Games are always, for better or worse, a learning experience. And among games, some of the most immersive and engaging experiences are provided by videogames.
As people (not only young ones) spend more and more time exploring the digital world, a question worth exploring is: what are they learning? And: can this great potential be put to good use?
Arguably, climate change is the biggest challenge humankind is facing today. So – are there videogames which explore this topic, its consequences, and can possibly help finding solutions?
Of course yes, there are. In this article I will briefly describe two that I found very interesting. One is a classic, which offers a simplified but approachable take on the topic. The second (scroll down to find out) is for more experienced gamers or science students, and delivers a much deeper – and much darker – challenge.
Civilization VI: Gathering Storm.
Released on 14th of February 2019 (possibly implying that strategy videogames lovers needed… something to do on Valentine Day?), this is the latest version of the super classic “Civilization” game (for my day-one experience of the game you can check here).
“Gathering Storm” brings something very old, and yet new to the almost 30 years old classic: climate change as an endgame crisis. Weather and natural disasters were already present in previous editions of the game, as well as the negative effects of global warming (which, given that the first Civilization was released in 1991, is visionary and creepy at the same time). But now for the first time these aspects are woven together and fully integrated in the game mechanics, from the start.
In a Civilization game, the player controls a particular human civilization (duh), and guides it from the beginning of recorded history until present times, and a little beyond. In Civ VI, natural phenomena (and disasters) are present throughout all history, with events like floodings, volcanic eruptions and droughts taking occasionally place and affecting the game. Players have limited ways to manage these events – for example, building a dam to prevent floodings – but in the early stages of the game “nature” is pretty much something that happens beyond our control. As it should be.
This aspect changes radically once the world enters the Industrial age. Human development means that cities are hungry for energy, and this comes at first from burning fossil fuels. Coal first, then oil, then uranium and other cleaner energy sources as they become available.
This results in a new “global warming” information panel, which delivers all the information in a visually clear and very easy to understand – if definitely oversimplified – format.
Here, the player can see the total level of CO2 emissions, who and what is responsible for it, and the predicted consequences on nature and human settlements.
What is the game experience?
At first, I jumped into it with a “who cares, let’s see what happens” attitude. I kept playing my usual, classic Civ game, consisting in heavy production and energy consumption. It ended in disaster: as my civilization led the way to industrial revolution, it appeared very clearly how my people were the sole responsible for the early stages of global warming. Consequences started to appear (floodings, more frequent extreme weather events), and affected everybody.
It was sad to see how entire coastal areas were wiped out or submerged as consequences of sea water rise. As a civilization, some limited measures can be taken to contrast the negative effects, like building massive “flood barriers” that save specific land areas. But these are big city projects, expensive to produce and that take a long time to become effective. What about other civilizations who lack the technology, or the resources, to build them? Tough luck. They get all the negative consequence of my consumeristic and irresponsible lifestyle, without having any of the benefits.
Does it sound familiar? Of course it does, the connections to real-life scenarios are clear. Still, it was very interesting to be able to experience this, through a “casual” Civ6 game. I felt strangely grateful for that.
As scientific progress moves on, new technologies become available. First you have the option to convert your old, scary, coal-hungry power plants to oil or uranium, and later it’s possible to switch to renewable sources like solar or wind power. Through the “World Congress” (a game concept that somehow simulates the United Nations) it’s also possible to altogether ban some forms of energy production. I was able to outlaw coal plants (after having used them for 200 years without breaking a sweat, of course, but hey, at least I learn from mistakes, no?).
As a result, other civilizations that were just entering in the most intensive phases of their development started to invest heavily in oil. They had no other option if they wanted to keep up with my pace. Combined with the effects of deforestation (that added a 30% penalty to our global warming, as I learned too late), emissions just kept growing. Soon, I was not anymore the dirtiest boy in the club. But I was even more powerless as the numbers kept going up.
A technology can be developed that allows “carbon recapture” – basically sucking up CO2 from the atmosphere, to store it… uh, under some carpet, somewhere (don’t ask).
As soon as this became possible, I started converting all my cities to the task, with the result that now my emission balance was quite clean.
But other civilizations didn’t seem to care as much. Maybe they didn’t have access to the technology yet, or maybe their agenda was focused on other goals? They seemed to be as happy as ever to declare war to each other, for example.
