It’s the advice and lessons schoolchildren have been taught for ages: do your part to save the planet. Whether that’s recycling, cutting down on water use, or carpooling, you’re taught it’s critical to help the environment. Still, it's the actions of many which make a difference. 

That’s the lesson University of New Mexico Communication & Journalism (C&J) Professor Michael Lechuga and graduate student Robert Howard are trying to communicate in a unique way.

We're addressing environmental issues but we're also trying to do it in an innovative way,” Lechuga said.

They worked with the xReal Lab at California State University San Bernardino to develop the ‘Reconnections’ video game, a true representation of why it matters to trust your neighbors to also play their role in a greener future.

Thanks to a nearly $10,000 grant from UNM’s Research Allocations Committee, Lechuga and Howard were able to set up the VR Lab, and purchase Oculus equipment to transport participants to a remote island.

Everything we've done since is to build what is potentially an environment, or series of environments that will allow folks to reshape their connection with the environment, reshape their connection with others,” he said. “Really, that's the attitude shift we want.”

From there, participants go through four stages, each meant to test their ability to choose more than the last. It also incorporates an age old game theory example: The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

“If we all collectively make decisions that are beneficial for the society, we will end up creating a better social bond between us,” Lechuga said.

You are presented with decisions like building bridges for the betterment of the island, or building yourself a house for your own self-interest. You later on, will also have to choose between burning, nearly extinct creatures, and the burning of your own possessions.

To achieve higher levels, and reach the end of the game, however, your other game players–who you have no contact with– must also make the right call.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, of course, creates a situation where individual decision-makers always will feel more inclined to choose in a way that helps them, but does not lead to the best outcome for the individuals as a group.

“This is most like what we experience in the real world. We can do everything right and do our part, but if someone's not doing their part, then we’re all kind of left to sit in the ruins.” – Professor Michael Lechuga

The VR tech allows you to immerse yourself in the decision-making progress. You are able to place wooden planks, pick up fish, and walk through the land.

Lechuga says on average, engaging with VR technology from 45 minutes to an hour, you’re more likely to embody the character and situation. 

He and Howard believe seeing is believing. If you truly experience the consequences of your actions, it will translate to how you behave in real life when it comes to climate change.

Environmental activism often gets couched in like recycling more, or loving the environment more, but really having a different attitude about the environment is what we're trying to harness,” he said.

You can always also look at the numbers.

Right now humans are putting an estimated 9.5 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year by burning fossil fuels, and another 1.5 billion through land changes. Since 1750, humans have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about 50 percent. In fact, more than 99.9% of peer-reviewed scientific papers agree that climate change is mainly caused by us, according to a recent survey of 88,125 climate-related studies.

Developed with the help of Dr. Kate Hoyt at Pacific Lutheran University and Shane Burrell, Jr., a grad student at the University of Oregon, all collaborators believe there’s something to be said about this never-before-seen approach.

“We sort of tried to mimic how our own ecosystem works and can only be maintained if we really invest in our ecosystems,” Lechuga said.

He traces a lot of this back in his research on colonial settlements. Over time, technology and monetization took priority, severing a connection between humans and the land they inhabit. Using that same technology, however, Lechuga intends to get users back to that initial relationship.

“It's actually getting people to think about what their attitudes are, about themselves, about their place in society, about their place in nature, and then shifting those a little bit,” he said.

This C&J team is searching for 100 to 200 volunteers to help test the software and their ethical problem solving.

They intend to collect findings throughout the fall semester, with plans to compile their data in the spring.

Additionally, they hope to expand on the simulation–making the decisions more intricate.

You can join the study by emailing Michael Lechuga or Robert Howard.