What will the year 2050 bring? Depending on your choices in a game called Survive the Century, the Earth could see a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, or even 3 degrees; top headlines might read “Versace premieres ‘cooling suits’ at Paris Fashion Week allowing fashionistas to go outside in the tropics,” or “Last chance to see: Five cities expected to sink within the next decade.”
It’s a bleak picture, and one that may seem at odds with the idea of video games as a form of escapism or fun. Each day we’re confronted with more and more realities of climate change, so why would we also want to deal with climate change in our games?
Games offer a unique format for teaching, persuading, or raising awareness about important topics, says Joey J. Lee, a lecturer of technology and design at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and director of the school’s Games Research Lab, in an email. Lee (who was not involved with Survive the Century, but has developed other games that tackle climate change and social issues) says it’s about “using game designs to foster eudaimonia (human flourishing) rather than only hedonia (addiction and temporary pleasure).”
There are a few things games can do particularly well, like fostering empathy by allowing people to experience different situations impacted by climate change; making climate change relevant for players, so they understand why they should care; and adding in some practicality, showing concrete steps people can take to make an impact. The format of a game can break down people’s guards, reaching someone who might otherwise get defensive in the face of political or emotional topics. And games are crucial for encouraging understanding in a way that’s very different from textbooks, Lee says.
“Rather than content to be ‘absorbed,’ they provide a model of reality—or a system of interconnected parts that a student can interact with and play with,” he says. “Variables can be reduced to allow players to focus on specific aspects of a problem and to see the consequences and what happens as they interact with that system. Abstract concepts can be made much more tangible, [for example] the ability to see invisible aspects of nature, to visualize how sea level rise affects coastlines over time via time travel mechanics, to manipulate magnetic fields with your hands in VR.”
Digital games are also easy to share online, helping get a message out to the masses. Survive the Century, for example, was created by a group of scientists, economists, and writers to help people see what kinds of futures might lie ahead depending on our actions, and to show that there are a lot of choices we can make about our climate, and those choices have real impacts. Virtual reality experiences—like Tree, a VR experience that turns you into a rainforest tree, during which you can experience everything from the small act of a bird landing on your branch to the devastation of a forest fire—can be “emotionally impactful and eye opening, which can spark important conversations that can lead to change,” Lee adds. Games can let people experience things in a different way than just watching a video; Beyond Blue, which lets players explore the ocean, was inspired by the BBC’s Blue Planet II documentary series.
Lee has been studying and even developing these sorts of games for years, publishing journal articles about climate change games as tools for education, and cocreating games like EcoChains Arctic Life, a card game in which players try to keep Arctic species alive as sea ice melts. It’s a field that he’s seen rapidly grow in the last decade. “Climate change games have become a crowded space, with all sorts of games, which is a good thing,” he says.
Conferences like the Games for Change Festival feature game projects on social issues such as climate change, and the United Nations (UN) this year launched a mobile game called Reset Earth, in which three teenagers try to save the planet in an ozone-depleted future. In 2019, the UN launched a Playing for the Planet Alliance that now has big names in gaming on board like Ubisoft, the production company behind Assassin’s Creed, and Sony Interactive Entertainment. (Plenty of small creators have been making games that explore climate change, too.) In joining the alliance, these companies committed to both make their operations more environmentally friendly with carbon footprint reductions and efforts to address waste, and to insert “green activations” into their games.
Lee hopes to see more collaborations between game developers, climate scientists, and academics. The field of climate change games will likely keep growing, because there are so many ways to address the topic, and each type of game can serve a different purpose. “It’s probably a mistake for one game design to try to do it all,” he says, adding that a game shouldn’t resemble a textbook, because that doesn’t play into the strengths of game design. “Some games might try to change behaviors, others to raise awareness about an injustice or some phenomenon happening, others to impact identity and to make an issue more personally relevant, still others to spark new discussions or provide some learning.”