Even a World Congress resolution that was supposed to start a global competition to lower emissions (something like the “Olympic Games of Clean Air”) had, in my game, very disappointing results. They simply didn’t care. And as Climate Change entered Phase 5 (out of 7), with 55% of polar ice already lost and a staggering 2.5 meters raise in sea water, the world seemed to just… go on with business.
Final verdict. What can we learn?
Despite being ageless classics, the “Civilization” games can be (and have been) criticized – examples here and here – for reinforcing a dogmatic vision of history, seen as a continuous progress towards “more, faster and better”. More people, more cities, more production, more resources being exploited, all wrapped in a “there is no alternative” powerful narrative.
Different human civilizations start off in very different situations, for example some with a stronger connection to their natural environment (things like bonuses from forests, deserts or jungle terrains), but from mid to late game it’s very hard, if not impossible, to play without following a model based on the accumulation of capital and industrial exploitation of natural resources. Hunter gatherers (“natives”) are represented as raiding “barbarians” and their sole purpose in the game is to be eliminated and / or assimilated by more advanced civilizations, as soon as possible. It is possible (theoretically) to stay away from the dominant model, but once other civilizations start having access to advanced industry and weaponry, good luck in keeping your splendid isolation – if you care to “win” at all.
After all, that’s what happened in human history, so maybe it’s the only thing that could have happened. Or is it?
Having said all this, it’s refreshing to see back the original environmental theme, so present in Sid Meier’s early games (check out also the other cult classic Alpha Centauri – basically a Civ in space – for a possibly even stronger take on the subject).
Playing a game of Civilization VI today certainly informs about the realities of climate change and some of its economic, social and scientific aspects. It’s sad to see the landscape change, with the familiar seashores and geography of the game being permanently altered by the effects of the climate crisis.
However, Civ VI is not the deepest simulation out there, nor the most realistic. The absence of effects like migration mean that we can happily ignore our neighbor’s suffering, because it won’t affect our game in any sensible way.
Plus, and maybe more importantly, the game keeps its general optimistic tone and seems to suggest that no matter what, human life on Earth will just go on. There is no “worst case scenario” and once climate change reaches its final stage (7 out of 7)… it simply stops, apparently suggesting that things cannot get worse than that.
Spoiler alert: oh, they can.
Fate of the World.
And to explore just how worse things can get, try this. Definitely a deeper, more challenging experience. Released in 2011, “Fate of the World” is based on the climate prediction model of the Climate Dynamics Group of the University of Oxford.
The game premise is simple: climate change hits the world, and the United Nations create a “Global Climate Agency” with the mandate to mitigate its effects, great powers (you wish) and an adequate budget (keep wishing). A standard game gives players the objective to contain temperature rise under 3° C, until the year 2200 (way above the limits set by the Paris Accord, by the way, which sets 2 degrees as the threshold after which life on Earth will suffer “catastrophic consequences“).
“Fate of the World” has the basic mechanics of a card game. Players get to recruit “agents” and place them in various areas of the planet, where they will be able to enact policies, run programs, research technologies, and so on – like playing cards from a deck.
Each geo-political area starts the game with different conditions, so in the Middle East the initial priority will be political instability, South-East Asia faces deforestation, India is ridden with overpopulation and pollution, and so on. As a consequence the player has to start taking big decisions, pretty fast. Some policies, like educational reforms or baby booms, will unfold effects only several decades down the line; while others (like developing new technologies) affect the game right away. The game invites players to have a very strategic approach to everything they do, and pretty much every decision comes with trade-offs, representing how heavily systems are interconnected.
For example, Carbon Capture technologies (also present here) can help reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, but are pretty demanding in terms of energy – and that baby ain’t free. Or is it?
Other policies will have positive or negative effects on public opinion. Generally, nobody likes taxes and restrictive measures, and everybody loves things like fresh, clean water and protection against wildfires or flooding. The Global Agency will need popular support to keep the public funding that allows it to exist, so your job is two-fold: not only stop climate change by whatever means necessary, at the same time keeping people happy about it – or managing dissent with “black ops” (a dark path that opens, to do things the dirty way – reaching the objectives and gaining “evil points” in the process).
At the end of every game turn, your performance is evaluated both in terms of emission reduction / increase, and of popular support or opposition in every area of the world.
The basic structure of the game seems easy enough.
