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New Game Helps You Understand How Complicated Utah Air Quality Issues Really Are

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New Game Helps You Understand How Complicated Utah Air Quality Issues Really Are

Jan 15, 2015
Northern Utah suffers from terrible air pollution in the winter months, but improving the air quality is a more complicated issue than most people realize. Kerry Kelly is an air quality researcher at the University of Utah who has just created an educational game for teenagers about Utah’s air pollution. The game is completely based on real-world science so teachers can use it in the classroom and form lesson plans around the game. The game was jointly created by students of the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program, Breathe Utah, the Utah Education Network, the Utah Health Department and the Utah Division of Air Quality. Download it at

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: A new video game that teaches about air pollution in Utah. What does the creator hope to accomplish? We'll talk about that next on The Scope.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

Interviewer: "Bad Air Day: Play It Like UCAIR" is a brand new web-based game that teaches why Utah's air pollution woes are local and frequently misunderstood, their words not mine. Actually, I want to ask a question about that because I found that misunderstood thing interesting. Kerry Kelly is in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Utah and the game was originally her idea. So first of all, tell me about the game, what is it about? What is the objective?

Kerry: Okay, so you get to be the mayor of Salt Lake City, and you get to decide what kind of policies you're going to make to either help improve air quality or maybe you don't care about air quality and you'll make other decisions.

Interviewer: Sure.

Kerry: So you get to fly a paper airplane around the city, and it is your job to collect votes. If you make decisions that improve air quality, you'll have a nice clear day and you'll fly quickly around the city. If you choose to make air quality poor, you'll see a visible deterioration in air quality and it will also be much more difficult for you to fly around the city. In fact, if you make enough bad choices, you'll have trouble seeing.

Interviewer: Really?

Kerry: Yeah.

Interviewer: Okay. One of the other aspects of it that I thought was interesting is that you have what is called a "Wall of Public Anger".

Kerry: Yes!

Interviewer: How does that play into it?

Kerry: We were trying to figure out how to address the challenges when you're looking at public policies and strategies, and we developed this "Wall of Public Anger" as a way to address that some of these strategies might incite a lot of public anger. For example, if you forbid all driving, we believe that there would likely be a lot of Walls of Public Anger. In the game that means these walls go up and you can see shadows of angry people and you'll have to fly around the Wall of Public Anger if you wish to continue to collect your votes.

Interviewer: And it makes it a lot more difficult. I think that's an interesting juxtaposition that a lot of people don't think about is, sure, you'd have great clean air but you're also making people angry because it's really unrealistic to think everybody is going to stop driving.

Kerry: Exactly.

Interviewer: Or people are going to give up their wood-burning fireplaces.

Kerry: Yes, that's another very hot topic.

Interviewer: I bet it is. What are some of the other hot topics like that?

Kerry: Increased use of mass transit, so how aggressive you are with encouraging that. A shutting down of a variety of permutations of industry, so for example, shutting down the refineries or shutting down all large industry in the valley, so you get to see what that would do to air quality.
I guess one important aspect of the game that I wanted to mention, is that every single strategy that we've proposed in the game we are able to link to a quantifiable change in air quality. We had a lot of strategies that came up in our meetings with the stakeholders, and there are some really interesting strategies, but we weren't able to come up with a quantified change in air quality. So we stuck only with the strategies, I believe there are 20 or 30 of them, and how they will affect our air quality.

Interviewer: And you know exactly how that will affect the air quality, and you can actually watch that in the game so you can experiment and play around with the different choices.

Kerry: Yeah, in fact I think it's kind of fun to select poor air quality choices to see what happens.

Interviewer: Yeah, and how bad it really makes it.

Kerry: And this is from an air quality researcher, so . . .

Interviewer: Exactly. How do you hope that parents will help kids use this game as a learning experience? Because the target is teens, correct?

Kerry: Yes, but we're partnering with Breathe Utah so they have a big educational component to their organization and they're going to be testing this game with a variety of high school and even some middle school students, so we'll see how it plays with each of those two groups. And they're developing some lesson plans that will accompany the game.
One challenge we faced was how much information to put in the game versus how much to just inspire curiosity. I think we went more on the inspiring curiosity and left it up to the teachers and the experts in developing lesson plans, so that they could develop materials that would then tie to state core or whatever they needed it to. We just wanted to make sure that the air quality part of it was correct.

Interviewer: So after some teens, or anybody, plays the game, if they were to walk by you and you were to stop them and say, "Hey, what's your takeaway?", what would you hope their takeaways would be?

Kerry: Well, A, that it's a tough problem, first of all, and that they have a little bit of a feeling for the variety of strategies that we could take, and that it's going to take a combination of strategies to solve this problem, and that there will be some trade-offs. Some of the things we'll have to do will cause us some sacrifices. Whether or not it's paying a few cents a gallon more for gasoline, or not burning wood, we'll all have to make some choices.

Interviewer: Yeah, so kind of educate people on the basics of it, help them understand that there are trade-offs, help them understand that it is a complicated problem.

Kerry: Right, yeah.

Interviewer: So it sounds like there was probably a lot of thought put into this game, a lot of scientific fact, a lot of work and effort from a lot of different people.

Kerry: Exactly, and I wanted to thank the partners we had. In particular, I wanted to thank the students in Engineering Arts and Entertainment. They did the lion's share of the work, they made this all happen. I wanted to thank Breathe Utah. They helped with the educational side of the game, and they're currently out there play-testing the game.
I wanted to thank Utah Education Network, that's who is hosting the game. I wanted to thank the Utah Health Department and the Utah Division of Air Quality. They really helped as we developed strategies and vetted strategies and the Division of Air Quality was invaluable as we were trying to put numbers on each of those strategies we were considering.

Interviewer: In the description of the game it said, "Air pollution woes that are local and frequently misunderstood". Have we covered the misunderstood part of that?

Kerry: Yeah, I think so.

Interviewer: Okay, that's what you referred to there, all right. You can get the game at Kerry Kelly, good luck with your game and thanks for taking time.

Kerry: Oh, thank you very much.

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