Raising Air Quality Awareness

Product, Visual, Game Design


The Virulence: Pittsburgh Edition. Raising air quality awareness through an actively engaging experience.

A collaborative game in which players form an air-pollution fighting team out to save the Pittsburgh region from toxic, contaminated air. Targeting grader schoolers and the community at large.


4 weeks

Michelle Chou
Amrita Khoshoo

Project Manager
Game Designer
Visual Designer

Techniques & Tools
Interview, Secondary Research, Synthesis, Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Laser Cutters, 🖐, 🔨



The Challenge

Design a visual communication system for the Environmental Charter School (ECS) to address issues of air quality in Pittsburgh. Consider the practicality and implementation of said system.

The Outcome Overview

The Virulence, a collaborative board game in which players are part of an air-pollution fighting team. The goal of this game is to save Pittsburgh from being overrun by toxic, contaminated air.

High-level values —

  • Make invisible visible

  • Change through collaboration

  • Active engagement

  • Strong relevance - rooted in Pittsburgh community

  • Positive call to action

We visualized the air pollution and its impacts to the community, and designed the visual language & game components to communicate the collective/individual actions one can take, the governmental regulations and major activism, and how different stakeholders play roles in the issue.



virulence process.png




Our initial research informed how we approached this project.

ECS is a tuition-free K-8 charter school committed to multidisciplinary learning and eco-literacy. Its curriculum anchored around outdoor education. They encourage students to get out of the classroom, connect with the community, and tackle real world problems.

We interviewed ECS CEO Jon McCann & Innovation Director Nikole Sheaffer to understand the needs. Their concern about air pollution was threefold.

  1. Since air pollution is invisible, the community isn’t aware of it.

  2. As a mission-driven school, ECS’s interested in environmental sustainability and teach their kids to embody similar values.

  3. Air pollution is detriment to ECS student’s health and learning since its curriculum involves and encourages outdoor activities.


Secondary Research Macro Systems

We looked into government policies, economics, industries, public health, education, and activism, and how they contribute to the air quality issue. We learned extensively about:

  1. The history of air pollution from national to local level.

  2. Source of Pittsburgh’s pollution.

  3. Stakeholders from various disciplines and their inextricable relations to each others.

  4. Governmental regulations and major activism.


Synthesis Findings

We consolidated our thoughts into 4 major HMW that we were keen to investigate further

1. HMW make invisible visible, and expose air quality as a problematic issue?

2. HMW help citizens reflect on their impact on air quality? And be aware of the impact air quality has on them?

3. HMW empower citizens to change this impact to benefit the community at large?

4. HMW empower the community to look out for one another, to form collaborative efforts?




Concept Development

To develop our concept, we had several discussions with each other and various people. These discussions helped us continually reframe, iterate, and focus our ideas. We started by discussing how we could incorporate values we drew from research — change through collaboration, individual action, and making the invisible visible.

First concept development brainstorm

First concept development brainstorm


Further, we wanted to develop a system that required more active, in-the-moment engagement as opposed to passive engagement.

As we discussed these values, we landed on the idea of a physical game, since we wanted to create a situation where students are confronted with air quality in a way that’s not overly instructional. This game would be a collective win or collective lose to point to the idea that it’s through collective action change can really happen. We also didn’t want to lose the idea that individuals can take their own measures as well.

High-level game concept brainstorm

High-level game concept brainstorm


While we were developing our game concepts, we talked to CMU IxD professor Andrew and CMU HCI gaming professor Geoff. They both encouraged us to adopt existing game mechanics as certain mechanics are well tested by engineers and players all over the world. We kept exploring and referred to the collective games Pandemic series, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert.

After several discussions, we decided to create the Air Quality version of Pandemic, rooted in Pittsburgh community.   

The mechanics fits really well with our goals of making fighting air pollution both an individual and collective effort. Also, air pollution operates much like an infection in terms of it’s easy ability to spread and general harmfulness to people.


Design Principles Set-up
(Game Mechanics, Content, Visual)

As we focused on adopting Pandemic as the foundational mechanic of our game, we worked on translating the game’s conceptual rules to fit within the systems surrounding air quality.

First, we analyzed the mechanic logic and structure of Pandemic & Pandemic Rising Ride.

Second, we made the connection to air quality to set up our mechanic.

Third, we set up principles for content & visual as follow:

virulence matching.png

Visual Language Design

After establishing the principles, we started designing the visuals —

Game Board by me

Game Board by me



We printed all materials and fabricated 3D components with a laser cutter/engraver. Then, I hand-carved the game board, punched the cardstock corners (1200+ corners for 2 sets!), and assembled the box with hammer and glue.



Next Steps: Play Test

Our next step is to play test this board game with students from ECS. (Likely happening soon in Spring 2019!) Based on these field tests, we’ll work on refining and incorporating new rules into our game. We chose to model Pandemic as a starting point.

Reflection / Stretch Goal

In future iterations of this game, we’d like to work on expanding our overall game framework. In addition, we’d explore possibilities to bring the game beyond the board, to get students out in the field for real-world engagement.