But “Fate of the World” is not a casual game. Under the inviting graphics and the friendly appearances of a card game, runs a heavy engine based on numbers and science. The prediction model upon which the game is based takes into account an impressive quantity of variables, ranging from global temperature, gas emissions, GDP and other economic parameters, energy production from various sources, detailed demographics for each geopolitical area, and how they are all interconnected.
The menus are a beauty to behold and – if you like screens full of numbers, that is – you will definitely spend some time clicking around but so much data can make you feel dizzy, if not lose hope that you will ever understand what the hell is going on.
The effect can be punishing. It’s almost impossible to “win” the game by messing around and clicking casually. There is a learning curve, and it is steep. Luckily an “unofficial game patch”, realized by the players community, comes in handy and provides more complete and transparent information to guide players who don’t hold a couple of PhDs into understanding the mechanics of the game, especially the complicated system of feedbacks and trade-offs.
In my experience (I have played some 10 games so far, each lasting about a couple of hours), to win the game under any given scenario is hard (and I mean it), but it can be a very rewarding experience. You “win” by fulfilling the given conditions of every different scenario, and I managed on average 1 time out of every 4 games. It forces you to scratch your head, think, try again, understand how the so many variables are interlinked and learning the hard way what causes what effect.
It’s not an experience for casual gamers, but it’s fascinating, very well crafted, and it can be intensely gratifying.
So what can we learn?
The game was developed with an educational purpose, and in that sense, it works. The problem is that its seems designed for a well-educated audience of science students, expert gamers or both, which will limit the number of people who may be reached by its message.
“Fate of the World” delivers a stark teaching, that all the human and natural systems on Earth are interconnected, and that any intervention has to be aware of the complex network of inter-relations, plus a balance between long and short term consequences.
The game also does a fine job at representing a VERY complex issue, in a friendly and captivating way. It introduces a variety of concepts and parameters, most notably the Human Development Index (a comprehensive measure of the quality of life in a given community which includes life expectancy, education and per capita income) which is used to evaluate the player’s performance. Unlike Civilization, there is no danger of over-simplifying issues here. On the contrary, possibly.
Speaking of learning, there is absolutely no way to simply “win” the game avoiding any negative effect. This is a game about compromises and hard decisions. In other words, here the message is: climate change is happening and will keep happening. What we can do, is to understand it, and mitigate its consequences. And some of them will be painful.
Every month you assist at the “World News” section, which informs you about the effects – desired or not – of your decisions.
While some cannot be avoided, some will be the direct consequences of your actions. And rest assured that in such a heavy number game, every action has a reaction.
In one particular game, India was the sick man of Earth – way over populated and polluted, the situation seemed beyond hope. Its HDI was simply too low, and while other areas of the planet seemed to have reached a balance, India simply couldn’t.
So the solution started to appear: if the patient couldn’t recover, maybe there was no other choice than to let it die. I enacted a couple of measures guaranteed to plunge the area in social and political chaos, and – as the rest of the world stood powerless – I watched the fire raise high.
Sure enough, when the dust settled, life in the region was sustainable again. I am talking about hundreds of million of victims of my “social engineering”. Sure, it’s just a game. But I couldn’t help but think: is this really the type of decision making that will be necessary in the future?
(Note: migratory phenomena have been introduced in a later expansion of the game. So, a solution like this wouldn’t be possible if playing the full game. Letting one area die will simply result in massive waves of migrants putting other regions under pressure – again, a familiar feeling, perhaps?).
In another game, a revolutionary technology was used in North America to increase rain and improve agricultural yields – but almost in a literal “butterfly effect” sense, it had a negative impact on the weather of China and caused intense droughts over there. I kept thinking “just a couple of turns more, what’s the worst that can happen?” – and then, after a few warnings that I gleefully ignored, China started a nuclear exchange with the U.S.A. So, as I was mitigating the effects of climate change, I had a nuclear war on my hands (and armed conflict is one of the conditions for game over, no matter how well everything else is going). So that was another lesson I had to learn, the hard way.
“Fate of the World” is a game that forces us to learn, do our homework, and then take some (very) uncomfortable decisions. There may be some form of sadistic pleasure in seeing how cataclysms impact the people of the world (a bit like watching a tornado destroy our carefully built Sim City) – but the experience is made much scarier by the thought that we are not talking about a sandbox here, and the game is based on a very realistic model. So it’s our future we are (possibly) talking about.
It’s available on Steam for 9.99 €.