Do Simulations Engage Anticipatory Cultures?

AirQuest is a civic action game for teens addressing air quality topics in California’s Central Valley, specifically asthma and other health conditions triggered by pollution. By raising awareness of factors contributing to poor air quality and their link to health outcomes, players are able to change their self-perceptions from victim to agent of change and air quality superhero. Developed in collaboration with students at Fresno High School, AirQuest renders aspects of the students’ local, lived experiences. In that sense, AirQuest is a game about Fresno with Fresno High Students and deserves the label “Made in Fresno”.

The current version of our AirQuest game shows how dynamic visualizations of pollution distribution models influence gameplay. Each of the game missions are located in areas affected by pollution. The more a location is polluted at a given moment, the harder the game will be to play.

The AirQuest game represents a remarkable level of collaboration not only within the University of California system, but also externally, among academic research centers and local San Joaquin Valley communities, administrators, educators, and organizations.
Though the game is primarily developed through UC Berkeley’s Social Apps Lab and the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM), our climate modeling experts work at both UC Merced and UC Berkeley, and our game design programmer is from UC Santa Cruz. Our primary support comes from the multi-campus Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS).
Beyond the UC system, AirQuest is fundamentally about collaboration between game producers and community partners. Our community partners act as end users who help customize specific features in the game’s design. For example, interviews with Fresno High School students show that students are often lonely because their friends have moved away due to air quality issues. While many of the community members we have spoken to do not see eye to eye on air quality, they do see a clear benefit in a game that lays out the dynamics of air.
To date, we have actively co-designed AirQuest with Fresno High School teacher Karl Kaku and his students. We have also met with representatives from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, Covanta Energy, Fresno Metro Ministry, Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, the Central California Health Policy Institute (CSU Fresno) and the Try More Raisin Cooperative, as well as medical practitioners from United Health Centers and Clinica Sierra Vista to research the background for the game.
Prospective partnerships (in progress) include the UC Berkeley School of Public Health studies FACES & CHAPS (Children’s Health and Air Pollution Study) in San Joaquin Valley, the Center for Regional Change and Oakland’s Youth Radio.
About the Berkeley Center for New Media:
The Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM) is a focal point for research and teaching about new media, led by a highly trans-disciplinary community of 120 affiliated faculty, advisors, and scholars, from 35 UC Berkeley departments. The BCNM is located at a global center for design and information technology and based in a public research university known for alternative thinking. Its mission is to critically analyze and help shape developments in new media from cross-disciplinary and global perspectives that emphasize humanities and the public interest. BCNM catalyzes research, educates future leaders, and facilitates public discourse through courses, lectures, symposia, and special events. By reaching out to students, researchers, industry figures, and the broader public, BCNM stimulates new perspectives on contemporary new media.
About the Social Apps Lab:
The Social Apps Lab at CITRIS was created by James Holston (Anthropology) and Greg Niemeyer (Art Practice and New Media Studies), both professors at the University of California, Berkeley. The Lab focuses on the potential of cell phones and other mobile locative media to harness the participatory energies of gameplay to address social issues. Its objective is both to study this potential and to produce mobile games that generate new opportunities for research, citizen participation, and urban knowledge. At Berkeley, the Social Apps Lab develops initiatives in research, teaching, and game production. During the past year, it has focused mainly on designing cell phone apps for healthcare, participatory citizenship, and social engagement.
The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) creates information technology solutions for many of our most social, environmental, and health care problems. CITRIS was created to “shorten the pipeline” between world-class laboratory research and the creation of start-ups, larger companies, and whole industries. CITRIS facilitates partnerships and collaborations among more than 300 faculty members and thousands of students from numerous departments at four University of California campuses (Berkeley, Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz) with industrial researchers from over 60 corporations. Together, the groups are thinking about information technology in ways it’s never been thought of before.
CITRIS works to find solutions to many of the concerns that face all of us today, from monitoring the environment and finding viable, sustainable energy alternatives to simplifying health care delivery and developing secure systems for electronic medical records and remote diagnosis, all of which will ultimately boost economic productivity. CITRIS represents a bold and exciting vision that leverages one of the top university systems in the world with highly successful corporate partners and government resources.
History and scope of the project
In June 2011, our project received its initial seed funding from CITRIS. The grant was one of 17 seed funding awards given; notably, all proposals involve multi-campus (UC) and/or multi-disciplinary teams with lead investigators from numerous departments.
Proposals were funded proportionally to CITRIS’s stated focus in strategic areas, which are:
Delivering “Quality Healthcare Everywhere” for Californians
Adaptable Cities
Energy Modeling
Intelligent Systems.
Development on the project, initially called “Pwning Asthma Triggers,” began in the Fall of 2011. Now called AirQuest, the game design team brings together developers, artists, researchers, scientists, and engineers from UC Berkeley, UC Merced, and UC Santa Cruz. More information about our team can be found at

Final stages of development are underway now. We recently conducted two playtesting sessions in Fresno (one in May 2012, the other in June 2012), and plan to release the game for the Apple iPad on the App Store and for Android on Google Play in Spring of 2013. We plan to host two launch events in Fresno, Berkeley, and at various Edsource, Code for Oakland, and Code for America events. Future versions of the game will be created by users in high schools who modify the game.

Our goal has been to create a serious game about air-quality management and asthma, initially based in the California Central Valley but extensible to other locations and regions. Unlike the vast majority of games, AirQuest represents a specific geographic and sociocultural reality, highlighting the irony that although the Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the nation, it faces high levels of poverty and unemployment and severe air-quality problems arising from the Valley’s unique topography and weather. In fact, according to the California Air Resources Board, ozone and particulate-matter (PM) air pollution in the Valley is among the worst in the state. In addition to its regional specificity, AirQuest’s primary innovation lies in making scientific models and data—from regional wind patterns to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sensor readings—accessible and playable to non-specialists.

The game’s main character, Keanan, is a 14-year-old high school student with asthma, who initially feels weak and isolated as a result of his condition. As the game progresses, Keanan learns to manage his asthma, decode climate maps, and neutralize common air pollutants, and ultimately to see asthma as a special form of environmental intelligence. The game thus shifts perceptions of air pollution and asthma away from the realm of negative, individual experience to that of an immediate and concrete issue for everyone who breathes.


Posted on May 12, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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