Video games can make climate change real for players - here's how
A boy reacts as he plays a game during the first day of Europe's leading digital games fair Gamescom, which showcases the latest trends of the computer gaming scene in Cologne, Germany, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
What’s the context?
The $200-billion gaming industry is increasingly featuring the climate crisis, but it’s just as likely to lead to harms as gains
- More video games are about climate change issues
- Games can have beneficial behavioural effects on players
- Games can also create a false impression of easy fixes
LONDON - The ice caps have melted. Continents have been reduced to a handful of islands. Survivors seek to rebuild what is known as the Floodlands.
That is the premise of a video game released this year that represents a new approach developers are taking: using games to educate players on climate change, and what might happen if they fail to rein it in.
In an earlier game, Eco, the land is still vibrant and human society is growing. Eventually, an asteroid strikes, but the inhabitants do not know that yet.
Eco and Floodlands approach climate change differently - the former as imminent doom, the latter as its aftermath. Both are part of efforts by the $200-billion gaming industry to be a part of the growing discussion on climate change.
"The game shows the worst-case scenario," Kacper Kwiatkowski, Floodlands designer and head of game studio Vile Monarch, told the Context over email.
"Our early research indicated that a realistic rise of sea levels is several metres. We decided to assume 10-15 (metres) in the game for more dramatism. Now it seems that this dramatic scenario is not necessarily an unlikely one," he said.
Globally, there are about 2.6 billion gamers. Activists and governments are hoping they can encourage behavioural change among gamers through green nudges, where points are awarded for protecting the environment in consumer games, or explicitly educational, interactive play.
The goal is to close the psychological gap between what people know and what they resonate with, said Hamid Homatash, a lecturer on computer games at Glasgow Caledonian University.
"You can be told all this information that the ice caps are melting, but what does that really mean? It's quite alien in a way, because you can't really comprehend that experience," he said over a video call.
At the 2017 United Nations climate summit in Germany, COP23, and at COP24 in Poland the next year, Homatash presented a game called Earth Remembers to delegates, in which players fight the effects of global warming based on an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change model showing the temperature rise.
"The people in the room playing it had audible gasps," Homatash recalls. "They were actually shocked and horrified when they saw it happen in front of their eyes."
In the United States, only 42% of adults believe dealing with climate change should be a top priority, according to the U.S.-based data and polling organisation Pew Research Centre.
In Israel and Russia, approximately half of people believe global climate change is a minor threat, or not a threat at all, it found.
British gamer Ewan Dineen said playing Eco made him more aware of the climate crisis.
"I was aware of climate change before, but didn't really take much notice of my own environmental impact," said Dineen, 19, an engineering student at University of the West of England Bristol.
Since putting over 500 hours into the game, Dineen says he thinks more about his climate footprint, walking instead of taking a car ride, eating less meat, and carrying his own water bottle.
But while video games can encourage beneficial behaviour like Dineen's, experts say they can also instill bad practices.
In Nintendo's popular Animal Crossing game, players can sustainably plant fruit trees or harvest the island of all its resources by mercilessly chopping them down.
Research shows the game made players feel positively about their choices, no matter whether the action was considerate or exploitative of the natural resources.
In another game - Civilisation VI's 'Gathering Storm' - players must consider how cities prepare for survival as increased carbon dioxide emissions cause rising sea levels, droughts, and extreme weather.
This includes defences like flood barriers, but also new and controversial technology such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).
While the game can help gamers grasp the damaging effects of climate change, it also shows technologies like CCS being implemented with relative ease - which can have damaging real-world impacts.
"(It) can create a sense, without all the politics involved, that there is a technofix that can solve the issue of a warming planet," said Elliot Honeybun-Arnolda from the University of East Anglia's School of Environmental Sciences.
"The ways in which it portrays technologies without politics, and politics without conflict, may lead to quite damaging understandings of possible climate change solutions."
There is little data tracking games that feature climate change, and the number of those games is likely still low.
However, the number of dystopian video games has risen over the past years, and is about 3% of the industry now, according to the industry tracking platform VG Insights.
But not all of these are related to the climate crisis. Many feature pandemics and other catastrophes.
Platforms like YouTube and Twitch have encouraged some climate researchers to experiment with streaming to attract viewers, but with mixed results.
In 2018, Henri Drake, then a doctoral student in physical oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started the channel ClimateFortnite to stream the popular video game Fortnite on Twitch. As he played, guests spoke about politics and the environment.
Several major publications covered the channel, but Drake shut it down after a few months.
ClimateFortnite went "predictably viral," Drake said in an email. But he said the format was not an effective way to talk about science due to the game's fast pace and the focus required to be effective.
An attempt to pivot to games like Eco and Civilisation VI, which were better for climate-based discussions, came at the cost of less engagement from viewers, he said.
"These games are excellent and effective at communicating both the problem of climate change (and, crucially, its solutions) but they unfortunately are not very appealing for live-streaming," Drake said.
"The fundamental difficulty in making climate exciting (in gaming and in reality) is that it is a gradual, incremental problem caused largely by an invisible gas."
(Reporting by Adam Smith; Editing by Yasir Khan.)
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