AirQuest is a location-based video 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 air pollution in the Valley is among the worst in the state.

This project focuses on viable approaches to developing a simulation game that addresses the prevalence of asthma attacks due to three distinct triggering mechanisms: agricultural, industrial and carbon fuel pollution. By working with High Schools in Fresno, the scientists are studying numerous factors that play a part in asthma’s increasing frequency: limited access to education, health information, and new media, and a reluctance to participate in community action and local policy development.

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, Kean, 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, Kean 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.

The seed grant is being used to study while kinds of mobile games can address these challenges. The team, which is multi-disciplinary and includes researchers at UC Berkeley and UC Merced, is combining multiple strategies: climate modeling, visualization, data mining, anthropological field work, and dramatization through game design. The game design will cast players as researchers in an Central Valley health mystery by interpreting spatial maps of public records and scenarios of future climate change. The object will be for the players to develop effective strategies in a simulated game environment to manage asthma triggers and optimize their health outcomes.

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