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Students design video game based on city water crisis

By Charlize Alcaraz

Ria Kapoor and her team are leading the way to gamifying the water crisis in Toronto.

Kapoor, a fourth-year media production student at Ryerson, is the creative director of TO Play, a first-person adventure video game where players can explore Toronto like they’ve never seen before.

TO Play “uses interactive storytelling as a platform for advocacy—tackling themes of water privatization, urbanization, environmental racism, and Indigenous water and land values,” according to their website.

The game will guide its players as they navigate Toronto and learn about environmental injustices that have happened in the city. The different themes will be tackled in a geographical pattern as players can click and interact with the different objects and elements in the game, triggering pop-up facts. Dialogue will also play a role in the educational aspect.

However, players will not be taking on the trope of being a “hero” in this game.

“This game is not about heroism, and you see that in a bunch of traditional games where they are the hero. For us, what we’re really looking for is a sense of agency,” said Qudsiya Jabeen, marketing and research lead.

Kapoor developed the plot for the adventure game with Ryan Spooner, a fourth-year media production student and game designer, as part of their RTA thesis project. Kapoor was inspired by what she’d learned about the Lost Rivers in a geography course she was taking.

The Lost Rivers of Toronto are waterways that were buried as the city was being built and urbanized from the 1800s until today.

She also said that urban exploration is one of her interests and that it sparked her idea of gamifying the city.

“Complex issues are best told through the lives of people whose experiences illustrate the very systems at play”

“I was seeing that there were marks of the buried rivers everywhere. There were signs, there were artifacts, there were emblems,” said Kapoor. “The elevation is different here and there, it’s all because of the rivers. There’s so
much that I didn’t know.”

Offering a virtual exploration of the Lost Rivers

Players of the video game will be guided through three levels. In the second level, they’ll be taken underneath Trinity Bellwoods to discover the history behind a waterway that once flowed through it.

“At Trinity Bellwoods, they get to go to the rivers and we’re animating it so it feels like a real place, and it is a real place,” said Kapoor. “And underground, that’s where the player discovers and is exposed to the Indigenous water and land values.”

Jeremy Kai, author of the photo series “Rivers Forgotten,” told Torontoist that not a lot of people know about the history of underground rivers and tunnels in Toronto and how it shaped the city.

“Cities are basically fabricated ecosystems that mimic natural ecosystems, because you can’t change watersheds…To me, it’s interesting how we change the landscape to suit our lifestyle,” said Kai.

Amplifying the water crisis at Six Nations of the Grand River

According to Kapoor, the game couldn’t be created without acknowledging and incorporating Indigenous values and teachings.

One of the pillars of TO Play is recognizing the Indigenous communities that have inadequate access to clean water, said Jabeen.

“This is here, this isn’t some far off place that we’re talking about.
It’s in the Six Nations community and they have to travel all the way to Caledon to get water.”

CBC reported that only approximately nine per cent of the residents in the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve have household access to clean water and that many of them don’t have functioning water pipes at all.

Environmental racism against Indigenous communities is evident in their lack of access to clean drinking water as the towns surrounding the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, such as Caledonia and Brantford, have fully-functioning water systems.

First Nations communities in Canada have the highest concentration of water advisories. Water advisories are put in place when a community’s water systems are contaminated and therefore unsafe to drink.

As reported by the Council of Canadians, as of May 2018, there were over 174 drinking water advisories in over 100 First Nations communities across the country and 73 per cent of First Nations’ water systems are at high or medium risk of contamination.

Dawn Martin-Hill, resident of the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve and Indigenous studies professor at McMaster University, spoke to CBC and said that “it’s everybody’s guess as to why does Six Nations not have good water.”

“It’s by design. It has to be,” said Hill. “In this day and age, there’s no way we should be scrounging for water.”

According to a 2009 report from the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health, “women carry out 80 per cent of water-related work
throughout the world and therefore carry the greatest burden of water inequity.”

“Behaviour change has to happen, people need to have a sense of agency”

Water privatization leads to the increasing of the costs of water, therefore making it inaccessible to poorer communities. This can disproportionately affect Indigenous women, who make less money than men and are one of the poorest groups of people in the country, according to the report.

According to the 2016 Census, 25.1 per cent of Aboriginal females (following the federal government’s definition: those who are First Nations, Métis or Inuit and/or registered under the Indian Act of Canada and/or those who have band membership) reported low-income status, compared to 14.5 per cent of non-Aboriginal females.

A lack of access to water supply, or water disconnection due to an increase in costs, can also increase the number of water-related illnesses in a community. For example, the Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario had to evacuate because their water supply was unsafe and caused skin diseases.

According to the Council of Canadians, this community has been under water advisories for over nine years.

“The lack of clean, safe drinking water in First Nations is one of the greatest violations of the UN-recognized human rights to water and sanitation,” their website states.

Storytelling as a form of advocacy

By engaging their audience with gameplay and visual storytelling, Kapoor, Spooner and Jabeen want to advocate for the water crisis and illustrate it in a way that drives a change in the way people think and behave about environmental justice.

“We’re seeing that stories can be used, and complex issues are best told through the lives of people whose experiences illustrate the very systems at play,” said Jabeen.

Kapoor said that what makes TO Play different is its emphasis on embedding environmental activism within the contents of the game. She added that although the game is still being developed, her team is ensuring that people can actively participate in real-world issues and not just in the virtual world they have created.

“There’s been other games like this and there’s been other interactive media that’s trying to advocate for something, but their calls to action are always like, ‘Here’s a link, here’s a donation button,’” said Kapoor.

“We want to make the call [for] action interactive as well and embed it within the narrative and the points of our game.”

According to Jabeen, the call for action in this game is recognizing the value of water and bringing Indigenous values to the forefront of the storytelling.

“The whole idea of [the game] and showing what success could look like is giving people a sense that change can happen even though we’re made to feel like we can’t,” said Jabeen.

“A change has to happen and behaviour change has to happen, people need to have a sense of agency.”

TO Play is currently in production and is set to launch in 2021.

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