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These board games play out how climate change will reshape our cities

Learning how different stakeholders will respond when sea levels rise can help us better understand what will happen as the climate changes.

Janette Kim started designing board games about climate change after working on scenario planning with her architecture students at Colombia University–and seeing that the typical process, which architects and many cities use to make decisions, was fairly boring. Board games brought the scenarios to life. “They’re great at mixing together a lot of complexity and making that visible,” says Kim, who now teaches at California College of the Arts and leads the Urban Works Agency, a research lab at the school that looks at the use of architectural design on social justice issues, sustainability, and economic resilience in cities. A series of the games developed by Kim and her students, called Win-Win, is now in an exhibit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

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The Other 99% [Photo: JK/UWA/Alma Davila]

In a Monopoly-like game called The Other 99%, each player is a real estate developer, but one player starts with three times more money than the others–and as sea level rises, they can afford to build on higher ground. The other players have more votes; every other round, everyone discusses whether to build a levy and who will pay for it. “You basically see how risk associated with your properties influences your decision-making and your tendency to either seek short-term profit or long-term profit,” she says.

In Bartertown, a game that imagines a world without money, players trade favors and share resources to deal with the impacts of climate change. The game was commissioned by The Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission for use in public meetings and with agency partners; the commission wanted to explore the idea of social resilience. Each player starts out in a different part of the Bay with different everyday activities to accomplish, and then has to start collaborating with other players when things go wrong–say, you have to get to work, but flooding has taken out your commute, so you have to make a trade with another player to stay at their home, closer to your office. “You start to see how people’s lives entwine with each other,” Kim says.

Delirious D.C. (Mira De Avila-Shin and Galen Pardee creators, [Photo: JK/UWA]

Delirious D.C. looks at the challenge of relocating buildings because of sea level rise. One player represents the federal government, which has many buildings in risky floodplains in D.C., and the other represents local citizens in the city. The local player might want to build housing or create parks; the federal player might want to relocate the FBI or the Smithsonian. Each tries to build up as much territory as they can while blocking the other player, and can earn extra points by convincing the other player that new combined institutions–like the F.B.I.R.S.–make sense as a new way to make use of limited space.

Museum of Capitalism game night with Flip This Hood in the foreground. [Photo: Tim Furstnau]
In Flip This Hood, a checkers-like game based on East Oakland, neighbors are pitted against the owners of a sports stadium and major sports teams. “The game basically studied the way that the Coliseum either benefits or does not benefit the neighborhood of local residents,” says Kim. Each player tries to reach the other side of the board first, through actions that range from building a public art piece to eviction or squatting on the other player’s property.

In It Together [Image: Modem]
A game called In It Together, also based on the East Bay, gives each player the identity of a different stakeholder–such as a developer, a resident, or local wildlife. As climate change impacts the community, they have to decide when to collaborate or compete. Kim used the game as part of a team in Resilient by Design, a competition that asked designers to consider how Bay Area neighborhoods could be redesigned to better deal with future flooding. During the process, designers were meeting with a wide variety of groups, from the parks district to the airport and many other agencies. “All these people basically would get together every month and talk about what we thought resilience should look like and what we really wanted to prioritize, and it was, it was a really hard thing to do,” Kim says. “Everyone had different values and different languages and were also very suspicious of each other. So we made the games through the process and then we played it with everybody.” It helped start conversations.

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Kim is now working with an independent game producer to bring the In It Together game to market, and plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Games like this can be used both for planning and to help people think differently about the complexity of climate action, she says. “I think a lot of times when we talk about climate change, we have a tendency to talk about it as a question of should we act because we care enough about it, or should we keep about our daily lives?” she says. “What I really enjoy about the both the competitive and cooperative nature of games is that it recognizes that people just come from different perspectives and they have many different reasons for either thinking short-term or long-term, or valuing landscape or profit or property or equity–there are so many different value systems that are really enmeshed within climate change.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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