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How I learned to stop worrying and love climate change and geo-politics

The following item was written for PAXsims by Darren Green. After a career as a project manager at IBM and Toshiba Labs in the UK, Darren changed track to focus on using games for corporate team-building and more recently, in education. He runs training and educational sessions in the UK through his own business, Crisis Games (http://crisis-games.co.uk/) and is currently hosting an academic project to investigate how well games can communicate issues in climate change.


Why are nation-states finding it so difficult to keep the commitments they signed up to in the Paris Agreement in 2015? What can games/simulations tell us about these difficulties? The problem of climate change has been framed as an example the tragedy of the commons which is made all the more difficult because it has a time horizon that does not fit easily with electoral cycles. It is a problem that involves complex social payoffs situated decades into the future. A large-scale role-play simulation looks like it would be a good tool to provide at least some insight into this.

Watch the Skies[1] is a popular megagame that examines how the geo-politics of the modern world are transformed by the arrival of aliens. As a first approach it might be a good basis for looking at how nations (fail to) address climate change. I tried unplugging the aliens from Watch the Skies[2] and plugging in a climate model (I used the C-Roads model from Climate Interactive’s World Climate Simulation, which is freely available and has been designed as a learning resource for use in role play activities).

The next issue that emerged was that the game needed a sufficiently detailed model of economic activity and CO2 emissions to interface with the parameters of the climate model. At this point it became clear that designing a complete new rule set (rather than adapting Watch the Skies) would be the easiest route. This conclusion was further reinforced by the goal of building a game that could be used in a public engagement setting. Megagames generally require 30 or more players attending the game for 6-7 hours – requirements that don’t mesh well with public engagement opportunities. A game that was playable in around 3 hours and accommodates 10-30 players would be suitable as a side-event at conferences, or in public spaces such as libraries or as an activity to be held in schools or colleges.

After running a few promising play test sessions in 2019, the next year was spent converting the game to online play as pandemic restrictions took hold. While there were many difficulties in making this transition, an online version of the game had some clear advantages. Firstly, it presented an opportunity to run follow-on sessions. It is much easier to start a session where the previous session ended – the game state is maintained digitally, because you don’t need to take down and pack away the game. Playing a follow-on session is a nice way of simulating a change in government administrations. If the players return to take on the same roles in that they held in the previous session then they represent an administration that has held on to power through re-election. If new players take over the roles then that simulates a change of administration.

Secondly, the game left a digital ‘paper trail’ so that the turns could be reconstructed. I have been fascinated with the narrative that tabletop or role-play simulations (wargames and megagames) generate. I have often scribbled copious notes while playing a game (this was before cameras were ubiquitous). However, even with a good set of notes or plentiful photos of counters on hex maps, the full story of the game often proves elusive, and with megagames there are so many different narratives and interactions happening that it is impossible for one person to follow everything. With online versions, reconstructing the narrative becomes much easier; with spreadsheets used to conduct resource allocation, (providing a record of where resources went and their effects) and a record of communication between players left by text messaging it was possible to put together a fairly detailed narrative of the game.

ABOVE: An example of text messaging in the game using a Discord server.

So, I present below a ‘future history’ of the world from 2024 to 2030 based on two game sessions played in November 2020. If you are expecting a dry discussion of various environmental targets then you’ll have to look elsewhere. The game treated the nations in the game as fully-realised states that were able to pursue political agendas through economic or military means and the players took full advantage of this!

Some of the events may seem extraordinary (but I hope, still within the realms of believability); players were briefed with a short summary of national doctrine and key agendas, but they were given some leeway to break from this if they wished to. Also, in common with Matrix games and the megagame format, players were allowed to respond to situations with improvised plans if the rules did not address a strategy or tactic they wanted to employ. Facilitators carefully adjudicated these plans to determine a realistic outcome – a task which the facilitators in the game (Stefan Salva Cruz, Patrick Rose and Glenn Russell) performed outstandingly.

So, we begin the game with the climate change model predicting a mean annual global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. Six nations were played in the game: USA, EU, Russia, China, India and Brazil. There were also three global corporations played (Trans Global, Interprime and Neotech) and a team of players took on the role of the United Nations. If a detailed game write-up is not for you, skip to the end where there is a brief summary of outcomes and concluding remarks.

