How can we use games and simulations to teach about the climate crisis?
An interesting example comes from the British Financial Times, which just launched a small web game. Let me outline the game, then offer a few thoughts.
In “The Climate Game” you play “the global minister for future generations” for the next thirty years. Unlike the minister in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, you have a lot of power over the nations of the world. Your goal is to reduce global greenhouse has emissions through a series of choices about major aspects of the world: energy use, diet, transportation, architecture.
Feedback appears in several ways. Every three, four, or nineteen years (rounds) the game displays the world’s changing energy use, along with an assessment of your progress or lack thereof. You can win awards for doing especially well in some areas, like equity or job creation. Occasionally you get quicker responses from an advisor, who reports on the short-term impact of a particular choice.
At the end the game assesses your overall performance. You get a nice chart, your advisor reflects on you, and an overall grade appears in how you did compared to Paris goals and attaining net zero. The game also compares your results against how other players did. For example, here’s a playthrough where I started off making very tentative moves, then increased the scope of my decisions later on:
Some random events will interrupt your progress, such as ice sheets melting faster than expected. Otherwise, you progress through the same set of choices every game.
As a game, this works decently. Your choices are meaningfully reflected in feedback and winning is not easy. There’s replayability available, despite facing the same set of choices each time. It moves very quickly – you can do all three rounds over coffee.
This is a resource management game – well, obviously, as you’re managing planetary resources. You also have a limited amount of political capital, measured in “Effort” points. You can burn through them quickly, so it’s important to reserve them for the game’s last turns. (If you run out of Effort before the end, you’re fired.)
Resource decisions impact what else you can do down the road behind the scenes. As one advisor to the game describes,
If you make the right choice in the electricity sector early on, it pays dividends in transport later in the game when you decide to ban internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in advanced economies. But if you make the wrong choice, you can go ahead and ban ICE vehicles, but you won’t see the reductions coming through as a result.
If you want to build enough high-speed rail to encourage a shift away from aviation, you need a lot of infrastructure. But unless you’ve decarbonised the industry sector, all that cement and steel to deliver the high-speed rail is going to have tonnes of emissions going with it. Everything has to move together.
There are some attempts at role playing, but those are just gestures. An early screen lets you pick an advisor from a group of four, yet there’s little difference between them. In the last third of the game your character apparently moves to a dangerous area as a political move, but it’s not a choice you make, nor does the game represent what this entails. You might be a planetary minister, yet you have neither name nor avatar.
It’s a low media game, consisting entirely of text, basic images, and a couple of occasional side effects (“That sounds too cheerful for a game on the climate crisis!” shouted my wife from the next room). I’m fine with this, but wonder if some would prefer a richer media experience: animations, video clips, music, and so forth.
As with all simulations, “The Climate Game” expresses an ideology. Economics looms large, unsurprisingly for a game produced by the Financial Times. Growing jobs and GDP are good things, as opposed to reining in capitalism or aiming for a zero growth economy. Although public opinion can turn against you, you have the option to spend money on an ad campaign to make your choices look better, and that’s been a great success every time I’ve played, which reflects a fairly cynical view of politics. Moreover, there’s no revolutionary option in the governmental role. You have no choice but to keep the present-day political settlement going (which, combined with your ministry’s power, nearly described Mann and Wainright’s Climate Leviathan model). There’s a decision with a space mining option, which the game hates. Methane appears a few times, but plays a large role. Taken together, the game presents a view of how humanity should best handle the climate crisis, nestled within a fairly conservative view of the world as a whole. (You can see this even more clearly in the FT cheatsheet.)
I recommend it and am curious to see how it plays in classes.
Give it a try. Let us know what you think.