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When game developer Matt Leacock released his best-selling board game Pandemic, he didn’t expect that twelve years later people would be using it to help them process an actual pandemic sweeping the world. But with his new game, Leacock is hoping that it will be extremely relevant to one of the biggest challenges facing the world today: the climate crisis.
Leacock is now designing a detailed cooperative board game called Climate Crisis, along with Matteo Menapace, a cooperative game creator based in the UK. The game, which is currently in the design phase with no set release date, will drop players in a world where they need to cut emissions, increase resilience to climate impacts, and ultimately halt climate change altogether. If this all sounds a bit familiar to the real-world crisis the world is facing, well, that’s sort-of the point.
It’s a complex topic that opens up a host of tricky but fascinating questions. How on Earth can you model a challenge as complex as climate change in a board game? And perhaps more importantly, can playing it actually help us better understand real world solutions like the climate crisis?
Menapace had been pondering for years how he could make a game about the climate crisis. The wave of climate awareness which spread across the globe in 2019 proved a tipping point, he says. “I decided I didn’t want to wait longer, I didn’t want to postpone this.”
The game is based on their shared belief about the importance of tackling climate change at global systemic level, rather than the individual level. “Something that we agreed on early on was how frustrated we were with the way climate action is often framed as an individual choice,” says Menapace. “So eat less meat, fly less, and so on. Which are all good things, but not nearly enough on the global scale.”
Each player in the game represents a country or region, namely China, the US, Europe and the Global South. “We’re trying to figure out how to represent a good chunk of the globe, without excluding folks,” says Leacock.
The gameplay basics will be somewhat familiar to Pandemic players. Carbon emissions get transferred into temperature, which rises on a giant thermometer and escalates crises such as storms. Players need to keep their resilience topped up to protect themselves against these crises, while also decarbonising to stop the temperature going up in the first place. If players stabilise temperatures to net zero carbon emissions, they collectively win the game. But if they reach a certain number of people in crisis, everyone loses the game. As a rough model of the challenges of climate change, it has the basics covered.
While there have been other climate change games, few of these have been particularly approachable for a broader audience, says Joan Moriarity, a game designer and co-author of the 2019 book What Board Games Teach Us About Life. So having Matt Leacock throw his clout behind a climate change game is “an enormous asset”, she says. “Pandemic has very much been a breakthrough hit. If this becomes as big or bigger than Pandemic, if it becomes sort of a cultural touchstone game like Cards Against Humanity or Settlers of Catan that everybody plays, that conversation is going to get very interesting indeed.”
But making a good game about solving a challenge as complex and multifaceted as climate change is notoriously difficult. Leacock and Menapace are creating a simplified simulation based on a scientific understanding of climate change, but they also need to make sure it is engaging the players in an open, non-preachy way that is fun to play.
“The primary concern is to create something that can be easily understood and operated by a bunch of people,” says Menapace. “We have to really simplify a lot. Also we want to make it more of a visceral experience rather than a purely scientific kind of spreadsheet exercise.”
Game designers have in general gotten better over the last 25 years at making games more fun, adds Leacock, but not necessarily educational and fun. He thinks there’s a growing opportunity to put more of a message into games. “I think game designers are really being more cognisant of the kinds of framing that they’re building into their games. What are they really teaching: when you create a game that celebrates colonialism, maybe that’s not a good idea? So I see more of that, and I imagine that’s going to continue.”
There is also a broader, more diverse group of people getting into board games, says Moriarity – including people who want to design them. “We’re starting to see more women creators, more creators of colour, with a broader range of backgrounds and experiences, wanting to create games that aren’t just for that specific group of people who were the dedicated enthusiasts during that time in the hinterlands,” she says. “The broader interest in themes like climate change, for example, is part of that sort of rebirth that we’re seeing.”
The ability of game designers to create a world others spend time in also gives them responsibility to get things right, something the designers are keenly aware of. “It’s really tough, and you want to try to eliminate blind spots,” says Leacock. “You don’t want it to be some sort of technocratic fantasy where technology is going to solve everything. At the same time, we also don’t want it to be [that] all you have to do is roll out various health care policies and everything will take care of itself.”
The game tries to avoid dictating solutions to people by allowing multiple ways of winning, says Menapace. It doesn’t write a whole script, but rather creates a set of rules for people to play within. Often, people will not play in the way you expect them to, he says.
The designers also need to be sensitive about their depictions of how climate change plays out in the real world. “One thing that’s really tricky, and we have just spent a tremendous amount of time on, is how do you represent people who are at risk and falling into crisis and death?” says Leacock. “The last thing we want is for people to be treating their populations of vulnerable folks as hitpoints, or things to trade off, or resources.”
To make sure they are representing things as correctly and sensitively as they can the designers seek feedback from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and other climate experts. “Something that the Red Cross told us is if people can learn about the political solutions, and then be inspired to learn more about them or to get active politically, that would be more important than people learning about technologies,” says Menapace.
The choice to make the game a cooperative is one element that helps lean the balance more towards real world solutions to climate change – after all, it’s undeniable that the world will need to cooperate if it stands a chance of reducing emissions in time. “I think that it’s an important message to get across with the game, that people really do have to cooperate,” says Leacock. “That just looking at it through this nationalistic, zero sum lens is not going to get us anywhere.”
Players in the game can help each other out by mitigating crises for one another and taking part in international agreements. But cooperative games create different challenges for designers than competitive ones do, says Menapace. “You can’t rely on players going against each other to create tension or interest, you have to rely on different kinds of emotional drivers for people to play.”
Other board games which aim to spark conversation about climate action have also gravitated towards cooperative gameplay. To win the card driven strategy game Tiny Footprint, for example, players must all cut their carbon footprints to two tonnes of CO2 per year. And while the first version of Carbon City Zero, a game released by UK climate action charity Possible, was a purely competitive game, the charity decided to add a cooperative element in the second version.
“[T]he message which came out of our player focus groups was really clear – the crisis isn’t experienced or tackled in isolation, so the gameplay has to be cooperative to reflect that, as well as being international,” says Alice Bell, co-director of Possible.
Carbon City Zero was developed in part simply to help start conversations about climate change. “Playing a game about climate change gives you an opportunity to have the conversations we don’t normally have day to day,” says Bell. “It brings climate change into a space it wouldn’t otherwise be.”
Leacock’s hope is that their new game will give players a better idea of the largest factors contributing to climate change and what solutions look like, but also a positive outlook that change is possible. “I guess the stretch would be to help build a bit of groundswell for more collective action,” he says.
Studies have suggested that games can both help people grasp complex concepts and motivate them to act. Moriarity adds that games can also give people something no other art form can do: agency. “As a player, you are not merely an audience, you are participants,” she says. “Putting players into that place where they can make choices, and see the impact of those choices, changes everything. Suddenly, you are no longer helpless. Games can give you the feeling of agency and power, and the understanding that you can do something.” This could ultimately help to grow the political will to rise to the climate crisis.
Games also create a protected space where people can explore and internalise the dynamics of a system, adds Leacock. “You can actually make those agonising decisions and really internalise what’s going on. I think that they’re really powerful in that regard.”
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