Can climate change board games turn play into action?

Can climate change board games turn play into action?

This article was originally published on Nexus Media.

Europe plants trees to offset its emissions but is quickly ravaged by massive wildfires. The United States is investing in overseas mining operations to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, but has concerns about trading with an abusive government. Meanwhile, a coalition of countries in the Global South must decide whether to accept construction loans from China or the United States.

These are not talks at another high-profile global summit, but scenarios envisioned by the board game breaking Dawn, which will hit shelves this spring. Four players – the United States, China, Europe and the “majority world” comprising the Global South – are cooperating to achieve zero emissions before 2 degrees of warming is reached or too many communities fall into crisis.

“[We] recognized that the game should represent the human suffering and losses caused by the climate crisis and that the challenge was not just a war on carbon,” said co-creator Matt Leacock.

In the world of board games, most titles revolve around total victories over opponents in zero-sum competitions. In the new genre of climate-themed games, developers like Leacock are making collaboration the key to success.

Leacock, who designed the hit game Pandemicsaid that he and fellow designer Mattero Menapace initially based breaking Dawn on a textbook model of the atmospheric emission cycle; Conversations with support groups prompted her to take a more people-centric approach. The makers of Breaking Dawn, who have built a following on crowdfunding website Backerkit, have pledged to donate a portion of profits to climate justice organizations. (They also said they would not use any plastic materials in the game.)

Board games and puzzles are an $11 billion industry — an industry that grew 20% between 2019 and 2021, a boom fueled in part by pandemic-related boredom and digital fatigue, according to market research group Euromonitor International.

Role-playing games and empire-building adventures like Settlers of Catan have steadily transformed board games from a children’s game dominated by brands like Hasbro and Mattel into a sprawling, diverse market where smaller designers create games for adults. In recent years, these designers have released climate and biodiversity-themed titles such as span, cascadeand breaking Dawn.

How climate change board games could make the game a reality
Matteo Menapace / Nexus Media.

“There’s a growing public desire to be concrete about climate change,” said designer Matt Parker, who has also taught game development classes. “People often do not want to face up to climate change or feel powerless in the face of its complexity. But a big part of the joy of board games is bringing complex systems into contact with other people.”

2020, Span, in which players develop biodiverse habitats for birds, was named Best Strategy Game by the American Tabletop Awards. The game was reviewed by Science Journal Naturein addition to more traditional gaming publications, and sold over 750,000 sets in its first year.

Last year, cascadein which players compete to create the “most harmonious ecosystem” in the Pacific Northwest, won the prestigious Game of the Year award as well as Best Strategy Competition at the American Tabletop Awards.

Other recent titles include Kyotowhere players put themselves in the shoes of climate negotiators; renaturationwhere the goal is to restore a polluted valley, and turning pointwhere participants build cities that must adapt to a warming climate.

These games can do more than just entertain, research shows. Simulation games can make learning about international climate policy measurably easier, according to a 2018 study published in climate change. The authors found that playing a single round of the climate game stay calm increased sense of responsibility of the participants towards the environment and trust in climate cooperation.

A separate 2020 study published in the journal simulation and gaming came to similar conclusions. Researchers found that games provided a “simplified alternative to over-complicated science communication” and that “presenting reality in a highly focused and simplified way” helped gamers conceptualize climate change in a tangible way.

Although many of these games like breaking Dawnimagine future climate scenarios, some look to the past and explore past injustices.

Rising waters, published by Central Michigan University Press in October, depicts the great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that killed hundreds and displaced about 700,000 people.

The flood was one of the most destructive in American history. It disproportionately affected black communities along the Delta lowlands, communities largely excluded from government relief programs. Players cooperate to save their families from floods and white vigilantes.

Elizabeth “Scout” Blum, professor of environmental history at Troy University in Alabama Rising waters along with a team of historical, gaming and artistic collaborators and consultants.

“You are confronted with sobering questions. To the point that when we design situations, we think about how not to be insensitive or trigger people while still including these really important issues,” said Blum, noting that the game touched on difficult issues like food insecurity and lynchings, which people would often prefer not to think – no different than climate change. “The hope plays can teach empathy and understanding or inspire outrage and questioning, whichever is appropriate.”

According to Blum, games can provide a space for both students and the general public to explore challenging questions. They are also important decision-making tools used at the highest levels of power.

A chemical engineer by training, Ed McGrady has directed wargames for a number of government agencies, including the White House. McGrady, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), said gaming can help gamers anticipate and plan for future conflicts and emergencies.

“This competitive interaction with a live human being — it makes you care more about the problem at hand and think creatively about it than any type of report, learning device, or briefing mechanism ever could,” said Ed McGrady.

During the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, he organized a game to examine the impact of climate change on global security. Players found that rising temperatures would trigger migration flows to Europe and the United States, leading to popular discontent and a rise in authoritarian governance. At the time, McGrady said he and other pundits were surprised by the game’s far-reaching results. But after the rise of far-right leaders over the next few years, the game proved prescient.

Game making is also a form of storytelling. It’s one that has traditionally been dominated by white male designers – according to one analysis, more than 96% of designers of top-tier board games were white males. Bringing more diversity to game design can tell a richer story about climate change and biodiversity.

Rising waters Illustrator Makiyah Alexander said growing up, she longed to see stories that featured people of color. During Rising waters shows the suffering of black Americans after the 1927 flood, it also identifies niches of agency and resistance; Alexander designed the deck of community cards that players must draw from to survive the game, featured with energy sources such as blues music, farm animals, church, garden, family, and education.

“So many [games] is it about conquest or division; I felt it was important to share something of ourselves, about our values ​​of unity and equality with others,” said Inuk designer Thomassie Mangiok. “Our dog sled teams are also seen as partners, not as pets.”

Mangiok, a school administrator, created a game called Nunami – “on the land” in Inuktitut – to share the traditions of his village of Ivujivik, the northernmost settlement in Canada. Players work together to achieve a balance between the natural and human elements of the arctic tundra before their characters starve to death.

“The message I want to convey with my game is to work together with others and create a better environment for everyone,” he said. “We remember how to work together and we can show that in a playful way.”


Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, non-profit news service on climate change. Follow us @NexusMediaNews.

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