ABOVE: The climate model at the start of the game

2024

  • US companies responded enthusiastically to US government tax incentives encouraging investment in Mexico, Venezuela and Columbia.
  • Brazilian oil companies finalised a deal to exploit oil and gas reserves in and around the Black Sea.
  • Trans Global corporation rolled out the first of its next-generation solar arrays to be built just outside the Russian city of Sochi. Forecasts suggest that when fully operational it will supply over 80% of the city’s power requirements.

2025

  • The world’s largest commercial carbon capture plant started operation outside Detroit. The plant is run by an industry consortium backed by the US government.
  • Paramilitary terrorist attacks against US military bases and corporate buildings across Japan left hundreds dead and many more injured. The US government withdrew all non-essential staff from Japan and advised US citizens to leave. The attacks were conducted by a Japanese nationalist group known as Rising Sun. This group was previously little known to authorities. It is thought to have links with North Korea and credible reports state that the military hardware used in the attacks came from Brazil. The Japanese Prime Minister called a state of emergency and ordered Japanese Defence Force units to patrol the streets.
  • The forest fire season in California was one of the worst on record. The President ordered federal authorities to address the situation early and provided federal funding. FEMA was able to co-ordinate local, state and federal resources to minimise risks to citizens and property damage.
  • Wild fires in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy plagued the EU throughout the summer. Local authorities were able to keep on top of the situation through the use of specialised drones which mapped the progress of the fires in real time.
  • Interprime announced a contract with the Russian government to establish a smart power grid which will intelligently route power to where it is needed. This is predicted to provide 10-20% efficiency savings. Construction of the grid will start near Moscow’s northern suburbs, where Trans Global plan to install another of their advanced solar arrays.
  • The Brazilian economy suffered severe setbacks. Credit agencies rated Brazilian government and commercial debt as sub-prime. After weeks of riots on the streets of Brazilian cities and unable to attract international investment, the Brazilian President was forced to declare a state of emergency.

2026

  • The US President announced that Congress had approved funding for two further carbon reduction schemes. Firstly, the nation’s aging nuclear power stations would be upgraded to use next-generation reactors provided by Trans Global. Secondly, after the success of the carbon capture plant at Detroit, new plants would be opening outside Atlanta, Portland and Sacramento.
  • The French President and German Chancellor announced a programme of EU-sponsored joint stock ventures with firms in North and South Korea. The scheme is intended to encourage further progress on Korean re-unification, applying the experience gained from the successful re-unification of Germany in the 1990s.
  • Pakistan revealed the deployment of an armoured brigade fielding Neotech’s autonomous combat vehicles. These vehicles can be driven remotely and can also switch to a fully autonomous mode in which the onboard computer will make kill decisions without human intervention. The vehicles were manufactured at the Neotech plant outside Sao Paulo in Brazil and were supplied on the basis of ongoing Brazilian defence contracts.
  • The Indian Prime Minister reacted to Pakistan’s military deployment by declaring a state of emergency and ordering an the Parachute Regiment and Gurkha Rifles to the border. The UN reminded the world of the dangers of conflict between these two nuclear-armed nations and called for de-escalation. When asked for comment, the Brazilian President’s Office said that they expected to receive a large order for Neotech’s autonomous combat vehicles from India shortly.
  • Japan was devastated by the worst typhoons in living memory. Aid was swiftly provided by the international community under leadership of the US. The death toll was finally tallied at several thousand.
  • A series of international climate summits hosted by China ended with world leaders announcing a world-wide tax on the use of fossil fuels burned for vehicle fuel or commercial power generation. The stock of major petrochemical companies dropped sharply.
  • China stunned the global community by bringing in emergency laws to restrict all commercial activities linked with foreign exports or investments. Veteran China-watchers had warned about this as internal divisions in the Chinese Communist Party had emerged at the last Party Congress. It appears the hard-line nationalist stance advocated by the Premier with the backing of the General Secretary has won the day. Chinese companies with export contracts or linked with significant foreign investment have been told they will need to apply for special licenses in order to continue their business.
  • Japanese companies with links to China were in desperate efforts to try and reposition themselves. China’s new stance on exports, combined with the domestic Japanese terror threat and higher than expected typhoon damage claims has meant that analysts regard the huge Japanese government debt as no-longer sustainable.
  • Markets turned favourably towards Russia’s economy, which appears to have successfully pivoted away from dependence on gas and oil exports towards a high-tech, green future. 

