Jul 9, 2024

Prairie Play

Dordt faculty and students develop a game based on the prairie ecosystem and plant diversity.

Brittany (Koele, ’10) De Ruyter knows what it’s like to restore tallgrass prairie. She and her husband converted about 5 acres of their property back to prairie a few years ago. It’s been an ongoing process of seeding, re-seeding, controlled burning, and more. But as the seasons passed, she watched their hard work come to life in the shape of golden alexander, prairie smoke, spiderwort, rose verbena, and other native prairie plants.

Their prairie restoration efforts, including a controlled burn they held this spring, have caught the local community’s attention.

“At one of our kids’ soccer games, we had people we didn’t even know ask us, ‘Why did you burn all the flowers?’” she laughs. “That’s what the prairie is to most people: beautiful flowers. In reality, the tallgrass prairie is one of the most unique, diverse ecosystems across the planet, and it’s also one of the most endangered.”

De Ruyter wants others to see the inherent value of the tallgrass prairie, which is partly why she is eager to apply her restoration knowledge through a seemingly unconventional approach: game design.

This summer De Ruyter, Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Dr. Jeff Ploegstra ('99), and Director of Gaming Dr. Brad Hickey are collaborating with students Kaeley Meyer and Emma Nydam to design a game based on prairie restoration.

“In the game, players are given a designated piece of land and must go about planting it into prairie,” explains De Ruyter.

Ploegstra has been dreaming about the game for several years. Inspired by beautiful games such as the bird-centric board game Wingspan, he thought it would be neat to see a game based on the prairie ecosystem and plant diversity—a game that would establish a foundation for understanding and valuing diversity in ecological settings.

When Hickey, a gaming expert, heard about the concept, he was excited. “I’ve read a lot about game design, but I’ve never done it. So, this research project seemed like a great opportunity to learn alongside great people.”

“Brad asked good questions early on like, ‘How do we want people to feel while they’re playing the game?’ and ‘What’s creating tension—what are we trying to work against?’” says Ploegstra.

Within the first three days of the project, the team had the foundation laid for the card game. They wanted the gameplay to match actual ecological processes such as controlled burns or invasive species, and they wanted the players’ roles—farmer, taxonomist, ecologist, and the like—to include tasks that those roles would actually do.

“We want the game to be cooperative, so every player is working toward a common goal,” explains Ploegstra. “And with Emma’s artistic talent, we knew she would have the ability to create beautiful illustrations for the cards.”

“In the game, players are given a designated piece of land and must go about planting it into prairie."

Nydam, a biology major with an art minor, says that, when she took classes in zoology and botany, she drew all the dissections and plants as a way of studying. It inspired her to consider how her biology and art studies might align. “Now I see that biological illustration is what I want to pursue as a career.”

This summer, Nydam will illustrate more than 35 plant species, including Maximilian sunflower, silky aster, mountain mint, large-flowered beardtongue, and blue flag iris.

“This is a neat way to build my portfolio,” she says. “It’s very niche—who knew I’d be creating illustrations for a board game—but it’s fun.”

An environmental science and biology double-major, Meyer grew up playing board games with her family. “I’m also interested in the restoration aspect, especially learning about prairie plants. I’m focused on educational aspects like plant identification and plant characteristics.”

By the end of the summer, the group hopes to have put together a deck of cards, rulebook, and a finalized game mock-up. They plan to do some research into what production might look like.

“We’re also going to have a couple events on campus where gamers can play our game and see what they think,” adds Ploegstra.

If variety is the spice of life, then variety is what brings the prairie to life. “Prairies are resilient and stable because they are so diverse,” says De Ruyter. “And because there’s so much diversity, there’s beauty.”

Through the beautiful illustrations of native plants, immersive gameplay, and educational components, players will not only learn about the intricate relationships within the prairie but also experience firsthand the importance of diversity in maintaining the health and resilience of our natural world.

“God’s creation has inherent value to the Creator, just as it is,” adds De Ruyter.

Sarah Moss ('10)

A picture of campus behind yellow prairie flowers