Monday, August 10, 2009

World of CO2

We talk a lot about how our dependency on oil pollutes the environment and screws up our politics. But has anyone asked how the oil feels? World of Goo would like to know. This wonderful little game, which challenges the player to link little balls of goo together so they can overcome obstacles and find their destiny, touches on the environment, energy, corporatism, and commodity. The story has a light touch, so I don't know what the underlying message is or whether there is one. I think, though, that those goo balls would want us to understand them and not take them for granted.

In addition to whatever moral lesson one can find in it, World of Goo teaches the physics of bridge building. Since the game appeals to kids as much as adults, it may be oblique and simplistic as a physics tutor. But once you watch your half-completed bridge sway desperately under wind shear and its own weight, you'll quickly appreciate the importance of trusses and abutments.

The connected goo balls look at bit like molecular models, reminding me of another game. Way back when Octopus Overlords was Gone Gold, one of the website administrators, Joel Mathis, created a game called Atomic Bonds. This shareware puzzler gives you atoms to join with each other. You earn points and clear the board by forming complete molecules.

Like World of Goo, Atomic Bonds isn't a deeply realistic game and doesn't expect the player to have a scientific background. I'm not even sure what kind of "molecule" I'm trying to make in that screenshot. But one can see the educational potential of the game. What if one level of game had said "make benzene," or only gave you points for making cis instead of trans isomers? How about a power-up that allows you to form double and triple covalent bonds? The organic chemistry teaching possibilities are endless.

(If you'd like to play the 7-day trial of Atomic Bonds, which is the only version I have, please email me. I'll send you the 1.8 MB installer. In the meantime, I'll look into whether the full game can be made available.)

That brings me to environmental issues. With global warming being a hot topic of discussion, I think it's important for everyone on both sides of the debate to understand the science of climate change. Once people see how it works on a molecular level, they can better understand how natural and human activities contribute to it on a global scale. And what better way to teach the science than with a game that combines World of Goo and Atomic Bonds?

Such a game could give you various atoms (all squealing cutely) to link together and molecules to break apart. If you create a chemical reaction that yields a useful product, such as energy, you get points (or money) for it. However, if the chemical reaction also results in a greenhouse gas, that greenhouse gas molecule floats to the top and stays there. (There might already be some greenhouse gas molecules there to represent nature's contribution.) As the game goes on, you inevitably create more and more greenhouse gas molecules, thickening the layer at the top and causing climate change. Adverse environmental effects or regulators would compel you to invest your money in pollution control devices to reduce your impact and continue playing the game.

Plenty of other important chemical phenomena can be explored this way. Let's look at acid rain. You run a power plant that produces useful energy but emits sulfur dioxide. The sulfur dioxide molecules rise in the atmosphere and cause acid formation. If you're lucky, prevailing winds carry the acid far away and make it Somebody Else's Problem. If you're unlucky, the acid might rain down on your plant and damage it!

Green-minded software developers are creating games to educate and inspire us about environmental issues, and I will review some of these games in this blog. But I hope the developers don't miss the opportunity to explore what environmental issues all boil down to: science!

No comments:

Post a Comment