Can video games save our children from nature deficit disorder?

by David Porcaro

In 2005, Richard Louv suggested in his book Last Child in the Woods that American society has been depriving youth of necessary contact with nature, which has led to many physical and emotional health problems that plague America’s youth (as well as youth around the world).

As I read this book, I wondered how I could create for my own kids the kinds of opportunities that shaped me. I grew up on a dead-end street that bordered on an erstwhile apple and cherry orchard, with what to my young mind was miles of untamed wilderness for our playground. There were hills to sled on, bike trails to build jumps on, mature trees to build houses in, and apples, cherries, wild wheat, peas, asparagus, honeysuckle and “cheesies” to snack on (don’t ask me what cheesies are, that’s just what we called some sort of edible weed with a tiny fruit that tasted like cheese). We spent many, many, many hours there with little or no adult interference. In those fields we made new friends, fought old ones, built, imagined, tore down, dug, climbed, played, and just lay in the grass and let summer roll over us.

Mt Timpanogos, the 11,749 ft mountain that was walking distance from my house growing up.  Picture by ArbyReed and available by Creative Commons License.

Mt Timpanogos, the 11,749 ft mountain that was walking distance from my house growing up. Picture by ArbyReed available on Flickr by Creative Commons License.

Naturally, as I moved into middle school, these vacant lots opened me to the wonders a few blocks further afield. Living at the foot of some of the most spectacular mountains in America, I had no shortage of playground in which to explore, create, imagine, climb, slide, relax, and listen. It was in these mountains that I had some of my most defining experiences of my development.

But for my own children, those opportunities are very limited. That orchard has since been cut down to build more houses and a shopping area ironically called “The Orchards.” This is happening across America, as Richard Louv pointed out. Open areas for children have been choked out. Children are kept from building tree houses or whiling away the hours by the pond due to urban development, safety concerns, overcautious parenting, and risk-adverse municipal policy. Luckily for our family, we live in the Twin Cities, one of the most nature-gifted urban areas of the country. A few blocks from any point in the Cities, you can find a pond, a river, a creek, a forest, a meadow, or a great park. For instance, Seward’s office is a short walk from the banks of the Mississippi River. Despite these opportunities, I still find my kids’ access to these treasures more limited than I would hope.

What of the millions of kids who, finding that there is nothing worth playing with outdoors, or scared by society into the climate-controlled security of their homes, have nothing better to do than play video games and surf through their childhood on the Internet? Is there a way to turn the addictive qualities of gaming to motivate youth to go outside? Can we game our way to a better world, as Jane McGonigal would suggest?

I for one, think there is. And thanks to a Small Business Innovation Phase I Grant from the National Science Foundation, we at Seward along with an amazing team from the University of Minnesota and the University of Georgia, get to test that concept. During the next 6 months we’ll be developing a prototype Alternate Reality Game (ARG) called Agency. Once they enter the Agency, middle schoolers will find that they have been recruited to a select group of Agents who must develop their skills in collaboration, courage, applying science, and problem solving through a series of tasks and quests to save the world.

Middle Schools with the new handhelds. Picture taken by Stephen Morton and available on Flickr with Creative Commons License by UGA College of Ag

Middle schooler with the new handhelds. Picture taken by Stephen Morton and available on Flickr with Creative Commons License by UGA College of Ag

But what makes this game different than any other environmental education game, is that for students to get points, they have to leave the computer and spend time outdoors. They’re not just saving a virtual world from ecological disaster, they are saving our world from our own disastrous choices. And at the same time, they get to have those experiences that I did to listen, observe, breathe, and experience the natural world.

The more time they spend outside away from the online network, the better! This concept is really counter the objectives of most video games, which try to reel users in, making them forget the world around them for hours on end. In Agency we want students to spend more time away from their computers, logging out and experiencing the wonder that is real life.

So watch this space as things progress. And here’s to hoping that one of the cures to “nature-deficit disorder” will come through online gaming!

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