What if climate change is a game?

Video games and the environment

For a good chunk of 2014, I was a Minecraft widow. My husband – a gamer his whole life – forgot to eat, consistently stayed up late and was consumed by his this game, which he calls “computer Lego”. He terraformed a world, shifted mountains and diverted rivers; and now has a fresh appreciation for city planners. For him, it was the challenge of a completely open-ended world and the puzzle of creating workable models for his ideas.

But on the other side of the world, the game is being used in compulsory lessons to teach 13-year-olds about their world. We are realising the potential of gaming to teach ourselves and our children about the urgent challenges of climate change and environmental crisis.

Minecraft is an open-ended or “sandbox” game in which players build virtual worlds. The options are almost limitless: from fully-functioning power grids to bee-keeping, automated factories and rail networks. And 14.3 million people have downloaded this game.

Monica Ekman, teacher at Sweden’s Viktor Rydberg school, is conducting a study of 180 students who are building virtual worlds with electricity grids and water supply networks.

“They learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future,” she told The Local newspaper.

“The boys knew a lot about it before we even started, but the girls were happy to create and build something too – it’s not any different from arts or woodcraft,” Ekman said.

US psychology researchers Rudy McDaniel and Erik Henry Vick found the gaming industry was increasingly receptive to what they called “gaming for good.

“Over the past several years, funding agencies and policymakers began paying an increasing amount of attention to video games as tools for teaching, learning, and training,” they wrote in the International Journal of Cognitive Technology.

“From these initial characteristics, we maintain that video games are useful as tools to explore and assess cognitive and affective processes such as attention, motivation, judgment, memory, decision-making, metacognition, and empathy, systems and behaviors that are critical for fostering awareness of social issues or attempting to influence values or behaviors for the betterment of humanity.”

In another game, you’re on a desert island with limited tools, its resources already exploited – and the waters are rising. Sound familiar? This is the premise behind Forbidden Island, a popular new board game where you have to save precious relics from an island that is being swamped. The environmental overtones are obvious with it and also with its companion game Forbidden Desert. Hardcore game geeks have endorsed it for being a complex and dynamic game, and for being tantalizingly difficult to win.

Energy companies are using games to teach their customers about their business. South Africa’s Eskom Energy paired with game developer Formula-D to build a game where players must balance the power needs of a city with environmental needs and the economics of the power industry.

“It allows the player to take custody of a virtual city’s power plan and seek a balance between the most efficient technologies currently available and the most environmentally friendly ones,” the developers wrote on their blog.

“Players must also take into account the varying costs of production of the different technologies and face the challenge of maintaining an economically viable mix of all of these elements.”

The impact of extreme storms on our cities are shown in Sims-style game Drip Drip, in which you play an omnipotent cleanup crew trying to save hapless people from a merciless environment. It was made by Imminent Games, co-founded by a GMO activist, and its climate change overtones are hard to miss. “The weather forecasts were true. We were warned this day would come.”

Even the Star Wars video game franchise is getting in on the action, with its game Episode 1: The Gungun Frontier heralded as a teaching tool for biogeography and population dynamics.

Sometimes, the themes are explicit. Last year, a group of Dutch students at the University of California developed a board game that simulated the flooding of a vulnerable island in the delta east of San Francisco – one that bears a startling resemblance to a real island that has a dodgy levee and a population unaware of the danger they’re in.

“We were surprised by the lack of awareness or regard for levee safety, particularly among residents who live alongside it,” the students Wouter Jan Klerk and Ties Rijcken wrote for the Califonia WaterBlog.

“Games have the added advantage of taking into account human behaviour … The Delta – with all its complexity, risks and political debate – seemed like a good subject for such a game.”

And games can tackle really tough and complicated issues. Profit Seed, by Tiltfactor Lab and New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology, puts players in the dungarees of a farmer growing heirloom seeds, and trying to prevent genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds from growing. If the farmer fails, a lawyer from the agribusiness who owns the GMO patent comes to sue them and take their land. Doesn’t that take the shine off your treechange dream?

ecogamer.org has compiled a list of games about environmental and social awareness.

If you want the games themselves to be environmentally friendly, Cheapass Games has some great advice on how to play games with pieces and cards you already have, and how to build tiles and cards at home.

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