2027

  • The Saudi air force conducted air strikes on Yemen’s coastal cities. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran very quickly ramped up and small scale border conflicts threatened to break out across the region. Violent unrest was reported in cities throughout the Middle East.
  • Social media was flooded with memes drawn from the 1980s film ‘Robocop’ as Brazilian military officials and Neotech executives showed off the paramilitary version of the autonomous combat vehicles that have been deployed in India and Pakistan. Neotech announced that orders for these vehicles have already been received from South African police departments and Chinese government security forces.
  • The US President announced that he had signed an order to decommission 25% of US coal and gas-fired power stations. These power stations, situated mainly along the east coast of the USA are some of the oldest plants and significantly contribute to the USA’s carbon emissions.
  • China maintained a nationwide state of emergency. The government announced that emergency measures were needed to deal with the series of storms which were predicted to hit China this year. Analysts suggested that emergency measures were more likely being kept in place to handle potential civil unrest as the Chinese economy endures a huge downturn due to plummeting exports.
  • The Russian President opened a section of smart highway running parallel to the M11 from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Neotech robotic vehicles will run along the roads, powered by electricity provided by Trans Global arrays and intelligently channelled by Interprime power networking to where it is needed.
  • Trans Global corporation announced that on the back of its successful re-commissioning of US reactors, it has been invited by the Russian government to conduct a feasibility study to assess whether reactors used in its submarine and icebreaker fleets can be re-purposed for domestic power generation.
  • The Chinese Premier opened a Trans Global solar array outside of Shanghai. Trans Global shares surged on the news that its solar arrays had been successfully deployed in a second nation.
  • The Brazilian President once again declared a state of emergency after a series of riots in Brazilian cities. Police and military units were seen patrolling the streets along with Neotech’s autonomous vehicles. A film crew claimed to have recorded the first purposeful killing of a human by artificial intelligence.
  • The Russian President said that trials of its new space plane (built by Trans Global) were successful and would allow it to take cargo to low earth orbit at a fraction of the cost of traditional rocket delivery.  The President announced that in partnership with Trans Global, Russia would focus on landing cosmonauts on the moon as the first step to establishing a base there. Trans Global shares were down 30% at one point as investors dumped the stock, worried about the corporation being involved in such a risky and expensive venture.
  • The United Nations Security Council authorised the deployment peacekeeping forces along various contested border regions in the Middle-east. The US would provide the majority of the forces but France, Germany and Russia would provide contingents for deployment in areas which were too sensitive for the deployment of US personnel. 
  • The IPCC released a report showing average global temperature rise by 2100 is predicted to be 2.6 degrees. While progress in addressing climate change was praised, it was pointed out that a temperature rise of 2.6 degrees would lead to a 90cm sea level rise by 2100. This would threaten the existence of low lying cities such as New York and London, as well as entire nations such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh.
  • Australia endured one of the worst droughts on record as it entered the height of the summer.

2028

  • In response to Russia’s announcement of a space programme to land a cosmonaut on the moon, the US President announced that the Artemis mission to return US astronauts to the moon would be restarted. Artemis was originally scheduled for blast off in 2024, but had been postponed and eventually put on hold due to funding difficulties.
  • UN aid camps were set up in Oman to take in refugees from Yemen, where the short war has left widespread property destruction and displaced thousands.
  • A new government was elected in India on a platform of combating corruption.
  • A new Chinese Premier and General Secretary of the Communist Party were appointed, suggesting the isolationist stance of China may be softening.
  • The outgoing UN Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General received the Nobel Peace Prize for their extremely quick reaction to tensions in the Middle East. The prize committee suggested that their action prevented further widespread conflagrations in the area.
  • Trans Global landed a survey rover on the moon to gather geological data with a view to assessing the location as a site for a manned base.
  • A UN sponsored peace conference between Pakistan and India continued throughout the year. One of the reasons for the talks taking so long was that the Indian representatives were plagued by accusations of corruption in the Indian press and were continually being replaced by the Prime Minister due to his zero-tolerance policy on corruption.
  • Trans Global announced that it would be making a revolutionary solar-powered stove available in India. It would be cheap enough for villagers to afford and supply eco-friendly heating in areas where power is unreliable.

