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 is planting trees to offset its emissions, but is quickly affected by massive forest fires. The United States is investing in mining operations abroad to break its reliance on fossil fuels, but harbors concerns about trading with an abusive government. Meanwhile, a coalition of countries from the Global South must decide whether to accept construction loans from China or the United States.

These are not talks at another high-profile world summit, but scenarios envisioned by the board game. Sunrise, which hits stores this spring. Four players, the United States, China, Europe and the “Majority World,” which encompasses the Global South, are cooperating to reach zero emissions before they reach 2 degrees of warming or put too many communities in crisis.

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

In the world of board games, most titles involve outright wins over opponents in zero-sum competitions. In the new genre of weather-related games, creators like Leacock make collaboration the key to success.

Leacock, who designed the hit game Pandemicsaid he and fellow designer Mattero Menapace initially settled Sunrise in a textbook model of the atmospheric emissions cycle; discussions with relief groups prompted them to take a more people-centred approach. the creators of Sunrise, who developed a following on crowdfunding site Backerkit, have pledged to donate a portion of the proceeds to climate justice organizations. (They also said they wouldn’t use plastic materials in the game.)

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

RPGs and empire-building adventures like settlers of catan they have steadily transformed board games from a children’s hobby dominated by brands like Hasbro and Mattel to a diverse and expanding market where smaller designers create games for adults. In recent years, those designers have released climate and biodiversity related titles such as Wingspan, WaterfallY Sunrise.

How climate change board games could turn play into action
Matteo Menapace / Nexus Media.

“There is a greater public desire to engage with climate change in a tangible way,” said designer Matt Parker, who has also taught courses on game development. “Often people do not want to face climate change or feel powerless in the face of its complexity. But much of the joy of board games lies in engaging complex systems with other people.”

In 2020, Wingspan, in which players develop biodiverse bird habitats, was named best strategy game by the American Tabletop Awards. The game was reviewed by scientific magazine. Naturein addition to more traditional game publications, and sold over 750,000 games in its first year.

Last year, Waterfallwhere players compete to create “the most harmonious ecosystem” in the Pacific Northwest, won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award, as well as the American Tabletop Awards Best Strategy competition.

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

These games do more than just entertain, research shows. Simulation games can greatly facilitate learning about international climate policy, according to a 2018 study published in Climate change. The authors found that playing a single round of the climate game Keep calm greater sense of responsibility of the participants towards the environment and confidence in climate cooperation.

A separate 2020 study published in the journal Simulation and Games They reached similar conclusions. The researchers found that the games presented a “simplified alternative to overly complicated scientific communication” and that “portraying reality in a highly concentrated and simplified way” helped players conceptualize climate change in tangible ways.

Although many of these games, such as Sunriseimagine future climate scenarios, some looking back in time and exploring past injustices.

rising waters, published by Central Michigan University Press in October, it describes the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which killed hundreds and displaced an estimated 700,000 people.

The flood was one of the most destructive in US history. It disproportionately affected black communities throughout the Delta lowlands, communities that were largely excluded from government relief programs. Players cooperate to save their families from flooding and the violence of white vigilantes.

Elizabeth ‘Scout’ Blum, a professor of environmental history at Troy University in Alabama, created rising waters together with a team of collaborators and historical, playful and artistic consultants.

“You are faced with sobering questions. To the point that in designing situations, we thought about how not to be insensitive or provoke people, while still including these really important issues,” Blum said, noting that the game tackled tough topics like food insecurity and lynchings that often people would prefer. not think, not unlike climate change. “Hope is Playing can teach empathy and understanding or spark outrage and questions, as appropriate.”

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

Ed McGrady, a chemical engineer by training, has conducted war games for a variety of government entities, including the White House. McGrady, associate principal investigator at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), said the games can help players anticipate future conflicts and emergencies and plan accordingly.

“That competitive interaction with a living human being causes you to care and think creatively about the issue at hand more than any kind of report, learning device, or information mechanism,” Ed McGrady said.

During the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, he hosted a game to examine climate impacts on global security. Players discovered that rising temperatures would trigger migration flows to Europe and the United States, leading to popular discontent and a rise in authoritarian rule. At the time, McGrady said that he and other experts were surprised by the game’s far-reaching results. But with the rise of far-right leaders in the years that followed, the game proved prescient.

Game making is also a way of telling stories. It’s one that has traditionally been dominated by white male designers: according to one analysis, more than 96% of top board game designers were white men. Bringing more diversity to the field of 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 centered on people of color. Time rising waters shows the suffering of black Americans in the aftermath of the 1927 flood, also identifies pockets of agency and resistance; Alexander designed the deck of Community Cards that players must use to survive in the game, labeled with sources of power including blues music, farm animals, church, garden, family, and education.

“so many [games] it is about conquering or dividing; I thought it was important to share something about ourselves, about our values ​​of unity and being equal to others,” said Inuk designer Thomassie Mangiok. “Even our dog sled teams are seen as partners, not pets.”

Mangiok, a school administrator, created a game called nunami – “on the land” in Inuktitut – as a way of sharing the traditions of their people Ivujivik, the northernmost settlement in Canada. Players work together to strike a balance between the natural and human elements of the arctic tundra before their characters starve.

“The message I’m trying to send through my game is to work with others, to create a better environment for everyone,” he said. “We remember how to work together, and through play, we can show it.”


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

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