Mapping Climate Games: the good, the bad, and the broken
By Carien Moossdorff
Carien is a cultural sociologist and PhD candidate at Anticiplay. She observes very serious societal processes going on in game, play, and leisure — as well as very light-hearted, playful, and joyful mechanics in earnest institutions. In her PhD, Carien investigates how games can allow us to engage emotionally with transformations.
‘Where is the fiction about Climate Change?’ Amitav Ghosh asked in 2016. He writes that the extreme weather events happening to Earth right now are so unlikely that they are unconvincing for ‘serious fiction’; but they are too painfully real for poetry and magical writing. So where is the fiction about Climate Change? Part of the answer is — in games, actually. But what climate games are actually worthwhile and how do we make them matter?
I am currently mapping existing climate games and distilling best practices from them, as part of our team’s work for the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security program. I will of course gladly share what my final findings will be - for the fight against global warming, for the sake of open science, and for your entertainment. Today, I will give a sneak peak in the form of shout-outs to specific games, connected to some six preliminary best practices. And tomorrow, let’s all share a likeable climate game with someone else. (The Day After Tomorrow shows that not all climate fiction is great — but that it was around in 2004.)
The chances of climate games having any kind of serious effect will be much greater if they reach more people; these good practices can thrive if we reward them. So far, close to 200 games that are about climate change, global warming, or at least tangentially related to man-made environmental problems have come up in my search process. In this blog, I will only use examples that are freely accessible on devices that most people have, so phones or personal computers.
This brings me to my first Good Practice:
1.Accessibility. Obviously, providing an excellent game free of charge is not always possible — but it is a potential ideal, so I’m listing it anyway. This is most important if your goal as a designer is to reach as many people as possible, and if you want to reach people that wouldn’t pay money to save the environment; if you want to reach people with less money to spend and no access to consoles. Additionally, since global warming is a, well, global issue, it is important to think about language availability, whether time zones matter for multiplayer modes, whether references work cross-nationally. In general, of course, it will matter whether you use a lot of text, for people with low literacy or less eyesight. It will matter whether sound is required for a good experience; whether colors are close together, et cetera.
Clearly, the first Good Practice comes with caveats right away (boring!): it depends. Or, more precisely, it is paired with the second Good Practice:
2. Choose your audience. Make it an active choice. It is confusing when a game drops information on you like you have asked it to deliver the statistical report ASAP, and then turns right back into a Bejeweled game. It is really nice when a game is designed for kids, and uses simple, fun mechanics, language, and narrative to go with that. It is nice when a game is clearly aimed at adult sustainability nerds, and the gameplay is a thinly veiled spreadsheet model.
Connecting this to the first point of accessibility, this means that a good game probably cannot be freely accessible to all — but let it be a conscious choice who you include or not. Elaborate games may even benefit from a proper, regional price-point over being free of charge (but can you open it up to schools? Or facilitate players gifting the game after finishing it?).
- Garbage Gobblers, for kids. Trash approaches a planet from space. You make sure the different pieces land on the right bin. Gameplay is simple and the look is cute.
- Environment Inc., for spreadsheet nerds. Purchase policy options to improve your stats and stabilize your ecosystem. It looks terrible but the system is both challenging and rewarding enough.
Let me take a quick step back, for Good Practice:
0. Get the game working. When I say that, I mean: first of all, don’t forget to actually make it a game, if that’s what you’re trying to do. Clicking to the next screen doesn’t count. Workshops, visual novels, interactive movie clips can all be great tools too — but if you are presenting something as a game, you need some sort of game mechanics, limiting conditions to achieve a certain goal. You need to give your players some challenge to overcome with choice and skill. And I also mean, get it working. The world of climate games is not helped by trash, dysfunctional products flooding the search results.
Shout-outs (for, sadly, only one part of this good practice each):
- The Journey of Global Warming. It is so sad that this wonderful idea apparently never got finished! In this game, global warming effects are personified as actual demons that you can fight as a battle mage or warrior. In between fights, you can see environmental effects and get information about why this matters from NPCs. The style is amazing, with a classic 2d-perspective and color palette. However, the game is not finished; it is very buggy and the text screens disappear in a flash. In the description, I read that it was developed by an actual teenager — I hope this obviously super talented person didn’t give up because they ran out of resources and time!
- The Climate Time Machine. This is cute and informative, but it is an interactive graph, not a game. It’s a set of time series visualizations of different metrics for climate change (see ice; CO2, etc.). You can slide to a point in time and see the state of affairs then. It works perfectly, which is great! But, no mechanics, no way to win, no challenge.
3. Get the lesson right to suit your goals. A surprising number of games out there feature penguins and polar bears that die as soon as they touch water. There are very few animals that die from water, and these two are top-tier swimmers. When you do a quiz and the player gets a wrong answer, show them what they should have said!
EDIT: To share that this is an ongoing process, I will simply add new insights to this. Since writing this, I had a wonderful talk with a digital table full of game designers over at IGDA’s Climate group, and they have nuanced my view on this. Blatant lying is wrong, especially if you cause damage. What you absolutely need to get right, depends on the main purpose of your game. Some penguins may die from water poisoning, if the only message is ‘sea level rise bad’.
4. Be brave, be nuanced. It is very tempting to keep things simple by making them dumb. But fun games are not dumb. Some (but not all) nuance that exists in real life can give depth and realism to a climate game.
- Eco Warriors: Rodrigues. You clean the beaches, and help out endangered species. But not all human-life is bad, and not all nature is ‘good’ or safe to be around!
- Climate Run is a cute and simple endless runner that gives you some information about climate change. Even though you play as a penguin, story mode quickly takes you away from the arctic to explain to you that that is not the only region affected by climate change.
5. Get the feeling right. People want to care about climate change, and want to care about your game. Give your audience opportunities to connect to your game — NPCs to care about, a place to call their own, or at least a process to call their own.
- The Climate Trail. It is a strange game to me. On the surface, I like nothing about it: It lectures and information-dumps at me, initially. After that, the game mechanics are very simple and kind of boring; it is extremely repetitive; you have very limited agency. And yet, this game is so good to me, because it sticks with me. It makes me feel the despair of running from catastrophe. At one point, looking for food (to no avail) in one of the towns along the way, I surprised myself by mumbling ‘but there has to be food here!’ at my screen.
- Desertopia. It only obliquely relates to climate change; you stabilize an island that had turned into desert, by producing enough rain that vegetation returns. You can then look for creatures that inhabit your newly founded ecosystem. It is adorable and I care deeply about my own little island — I just found a capybara!
These have been my first six Good Practices for Climate Games. Can we talk? I want to know your opinions — did I miss good practices that should have been top 6?
And I need your help. Good climate games, or climate games with good in them, need to reach the right audiences. Many short and free games are out there. Play one today, and if it’s any good, tweet about it, forward it to someone else, or give it a nice rating!
If you want to experience some climate games second-hand, I will be streaming some of them from time to time on our Friday lunch streams on Twitch. I will be extracting more good practices by playing all the climate games I can find, and I will discuss what I find with game-experts. My findings will appear on this blog and my ears are always open to your thoughts!
The research Carien reports on here is funded by the CGIAR research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. Our larger project Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!