2029

  • Interprime announced plans for smart power grids in Brazil, Poland, Hungary, north-eastern USA and northern India. Construction work had already begun in Brazil and India and was scheduled to begin next year in the other locations.
  • Trans Global’s line of solar powered jewelry has become the sensation of fashion shows around the globe. The corporation reported that budget versions of the jewelry would be available for consumers later this year. Trans Global’s shares reached an all-time high.
  • A Category 5 storm hit the Philippines. The USA, China and India all pledged aid, but it was slow to arrive and was too little to address the effects of the widespread destruction in the wake of the storm. Analysts predicted that the Philippines’ fragile economy will be severely challenged due to the level of destruction.
  • China’s credit rating was upgraded to AA as it emerged from a state of emergency. Its economy recovered from the huge drop in exports to the west and benefitted from a revitalised domestic and regional economy. The Chinese government has also signed into law requirements on business to use of low-carbon power sources.
  • NASA announced that the launch of the Artemis manned mission to the moon would be pushed back to 2032 due to funding being held back by Congress. There was no mention of the Russian plan to land a cosmonaut on the moon and experts predicted that any such mission is at least a decade away.
  • UN peacekeepers supplied by the USA took up position on the Indian-Pakistan border.
  • The Russian President announced the opening of the city of Neo Kaliningrad. Although only a small portion of the city centre has been constructed, the ‘smart city’ will interface directly with the technologies supplied by Trans Global, Neotech and Interprime to reduce the environmental footprint of its inhabitants.

2030 

  • Russia announced the establishment of a second smart city: Neo Novosibirsk. The President explained in a long and detailed press session that the city would welcome climate refugees. There were rumours that the Russian General Staff had attempted to persuade the President against any invitation of refugees to Russia, warning that it would be difficult to maintain the integrity of the Russian huge land border. Shortly after the President’s speech, some of the General Staff were reported to be on secondment at remote military bases in Siberia.
  • Neotech assisted India in setting up a network of drones to monitor flooding risks and anti-flood measures in anticipation of a heavy monsoon season.
  • China allowed its currency to float freely and the markets took to it enthusiastically. Many institutions holding dollars reduced their exposure to the US currency and bought the Yuan. The US economy faltered as the dollar collapsed and a huge inflationary shock hit home. Credit rating agencies upgraded China to AAA, and downgraded the US to AA.
  • There was a military coup in Latvia as senior army generals took control of the civilian government, accusing it of losing sight of the ‘Russian threat’. Latvian citizens were called up and there were reports of tanks and artillery heading to the Russian border.
  • China announced that all of its coal-fired power plants would be closed down in the next two decades and no new permits for coal-fired power plants would be issued. China is now widely seen as the global leader in decarbonising its economy.
  • War broke out after a decade of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia appeared to be using Brazilian-made weapons and armoured vehicles.
  • The US President declared a state of emergency as rioting broke out in cities along the East coast and in the Mid-west. Falling living standards were seen to be the main driver of the unrest with US inflation running at more than 10%. Order gradually returned after several weeks of the National Guard patrolling the streets of major cities.

ABOVE: The climate model at the end of the game

Conclusion

While the game broadly accomplished its goals, there are a couple of areas of the design that need reviewing. Firstly, player feedback indicated that the briefing materials and mechanics should focus more on addressing climate change. While players appreciated the broad scope of actions available to them and the realistic pressure of balancing economics and political agendas against climate change mitigation, they felt that the climate challenges needed to be presented to players much more clearly to facilitate negotiations about them.

Secondly, while the C-ROADS climate model is scientifically based and peer reviewed, the interface between the model and the game is arbitrary. The amount of resources that a nation must spend to achieve a certain change in the model parameters has been adjusted over a number of play tests to broadly reflect expected real-world effects. The same is true of the effects of various sustainable technologies that the corporations in the game can roll out. This is very much more an exercise in empirical testing and game design rather than a scientific exercise and the numbers and game mechanics used must be reviewed to ensure that they broadly match what is observed in the real world. 

