Virtual reality games offer visceral taste of a climate-changed future
Chance Glasco, the producer of an Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center virtual reality video game, shows it to a user at the COP27 U.N. climate talks in in Sharm el-Sheikh, November 2022. Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation
What’s the context?
Climate change futures can be hard to grasp, but immersive VR gaming is putting people there, and may drive better policy
- Games offer decision-makers a choice of alternative futures
- Virtual reality seen as immersive way to experience climate risk
- Videogames incorporating climate impacts on the rise
It's 2040 in Miami, and a powerful hurricane has swamped the low-lying city. You stand alone under a dark, foreboding sky, chest-high waves sloshing around you, an abandoned car floating nearby one of the few objects visible in the expanse of water.
A ball-shaped robot then hovers into view, urging you to grab a computer hard drive from the car. Once you insert the drive into the robot, you're whisked out of the harrowing scenario and back to safety.
The scene is from an immersive virtual reality game developed for the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock) as part of growing efforts to give policymakers a visceral sense of what their decisions on climate change today could mean in the future, for good or bad.
"People don't realise what their city will be like in 2040 if they don't implement climate solutions," said Nidhi Upadhyaya, a deputy director of the U.S.-based centre. But using virtual reality, "we can get them to see what's going to happen."
Climate experts have long struggled to help people see and emotionally grasp likely futures as the planet heats, both the dystopian and the potentially positive – the cheap, clean energy, thriving economies, and healthy nature and people that could be possible with a swift shift away from fossil fuels.
But virtual reality - particularly games that put controllers in users' hands, letting them make decisions and see the consequences - are changing that.
"Virtual reality is a very powerful medium - especially if it's the first time you've had experience with it," said Chance Glasco, the producer of the Arsht-Rock game and one of those showing it off at the COP27 United Nations climate talks in Egypt last month.
"It's amazing what it can do - it feels like being portaled to another destination," said the animator, who has previously helped develop a range of best-selling commercial videogames, including Call of Duty.
At COP27, those trying out the experience ranged from a delegation of Indian government officials - who told Upadhyaya they saw virtual reality games as a great potential tool for training their teams - to a goat-herding Bedouin sheikh transfixed at being instantly transported to the United States.
"I'm in America! I've always wanted to go to America!" he exclaimed, controllers in hand, as he navigated through scenes including a futuristic Miami complete with solar-panelled street shades, electric cars and a Mobil electric vehicle recharging station.
Adding climate risk
Climate change pressures and impacts are already making their way into a growing range of commercial videogames, Glasco said - giving some of the world's estimated 3 billion videogamers almost tangible first-hand experience with them.
Floodland, a survival game set in a world drowned by climate change, launched last month, for example, and SimCity, a long-standing world-building game, added climate change impacts as long as a decade ago.
Martial Arts Tycoon, a game developed by Glasco's private studio, lets players manage a martial arts gym, with training done in part on the roofs of Brazil's infamous slum favelas.
As temperatures get hotter, the fighters being trained have a greater chance of heat exhaustion, hurting their agility. But investing in shade covers and giving fighters plenty of water limits the damage.
Heatwaves in the game are given names and ratings - the way hurricanes and tropical storms are currently named globally - a change Arsht-Rock hopes to bring about in the real world to improve awareness of fast-worsening extreme heat risks.
Glasco said the idea isn't to build climate-change videogames, but to make climate change a reality in games in a way that builds awareness of the same changes happening in the external world.
"If a million people play this game and are introduced to the heatwave ranking system, once rankings are deployed on the news they'll say, 'Hey, I ought to stay inside,'" noted Glasco, a senior fellow at Arsht-Rock.
The Miami 2040 prototype game was put together on the cheap in under three months, but high-spec games can cost over $100,000, or millions for a commercial product, he said.
Still, Arsht-Rock thinks the technology's ability to make climate change risks and opportunities powerfully real will drive investments in similar games by government bodies, businesses, nonprofits and others.
It has launched a gaming centre with the aim of creating its own games and helping other organisations expand the genre, as part of a broader push to drive effective climate policy and build resilience to impacts.
"We want every policymaker to try this," said Upadhyaya at Arsht-Rock. Many people are now aware climate change risks are growing, "but this is a faster way of educating them", she added.
Glasco said he's beginning to wonder just how much power the new virtual reality games actually have.
The first time he showed the Miami 2040 game, on a trip to Washington D.C., Hurricane Ian slammed into his home in the Florida city of Orlando, forcing him to return to his soggy house by jet-ski through flooded streets.
A month and a half later, on the day he began exhibiting the videogame at COP27 in Egypt, another hurricane hit his home.
"It might be it's a weather manipulation game," he joked. "If it happens one more time I might have to throw it off my roof - and save Florida."
(Reporting by Laurie Goering; Editing by Jumana Farouky.)
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