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Face the Waste: York's Runoff Studios Tackles Environmental Issues

Could playing games really help solve real-world problems?

This is the question that Jacob Walker asks himself everyday. According to Walker, the answer is always "Yes."

Walker, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Runoff Studios, says that his life's passion is to create games that help solve real-world environmental problems.

A 2009 graduate from The Art Institutes of York with a degree in Animation, Walker says that after graduation he always saw himself moving to California to find work in his field. Instead of packing up his Pennsylvania life and heading to the West Coast come graduation day, he opted to stayed put in his hometown of York to pursue his own entrepreneurial endeavor, Runoff Studios.

A Green Dream
That pursuit officially began in March of 2010 when Walker saw an ad in the local newspaper for the  Millersville University Software Productization Center (SPC) seeking people with technology- or software-based ideas.  The ad spoke to Walker in that it was searching for good ideas that SPC would help turn into a marketable product. This program was offering funding through a government grant, and Walker molded a business model around the specifications outlined in the grant application, setting the foundation for an eco-focused game studio that provides innovative ways of educating people about the earth's environmental issues.

Once Walker knew what the grant qualifications were he had to find a way to use the skills he had obtained from the Art Institute of York Pennsylvania to create a grant worthy idea.  

"Since I was a child I've always felt a strong connection to nature and the world we live in, especially its waterways and oceans. This gave me the idea to learn more about pollution. I found that cigarette butts are the most littered object in the world. So I decided to create a PSA about the effects of littering cigarette butts."

This was the starting point for Walker's goal to change the world and promote better practices for protecting the environment. It was this concept of promoting better environmental practices that got Walker thinking about combining environmental teachings and software.

Walker learned that many schools were using the iPod Touch and iPad for teaching.  Walker also learned that studies show that kids using these devices are much more engaged, stay focused longer, and have higher retention levels. Educational games became his new focus.

"One night a friend and I sat at his dinner table and wrote down ideas and concepts. That was the night we came up with the idea of Face the Waste, Runoff Studios' first game. After a lengthy interview process with the SPC I was accepted into the program, which later helped turn Runoff Studios into a reality," says Walker.

A Greener Education
Face the Waste is centered around the evil villain Toxic Tim and his attempt to turn the planet into a trash dump. Players have to sort a variety of items from a conveyor belt and place them in the correct recycling bin without letting Toxic Tim get in the way.  This game hits the essence of what Walker is trying to accomplish with his environment-based games.

"Education will always play a big role in creating a greener world. My philosophy is this: You can't change people's habits and ideals; you have to get them to want to make the changes themselves. Get a bunch of kids excited about recycling and soon the adults will be asking themselves why they aren't doing something so easy," says Walker.

The game is available on the iTunes App Store for .99 cents, with five cents of every download going to the National Environmental Education Foundation. So far the game has 7,000 downloads.

Since becoming an incorporated company on Aug. 4, 2011, Runoff Studios has been focusing on growing, networking and funding.  Being a new business and finding investors willing to put money into its unique educational gaming ideas has been an uphill battle.  Making connections with people and staying involved in the surrounding gaming community has been an integral role for Walker, he says.

"Since last year we have made many more connections in and around PA. All types of people from extremely successful business owners to other game developers.  I try to stay active in ‘serious games' and with community of developers like myself creating learning games/ tools that can be translated into real world applications."

So What's Next for Runoff Studios?
Besides keeping their fingers crossed that their application for the May 1 Angel Venture Fair in Philadelphia for this spring is accepted, they are working on their next title that will inform players about the cigarette butt littering problem and its effect on the earth.  

Walker has a vision for the future and a dream that he will continue to chase until its firm in his grasp.  

"Once Runoff Studios has a solid foundation and history I'd like to work on creating educational games in multiple subjects like math, science, and social studies for example. Starting with Pennsylvania first and then expanding. By working with each state's educational standards to create games that can be used alongside schools current curriculum. I understand that will be a great feat for the company but I see it in our future."

KELLY CLAYTON is a senior at Elizabethtown College who plays field hockey, writes on a variety of subjects for publications and is the Editor of Tru(4)ia Magazine. Send feedback here.

PHOTOS courtesy of Runoff Studios:

Group photo of the team from Runoff Studios and the Software Productization Center at Millersville University team, including (from left) Jake Walker, Stephanie Snyder Elzer, Kate Anderson, Bob Grube, Anthony Paparella, Aaron Chu, Pat McCaskey, Tim Klinedinst, Matt Pape, Angele LaSorte, Amanda Godley and Nancy Mata with Toxic Tim.

Screenshot from Face The Waste

Jake Walker

Children playing Face The Waste

Face the Waste - Saving the world one game at a time

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