I believe the game narrative presents a credible version of future events. The predicted global temperature rise remaining stubbornly above 2 degrees for the duration of the 2020s is sadly all too believable. Although there were many economic and political distractions for the players, it should still be noted that reducing the predicted temperature rise by 0.5 degrees in 7 years is no mean feat!

One pattern that emerged was that the nations in general focussed on how they could reduce their own carbon emissions rather than looking at the big picture. This resulted in China and Russia making huge progress in switching to sustainable power but their CO2 emissions were then  ‘exported’ to other regions of the world (South-east Asia, Korea and Eastern Europe) where cheaper (fossil fuelled) power was still available. So while China and Russia’s reduction of CO2 emissions in the game look praiseworthy if viewed in isolation, overall global emissions remained stubbornly high.

Special mentions should be given to the USA team which took a globalist perspective and was instrumental in solving many of the issues that cropped up, only be crushed in the final turns by China’s push for economic dominance; to the EU team, who realised that using their economic power to support other developed and developing nations to transition to sustainable power generated much bigger reductions of CO2 emissions than if they devoted all of their resources to their own carbon-reduction schemes; to the India team who put India on a firm footing to sustainable development and were winning their war on corruption; and to Brazil team who explored many interesting (and somewhat disruptive) ways to extract themselves from Brazil’s many difficulties.

With grateful thanks to all the players and facilitators.

Darren Green, Crisis Games

[I am currently working on a new version of the game that addresses much of the player feedback from the game described above and preparing it for face-to-face play when that becomes possible. If you would like to be involved in testing/playing the new version please email me at: crisisgames.info@gmail.com]


[1] See https://www.stonepaperscissors.co.uk/games-download/watch-the-skies

[2] In fact, I first ran a version of Watch the Skies where the aliens were intent on persuading nations to adapt to sustainable technology and cleaning up excess CO2. Of course, it was extremely difficult for the nations to figure out whether the alien technology was helping with climate change or terraforming the Earth ready for alien overlords to take residence. It was entertaining, but probably had too many complicating factors to try and realistically examine the geo-politics of climate change.

Building a climate change megagame (Part 3)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You can read Parts 1 and 2 here and here.


Concluding thoughts

One of the first impressions was that we were rather overwhelmed by the experience, which is one of the reasons this blog post, long overdue and way too long, did not materialize until at least one academic period had transpired after the main CCM event. However, now that we have gathered our thoughts a bit, we realized that we have probably learned a great number of things so far. For instance:

1.     Reasons for creating a megagame on climate change and social transformation

There are many types of games that relate to climate change and negotiations, but few that we feel concern the types of negotiations, dilemmas and interactions that may be common for professionals in companies and citizens in local regions facing the prospect of societal change. One of us, Ola Uhrqvist, had previous experience developing a game about city planning to take both climate adaptation into account— but there, few negotiations were conducted as the game was primarily a single-player web application. 

In the literature on learning for a sustainable development, engagement and various pedagogical forms is stressed as key to ensure that learners experience first-hand the dilemmas and difficulties they need to overcome. Furthermore, we noticed that when we pitched the idea of a “Climate Change Megagame”, it immediately piqued people’s interest in a way that acted as an icebreaker and helped us to engage rather diverse groups in conversations. Even though there were practical issues with every single version of the game we have tried, the concept itself has been intriguing enough to make people joining as players or contribute as control team and even contributing to game development. However, to understand exactly which difficulties to subject players, and what type of realistic situations to simulate, has proved to be almost as elusive as real societal transformation.

2.     The eternal challenge of playable realism

Serious games always needs to balance between relevance and playability. The activities players engage in, and the type of experience they have, must be of relevance whether it is “realistic” or not. We learned that some types of realism, such as players getting bogged down by managing their daily lives, may not be helpful in ensuring that the resulting experience is relevant to the end goal of understanding dilemmas and options for societal transformation. We wanted the game to offer interesting challenges without directing players too much with respect to what they would want to do. As designers, we can include mechanisms that reflect aspects of reality such as economic capital being vital for investments in infrastructure, say, without going so far as to say that without a growing economy, people would starve to death. We wanted to provide enough context and feedback mechanisms to stimulate discussions and make different visions apparent, without constricting players in such a way that their room for creative discussions and maneuvering would be artificially restricted. 

