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Playing Games with the Climate
Jamais Cascio, 8 Oct 05

keepcoollogo.jpg"Shall We Play A Game?" -- WOPR, War Games (1983)

I have a particular affection for games that allow one to contemplate the end of the world. It's not quite terriblisma, as I don't get a particular thrill out of losing; it's more of a sense that, with the right combination of risk, foresight and luck, the worst outcomes can be avoided. The tougher the challenge, the more satisfying the success.

However, games simulating the possibility of global thermonuclear war are a bit passé now; instead, what we're starting to see is the emergence of games simulating the competition between nations in the era of global warming. It has the right underlying mechanism to keep it a "game": players seek to maximize their own situation without tipping the board into an "everyone loses" ending. Such games can be quite fun -- but as we've found before, the assumptions built into the rules are even more important to understand than the rules themselves.

Political and environmental games are not new, but few have focused specifically on climate issues while still remaining more a game than a pedagogical exercise. This is changing, now that the European Climate Forum -- with support from re-insurance giant Munich Re -- has sponsored the development of several climate games:

Climate games may make the difference when communicating highly complex issues of climate change because they introduce a rather simple but very important element into communication: having fun. As known from the science of learning, having fun catalyses learning processes remarkably and makes people interested in subjects they would not make inquiries into otherwise.

Climate games are both tools for communicating scientific issues and objects of scientific inquiry themselves. The latter applies because looking on the communication processes climate games trigger is one of the fields of the science of stakeholder dialogues.

The three games now available from the ECF represent an increasing degree of sophistication not just about the climate, but about game design as well.

climatecompgame.jpgThe first of the three games, the Climate Computer Game, barely rises above "teaching tool" in its level of interaction and competition. As with all three of the games, the Climate Computer Game emphasizes the tension between each player seeking to maximize his or her interests without triggering a climate collapse. The game is limited, however, to a small number of moves, and only two players at a shared computer -- appropriate for a classroom demonstration, perhaps, but lousy for repeat play. Unlike the other two games, the Climate Computer Game is free -- you can download the Windows (only) executable file here. Two caveats before you click "download:" the game file is over 100MB in size; and the game itself is only in German.

keepcool_small.jpgThe latter is also the case with the first of the two ECF-sponsored board games, Keep Cool. Keep Cool allows for up to six players, with a board based on a map of the world. Each player has to manage global economic interests, the desires of local lobbyists and domestic actors such as the oil industry and environmental groups, and (of course) the planet's climate. Negotiations over CO2 output, "carbon credits," and factory locations drive the game, along with basic rules for the global economy. Risks include droughts, floods or pandemics, along with the overall collapse of the climate if the "Carbometer" goes too high. [There are more details to the game elements, but much of the game description page hasn't yet been translated from German, and I don't trust automated translation systems to be able to parse a combination of game and science terms.] Keep Cool costs €25, ordered from Germany.

windsofchangegame.jpgThe newest of the three -- released this past April -- is Winds of Change. Winds of Change follows the Keep Cool model of a global board game mixing economic interests and climate risks, but takes it a step further by adding an explicit technological change aspect to the game mechanism. Players must decide between investments in cheap fossil fuel-driven cities and carbon credits or expensive green cities and technology development; players must also decide whether to buy insurance or just ride out disasters with accumulated income. Throughout the game, economic output translates into increased CO2, leading towards greater warming -- if the Earth's average temperature ever rises to +4°, the game ends with everyone the loser.

Winds of Change is available in English -- the rules can be downloaded here (PDF) -- and looks to come the closest of the three to a game design that best mixes game competition and real-world systems. At the same time, it's also the one where the relationship between underlying assumptions and game outcomes is the most visible. For example:

  • Only the player that invests the most in research gets the "new technology" chip;
  • High-tech "Green" cities produce far less economic benefit than the pollution-laden "Gray" cities;
  • Conversely, Green cities cost nearly twice as much to build as Gray cities;

    WorldChanging readers know that none of these three rules are necessarily true in the real world.

    Reading the rules for Winds of Change make me eager to get in there and modify them, to make the WorldChanging variant of the Winds of Change game. Maybe this is yet another driver for the creation of an entirely-new WorldChanging game, one that gives a greater value to innovation but also makes the risks of failure all the greater (trust me, you don't want to draw the "Permafrost Melts, Methane Released" event card!).

    Winds of Change can be bought online for €29 directly from the European Climate Forum.


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    Comments

    Keep Cool was co-created by Gerhard Pestchel-Held a scientist at the Postsdam Climate Institute, who was one of the main drivers of the innovative syndromes' approach to Global Change.

    Tragically, and unexpectedly, he recently died. Not only was his death a great personal loss for those of us who knew him, but the global change research (and gaming) community lost a brilliant mind.


    Posted by: Garry Peterson on 8 Oct 05

    i would like to make a computer game for miniclip, somthing exciting,an interesting game that I no children will like. I might be just a 12 yr old kid but I no what children want and NEED.
    I think I am a talented drawer and a 110% user of my brain in imagination i was wondering could whoever reads this, seend me information on how to make a game and get it to miniclip.
    thannk you Ben Comerford
    11 Ironbark place Springvale Wagga Wagga Australia 2650


    Posted by: Ben Comerford on 9 Oct 05



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