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Video Games Can Change the Conservation Game

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I remember the day very well even though I was only nine years old. It was a cold January evening in New York City and the Nintendo Game Boy had just come out. Now for those of you who may not remember or may not have even been born yet, this was a big deal. The first real handheld gaming device was all the rage, and as young boy it was all my friends were talking about. Like almost every kid in America, I wanted one, and as it was getting close to Christmas time, I thought of little else.

On that night however, we were headed into New York City to meet with my grandfather, Jacques Cousteau. He was in the City for a meeting at the UN, and as usual, we were taking the opportunity to meet up and have dinner. About half way through our meal, after about an hour of discussing climate change and other environmental issues (heavy fare for a nine-year-old boy) my grandfather looked over at me, noticed that I was starting to fade and said with a playful smile "what about that Gameboy?!?" To me, those were the magic words. I was amazed: here was my 79-year-old grandfather and he was as excited about this new device as I was.

That experience stuck with me and I have always been excited by technology and believe, as he did, that it holds great potential for solving the problems facing the planet. Daily onslaughts against the environment such as the new proclamation to open up offshore drilling, while not as bad as it could have been, are still a worrisome sign. We are a society that all too often condemns the environment to neglect and destruction, despite the environmental movement's decades-old fight for awareness.

My grandfather pioneered exploration of what he called, "our water planet," then my father sought to understand the human connection and now, as part of the third generation, I'm dedicated to not only raising awareness but also to empowering people to take action. I have spent many years working in education and media, from hosting documentaries, to being a spokesperson for Discovery Education to revolutionizing youth environmental service through my non-profit EarthEcho International.

Much of my work has focused on the power of technology and surprisingly, I believe that the solution to many of our environmental challenges will come from an unexpected place: video games. That's right. Those evil devices that are blamed for corrupting our youth and keeping them away from nature can be a big part of the solution. Games are an amazing educational tool and finally the technology is available to really make them a useful part of the environmental movement. This April, my company Azure Worldwide, has partnered with the University of Virginia to launch what we are calling an educational "life" game that simulates an environment, in this case the Chesapeake Bay, and allows players to take on roles that represent the more than 16 million people who live on, and make their livelihoods from the resources of the Bay.

From watermen and farmers, to developers and policymakers, as the game is played, every decision has an impact on the health of the Bay, as well as the well-being of the stakeholders each player represents. Inspired by the Sim games that have been so popular over the years, The U. Va. Bay Game, is a pioneering step forward and allows people to finally understand that the needs and well-being of the people living in an area with environmental challenges are as important as the natural habitat itself. Viable and lasting solutions must take the human and environmental elements of a situation into consideration. If we are to solve the environmental crisis we face, and want to build a stronger, healthier and more prosperous society, we must begin to recognize our collaborative role with the world around us, both human and natural.

Today, on April 8th, we are celebrating The U.Va. Bay Game at an event at the University of Virginia. While this game is focused on policymakers and higher education, we are already working on a version for the K-12 educational market. Perhaps most exciting of all is that the Game is built on a flexible system and can be modified to model any watershed throughout the world. Finally, games will be used to help players build healthy environments, not only in the virtual world, but also in the real world. This game is helping everyone see the issues in a different way. Instead of fighting over individual special interests and seemingly conflicting viewpoints, policymakers and educators can use it as an innovative new tool for collaborative dialogue and teaching.

While the U. Va. Bay Game is a far cry from my Game Boy that my grandfather used to covet when I was a kid, if he were here today, I know that he would be as excited about this technology as I am. I'm also certain he would believe, as I do, that saving our world is one game we can't afford to lose.

Philippe Cousteau is the co-founder of Azure Worldwide (www.azureworldwide.com) and EarthEcho International (www.earthechointernational.org). He is the grandson of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. To learn more about the U.Va. Bay Game, visit www.uvabaygame.org.

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