Could the solutions to feeding a booming global population be found through video gaming? Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are attempting to make their case.
Jeyam Subbiah, Kenneth E. Morrison Distinguished Professor of Food Engineering, is leading a team trying to stimulate interest in the food-energy-water nexus by developing an educational video game called Agpocalypse 2050.
The game was created around the projection that the global population is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, requiring twice the amount of food than what the world currently produces. Players are tasked with creating sustainable agricultural systems that will feed and fuel the world with limited resources under a changing climate. With each task, the players have to analyze at the system level, with the idea that they will gain an understanding of the dynamics between food, energy and water.
“Too often, food people work on food, energy people work on energy and water people work on water. They very rarely look at the interconnection between these systems,” Subbiah said. “This game allows us to comprehensively look at the food, energy and water nexus using real-world situations, but without the risk of actually implementing system changes.”
A fuel shortage is one example of the challenges an Agpocalypse 2050 player might face. To succeed in the game, the player must identify how a fuel shortage would affect fuel, ethanol, corn and distiller prices immediately and long-term. The player will have to make adjustments within each area to maintain a sustainable agricultural system. One day is equivalent to one year in the game. The players compete based on economic and sustainability metrics.
Subbiah came up with the idea while watching his son play a football video game. In the game, a player could go back to old Super Bowls and attempt to change the outcomes. Subbiah thought it would be interesting if there were a game that would allow a player to go back 10 or 15 years and attempt to yield a larger crop than the average Nebraska farmer. While the idea was relatively simple, Subbiah knew he would need help to make the game a reality.
“I had never designed a video game before,” Subbiah said. “For people to really get excited about playing it, I knew the graphics would be extremely important.”
Ashu Guru, an assistant professor focused on 4-H youth development, is also involved with the project. Guru, who was director of the design studio at Nebraska’s Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management, reached out to Colleen Syron, assistant professor in the university’s School of Art, Art History and Design, who adapted her curriculum to include a unit on game design for her undergraduate interaction design class.
“I knew this project could be really special because not only did it bring a gaming component to the class, but it also created an in-class interdisciplinary learning environment,” she said. “We brought experts into the classroom including economics professors, 4-H professionals, biological systems engineers, irrigation engineers, animal scientists, food scientists, environmental engineers and farmers. These client experts allowed students to also gain an understanding of an actual academic client relationship.”
The first step for the design students was to research the food-energy-water nexus and the agricultural industry.
“Some of the students from urban areas did not know a thing about agriculture, which created a unique social component to the project because they could learn from other students who grew up on farms or ranches,” Syron said.
Once the students felt comfortable with the food-energy-water nexus and the challenges facing sustainability, they split up into seven teams. Each team developed a different set of strategies for playing the game and designed graphics to go along with them. They then presented their games to Subbiah’s team.
Agpocalypse 2050 is designed by undergraduate art student Jake Eiserman. Subbiah is now working with biological systems engineering graduate students Ryan Anderson and Nathan Rice to walk through each computational model for the game, along with the sustainability and profitability metrics.
One unique feature is the expert help section. Should a player ask for help, a character pops up that acts as an educator or specialist from Nebraska Extension. The characters will share information such as the difference between drip irrigation and center irrigation, or till and no-till. In addition to the character assistance, fact sheets and a web link to learn more about each topic will be available, Guru said.
Once the computational models are complete, students from the Raikes School will develop the game, under Guru’s guidance.
The goal is to get Agpocalypse 2050 in front of urban middle and high school students. Jennifer Keshwani, assistant professor and science literacy specialist, is working with Omaha Bryan High School through the Urban Agricultural Career Academy to pilot the program. Corresponding educational materials will also be tested through Nebraska 4-H summer camps and an undergraduate food, energy and water in society minor at Nebraska.
The project is made possible by a three-year, $999,644 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Other team members involved with the project are Mindy Anderson-Knott, director of evaluation and development with the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Consortium; Jiajia Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology; Bruce Dvorak, professor of environmental engineering; Suat Irmak, Harold W. Eberhard Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering; Deepak Keshwani, associate professor of biological systems engineering; Rick Koelsch, livestock and bioenvironmental engineer; David Rosenbaum, professor of economics; Eric Thompson, associate professor of economics, Brandy VanDeWalle, extension educator; and Haishun Yang, associate professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.
According to Subbiah, Prem Paul was a driving force behind the project. Paul was the university’s vice chancellor for research and economic development from July 2001 to August 2016. He died in September 2016 after a lengthy illness. Subbiah said Paul’s encouragement and support led him to conduct an NSF workshop on the food-energy-water nexus in February 2016. The workshop aided in forming the team and developing the idea for the game, which led to the grant.