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Virtual Technology and Design Students Strive to Lower Lead Levels in Idaho’s Silver Valley

Video game raises awareness about lead exposure for North Idaho kids

The health risks associated with lead contamination — from developmental delays in children to reproductive complications in adults — have been a historic concern in Idaho’s Silver Valley. Once home to the largest smelting facility in the world, the area became a superfund site in 1983.

But lead levels are decreasing. And students in the College of Art and Architecture’s Virtual Technology and Design (VTD) Program at the University of Idaho want to lower those levels even more. Since last fall, they’ve been designing a video game, in collaboration with northern Idaho’s Panhandle Health District, to raise awareness about lead exposure for children in grades three through six.

Three U of I students took on the task as their senior capstone project. And under the helm of VTD Research Assistant Professor Roger Lew, they took advantage of a modification in “Minecraft,” a survival-themed video game that requires players to gather resources that help save the world. The students then built an environment that mirrors the Silver Valley — mines, mountains, all-terrain vehicles and all — and developed a storyline that sends players on a quest to determine why their friend is sick.

Megan Schleich, a senior in the VTD program from Liberty Lake, Washington, who graduates in spring 2019, said she’s most enjoyed “having an impact on the community.” She also wants to disassociate video games from violence.

A screenshot of Minecraft with an all-terrain vehicle in game.
To increase engagement and retention of information, VTD students created a world with outdoor activities to resonate with kids in north Idaho.

“I’m helping break that stigma and saying, ‘Look at all these video games that aren’t violent,’” Schleich said. “The idea for this project is that after we’re done, Panhandle Health will use it to teach children about lead exposure.”

When children playing the game — tentatively titled “Lead Ed” — accompany their sick friend to the hospital, the doctor asks some probing questions. He learns his patient recently swam in Lake Coeur d’Alene and has a dad who works in the mines, so he sends the player on a mission to collect soil and water samples — from the father’s work boots and the lake. It’s a quest Schleich hopes will result in increased empathy, an experience of emotional connection she thinks is missing from most video games, especially in those with violent undertones.

“At that age, kids are developing empathy from a psychological standpoint,” she said. “And the main character is the player running through the world, so children get to put themselves in the game, helping their friend get better.”

I’m helping break that stigma and saying, ‘Look at all these video games that aren’t violent.’ The idea for this project is that after we’re done, Panhandle Health will use it to teach children about lead exposure. Megan Schleich
Garret Lowe, Megan Schleich and Jared Christiansen
Garret Lowe, Megan Schleich and Jared Christiansen.
I’ve always wanted to use video games as a way to influence people’s lives for the better, and this is a good outlet to put that into practice. Garret Lowe

After acquiring the samples and adding them to an inventory, the player returns to the hospital and has the items tested. The doctor determines the lake has unsafe levels of lead and asks the player to inform the mayor, who will in turn take measures to safeguard residents.

But before embarking on the mission, the player wants some answers. What’s lead poisoning? Am I going to get sick, too? How can I practice preventative behaviors?

“We’ve done a fair amount of research on lead contamination,” said Jared Christiansen, a VTD student from Boise who graduates in spring 2019 after two semesters working on the project. ”We also sent our script to Panhandle Health so they could make sure it’s accurate. Our goal is to reinforce safe practices and teach preventative measures to help children be as safe as possible in the Silver Valley.”

Ensuring a game that is both educational and entertaining has been top-of-mind with the students. And to amp up the fun factor, players get rewarded with a camping trip after creating a chelation “potion” — meant to remove lead from their friend’s body.

Design students have been able to create a video game mod to raise awareness about lead contamination that teaches Idaho kids about living healthy lives.

The reward doesn’t come without educational tidbits, though. Protective gear must be worn to prevent inhalation of contaminated dust, and shoes have to be removed before entering the house. Players also get notifications to wash their hands frequently in an effort to remove dust from the skin. And a diet of calcium-rich foods — through a community garden where players harvest food — is encouraged to strengthen bones and prevent lead absorption.

Garret Lowe, a VTD student from Poulsbo, Washington, who also graduates in spring 2019 and has been working on the project, hopes the game will “have a tangible impact by teaching children safe practices in a risk-free environment.

“I’ve always wanted to use video games as a way to influence people’s lives for the better, and this is a good outlet to put that into practice,” he said.

Article by Kate Keenan, College of Art and Architecture

Published April 2019.

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