Could a video game help us solve climate change?


Video games are amazing, immersive, addictive. They’re also a powerful storytelling tool. We spend more time playing them every year. But can you name a modern, mainstream game
that tackles the biggest crisis facing humanity? Yeah, neither can we. But there’s a guy who wants to change that. Meet Dargan Frierson. His main job is running climate simulations to better understand how warming affects our planet. “We only have one Earth to observe. But with a model, you can make up all sorts of imaginary planets. That research line is not too far from video games.” It takes a lot to grab people’s attention
when it comes to climate change. It’s abstract. It’s often academic. And it’s a bummer! A good video game could fix those issues. It could make climate change more tangible and immediate. It could show people how they could fight it or fail. And unlike real life, failing is okay! Roughly a third of the people in the world
are gamers. So a climate change video game could have a big impact. That’s the idea behind Earth Games, a University
of Washington lab designing games about climate and environmental science. Students have created games explaining the
physics behind the greenhouse effect, or how soot is making the Arctic warm even faster. There’s a problem though: “I think most educational games are not very good.” Minecraft, a popular building block game,
offers an education edition, which teachers have used in engineering or simple computer coding lessons. There’s even a pretty good example of a
major climate change game: SimEarth was released in 1990 by climate scientist James Lovelock
and designer Will Wright. Players create a fictional earth, complete
with geology, weather, climate systems, and even lifeforms. Your design choices have immediate, evidence-based
impacts on how your planet functions. It was essentially a climate model in the
form of a game, complete with a 200-page science manual. “I’m not surprised that people still talk about it, because it was such an important thing. I think what is more surprising
that nobody has really made anything like that since then.” Here are some lessons they’ve learned from
their game, Infrared Escape: You play as a beam of infrared light traveling
through the air and dodging CO2. Your goal is to escape the atmosphere without
contributing to climate change. It’s straightforward, like Pac-Man. And that’s the key. “Climate denial organizations have just
tried to get across that the science is very complicated.” Infrared escape is not complicated. See these dots? That’s CO2. We often can’t see pollution, but you can
in Infrared Escape. “So many aspects of pollution are invisible,
or are only detectable in statistical studies.” Climate change feels a lot more urgent when
it causes you to lose a game. In the game, you can unlock something like
the Paris Climate Agreement. The game is still challenging, but once the
accord is signed, it’s actually winnable. This is really what Earth Games is trying
to do: Empower people with big ideas to collaborate. Because in virtual reality or reality reality,
no one person is going to solve climate change. In April, Earth Games co-sponsored a 48-hour
game jam in Seattle. Designers and hobbyists got together and competed
to build a climate game in a weekend. Most of them had no background in climate science, just an interest in creating a great tale. Frierson’s betting that if he shows enough
people they can tell a great story about climate change, eventually someone will. Until then, I guess we’re stuck with 90s
graphics to stave off the climate apocalypse. One more thing. Video games aren’t the only tool Frierson
uses to get people interested in climate change:

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