp-clawed Global Warming.

Developed to teach Australian and U.K. students about environmental issues, Adventure Ecology is one example of a growing field of “serious” video games that raise awareness about issues like poverty and international strife, and help players assess strategies for solving them. “Video games are a mainstream form of media — they’re not just for teenage boys in basements anymore,” says Benjamin Stokes, cofounder of Games for Change, a nonprofit group that provides support to developers of serious games. “For the environmental movement, it makes perfect sense to use a video game as an educational tool.”

Playing vids might even be the best way to learn about this sprawling thing we call “the environment” — a highly complex and interdependent system in which every life-form, air molecule, and pebble plays a part. “It’s tough to teach interdependencies using linear media like books,” Stokes says. “But games, by their nature, are interactive systems. Our choices have consequences, like they do in real life.”

Which leads to Adventure Ecology, where students ages nine and up embark on virtual missions instead of listening to rote lesson plans. Before starting the game, each player takes a test that assesses her learning style; the game is then tailored to her strengths (visual learners encounter more graphics, while wordsmiths get scrolling text). Activities may include preventing deforestation, scoping out alternative fuel straegies, or convincing a clothing company to sell eco-friendly duds. As they play, gamers take quizzes to demonstrate their grasp of important concepts, accumulating points that let them take on new missions with bigger challenges.

The game is the brainchild of British adventurist David de Rothschild, who earlier this year traversed the North Pole to raise awareness about the effects of global warming on the Arctic. In fall 2005, just a few months before his trip began, he tapped the D.C. ad agency Free Range Graphics to create a video game based on his travels, with the idea that schoolkids could play the game and track his real Arctic expedition at the same time. “We squeezed about a year’s worth of work [to develop the game] into three months,” recalls Andrew Courtney, interactive director of Free Range Graphics [see page 64 for a profile of this eco-conscious company’s founders]. His creative team worked with an educational consultant to flesh out the game’s “curriculum,” then created characters, missions and quizzes. To help build its community of gamers, they added online discussion boards and created a virtual explorer’s club so kids could meet online to share what they learned. And, of course, there are the usual gamer faves: character profiles of heroes and foes; the ability to customize your avatar, or player profile; and a soundtrack you can tailor.

Though serious eco-games of this sophistication aren’t common, a few other developers have realized that students aren’t the only ones who can learn from them. When New York artist Lillian Ball heard that the Great Ponds Wetlands near her home in Southold, Long Island, was threatened by development, she created GO ECO!, an interactive game in which players must collaborate to protect it. “One goal of the game is to help people understand points of view different from their own,” Ball says. Though she has no plans to commercialize it, she’s bringing GO ECO! to art exhibitions and other venues to inform Long Island citizens about the wetlands, and to demonstrate how it has stimulated and even enhanced discussions among opposing groups. “Motivating people to take action is a real challenge, and it’s one of the best things a game can do,” says Stokes.

As for Adventure Ecology, Free Range has been refining the game based on user feedback, and portions of it are available for free on the Web. Its biggest success so far, however, might be its refreshing tone. By clearly explaining the environmental consequences of human activity, and encouraging players to develop their own methods for curbing pollution, Adventure Ecology empowers kids to adopt earth-friendly habits and reframes environmental stewardship as an inspiring opportunity instead of a thankless chore. “I was skeptical about whether an eco-video game would be effective,” says Courtney. “But it’s amazing to see how excited kids get when you present them information in a way that’s engaging and fun.”

Story by Deborah Snoonian. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.