Written by Deena Douara
Growing up in Inner Mongolia, Jane Li was “deeply involved in nature,” going to the woods daily to play with leaves and plants, worms and butterflies, returning home only for dinner.
It’s that joy she found as a child that she wants to pass on to the next generation — through gaming.
While digital entertainment is often deemed the enemy of nature and play, Li actually uses tech to drive students’ appreciation for the natural world.
“Good or bad, technology is there, people are using it, so why not take advantage of it?”
Li and her partner’s Springbay Studio has received multiple accolades for its iBiome-Wetland educational game, including being listed on Common Sense Education’s list of Best Learning Apps 2015 and the American Association of School Librarians’ list of Best Teaching and Learning Apps.
Players learn about the different components of a healthy ecosystem and practice putting elements together. They explore the wetland habitat by building marshes and swamps and watching flora and fauna ebb and flow within.
Li says she chose to start with a wetland because it’s a habitat most urban youth have access to. A follow-up, iBiome-Ocean, is in development.
Li compares serious games to documentaries — powerful tools that can be used for education and mobilization.
But she wasn’t always creating “serious” games. In China, she led game designs for a large studio. There, like here, women were a very small minority of coders. Despite challenges like not being taken seriously, Li suggests overall it was an asset.
“That’s why I had the desire to design a game from a feminine perspective; that was so strong to me. It’s a very powerful medium and you want women’s voices to be heard, or some of the subject matter that we care about to be heard.”
She describes that perspective as not exclusively female but is “about building, not destroying.”
Li and her partner launched Springbay Studio in Toronto in 2008 and in 2014, they decided to focus on environmental educational games for children. She had been leaning into such games already but a turning point was learning about the dire situation of bees in the world.
“Very soon I realized I cannot just say ‘I cannot do anything about it’; because I understand interactive media and I understand games, I know how engaging a medium it can be. So I thought, why not use games to make people connect with the cause just like I was?
“That was the start. From that time on we shifted and we do not do anything but environmental games.”
Li says she was heavily influenced by Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. “He has a great observation that technology has pushed us to the stage where we think we’re somehow independent of nature, especially with the children.… There’s a disconnect with the natural world,” she says.
“For me, as mother, I saw there was an urgent need for those kinds of games; because we cannot let this happen; once people feel disconnected they will not care about nature.”
Li says she gets a lot of support being based in Toronto, particularly through receptive schools who’ve encouraged her since Day 1. She says she’s “very, very grateful for” for federal and provincial funders and available tax credits, as well as for the many startup and gaming events in and around the city through Interactive Ontario and other organizations. She also recommends “game jams” like Toronto’s TOJam, as a good space for developers to meet and exchange ideas.
“It’s a really great environment here … we got a lot of support from the game developer community.”
Years later and Li still reminisces with siblings about picking flowers every spring as kids, while creating new memories with her own children at Canada’s many provincial parks and conservation areas.
Good starting points to children to create their own cherished memories of nature, Li suggests, are the Humber River area, James Gardens, Algonquin, and the Rouge Valley.