A golden rule for how to ensure players understand the rules well enough to be comfortable about breaking them and understanding just how much freedom they have to negotiate freely probably don’t exist but we understand much better now than before what would count as interesting and relevant challenges compared to “realistic” ones. In our experience minimalism of game mechanics is desirable in order to let participants focus on the content. 

3.     Recruiting and maintaining a committed and diverse design team

Including more people from the early playtests in game design and discussions made it apparent that it was difficult to ensure equal commitment among all when the game concept changed quite a lot, partly as a result of feedback. Also, we wanted to be open to suggestions about how different groups could contribute to the project, which placed high demands on participants to express clearly what they wanted to contribute to and what they expected. Some of the early contributors who provided invaluable feedback on the game and made it much better in the end still did not feel comfortable joining at the end as the game changed quite a lot between playtests. Though it was necessary to make the changes, it became difficult for all members of the design team to keep up with the ideas for changes that the core group brought forward, especially as we became limited to digital meetings during the pandemic. The take home lesson is the value of a clear aim, participants roles and modes of decision making and communication is increasingly important in a dynamic, explorative project.

4.     Going digital

Going digital opened up new opportunities for players from around the world to join and it greatly simplified our ability to collect data on how the game progressed, but also introduced a whole host of new issues. We spent quite some time even after the core game mechanics and graphical elements had been decided to ensure that the digital platform (Miro) could handle all graphical components and the 50 players with decent latency. Therefore, some graphical optimizations were required before the main event took place. For instance, components were merged into bitmaps instead of hundreds of separate graphics components. The communications channel (Discord) was set up very professionally by our Megagame colleague Darren Green from Crisis Games in the UK and that enabled players to have both private and public spaces for communications. Even with such a setup though, some players felt lost between all the channels and the Miro board. Having a technical setup and preparation before the main event, just focusing on the technical aspects of the game would probably have helped some participants who were struggling.

The main event was hosted at a venue where we broadcast everything live from a studio over Vimeo. This worked rather well as a compromise between having only an internal event and only having a studio with professional talking heads but having dual roles as hosts for both the game and the “show” was hard to manage. It would have been better to have studio hosts who could have focused on being hosts. Then again, a digital event that plays out through discussions on Discord and board changes on Miro might not offer enough continuous action for a continuous live show.

5.     The importance of good debriefing

The main event was intended to let people experience and reason about the needs for mitigation and adaptation, as in the needs for making changes to our societies that will reduce emissions versus the needs to adapt to climate change we cannot avoid. The primary aim of the debriefing was to capture the perceptions of these potentially conflicting needs, but it became apparent that the participants were mostly preoccupied with thoughts about the game mechanics, graphical elements and direct experiences. A debriefing is very important for a proper learning experience, and for us, the fact that people became preoccupied with the mechanics and graphical elements indicated that these were in fact the objects they thought mostly in terms of directly afterwards. Maybe the game was too heavy on mechanics since it became hard to talk about abstract things such as mitigation and adaptation in direct connection to having played. It would probably have been easier to first address game-specific issues and then later broaden the horizon to comprise the real world.

6.     Future development

The project had until this point been run exclusively on a small amount of seed money for a pedagogical project and a lot of personal commitment. We realized that continued work with this require us to leverage our initial experiences and gain access to proper funding for work that could significantly expand on what we have been doing. The game itself is not a goal, it is not even a product that may be finished but at best a way to help us think better, as designers and players, about what a sustainable society may be like. With some luck, we may have a chance to build on all we have learned and enable others to learn as we have about how to move constructively towards a societal transformation to sustainability.


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Building a climate change megagame (Part 2)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.


Playtesting

Play-test 1: Card-driven anarcho-communism

The first iteration of the game was card-driven and centered around meeting different needs such as housing, food and transportation needs, while also being about changing the way you fulfill those needs (from more carbon-intensive variants to less carbon-intensive ones). Much of the game centered on meeting needs and negotiating with local politicians as well as companies on how to do that in a low-carbon manner. We had 15 players, three different municipalities in our region along with some companies and regional politicians. Everything was definitively NOT ready, but we understood enough of what we wanted to do so that we could start playing the game. After a few rounds of learning how to fulfill needs in general, people started getting creative about the use of different transportation methods so that we ended up having an electric garbage truck from one of the municipalities helping the population with food deliveries. Not quite sure about whether that would have conformed to sanitary guidelines, but we were rather happy about the level of creative thinking the group had going.

On the whole, the initial playtest left a bewildering mix of impressions. On the one hand, everyone present very much loved the format and engaged in lengthy discussions about how to develop the game further. On the other hand, we had succeeded in reducing carbon footprints in a way that may not have revealed very interesting tensions. As one commented, as players we seemed to behave as an “anarcho-communist collective”. Maybe not what we’d expect to see. We were not sure about how to interpret the outcome either. The companies were rather willing to forego profits and instead help the population get goods and services to meet their needs at cost. The local politicians had few restraints on their willingness to spend or meet needs or expectations from the local population. The emissions were not important in providing guidance to the players, and were not even noticed as part of playing. We succeeded without having very difficult conversations. In all, our collective success and limited sources of friction gave us much to consider for our next iteration of the game. Was the game too easy? Were we just too few to create interesting social dynamics? Did we need to pitch business owners or politicians as antagonists to the overall goal of achieving a transformation to reduce emissions, or did we simply need stronger incentives or opportunities for people to act in their own interests?

However, one design decision that was made at this stage was critical, and influenced the final game version: the general population of our region, Östergötland, would be represented in the game by players who would be able to take actions and make decisions, not as abstract values and mechanics such as tracks manipulated by decision-makers such as politicians, corporations, etc. This decision caused quite a few problems in the later stages of the design process, but in the end contributed to add a layer of interaction to the game that would otherwise have been missing and possibly sets the CCM apart from other megagames. In a megagame about, for example, the Napoleonic Wars, there are players playing generals and the officers they command, but there are no players playing the actual troops fighting the battle – whether they march where the general orders them to or refuse to move is most often decided by a morale roll, it is not the decision of a player. In this respect, the CCM was designed to bring to the table the debate taking place in society and the sometimes – from a societal planning point of view – irrational refusal by the entire or parts of the population to follow regulations and use available options to create a sustainable future.

Play-test 2: Overwhelming complexity

From the first to second iterations, we made several changes to explore designs hinted at by these questions. For one thing, we introduced quality of life, as a general mechanism that would see players optimizing well-being for the populations in their respective municipality, where reduced well-being of a population would trigger different sorts of social unrest.

Two main game mechanics were introduced in this version: the Quality of Life (QoL) tracker and Climate Impact tokens. The idea for the former began as a perceived need to track the progress of individual players in a clearer and more comparable way – an attempt to introduce the neighbour effect, i.e. ‘if my neighbour has it, I want it too’. This functioned as a form of victory points for the population players, which was affected by the overall goals in an indirect way, as extreme weather events could impact a player’s QoL, but would not necessarily do so depending on the type of event and what community it impacted.  

Here, each population player played a social stratum of the population: the population player’s needs were affected by the generations in their part of the population – each player began with 2 or 3 generations, each of which aged between turns and ran a risk (represented by a die roll) of ‘dying’ of old age and ill health. The latter was represented by a tracker, and players had to keep track of their generations so that they got proper health care, either from the local authorities or by purchasing it from private companies. This was introduced to give players a sense of relationship to a part of the population in one of the towns or municipalities. 

There were quite a few things to keep track of in this version of the game. All the needs cards in this version of the game had been replaced by boards and trackers, and players had to run back and forth to get the right resources to cover the needs boxes on their player boards. Some thought had been given to this being an obstacle in a game of a hundred players in the same room, and so some of the aspects, such as housing, had been placed on the board beforehand and did not change much during the game. Overall, however, the complexity of scaling up the original version of the game became a major problem: over 4000 cards and 50 player boards was needed for a game intended to be played by an estimated 30 players for the playtest – a climate impact issue in itself, as was noted by the control team when spending two hours cutting cards and boards. Also, if all 30 playtesters had turned up, we came to realize that there would have been chaos in the bargaining to get the resources they needed. 

The Climate Impact (CI) tokens was tied to the overall sustainability goal, which had been rather vaguely formulated in the first version of the game. The idea was that each action would carry with it its own ‘shame pile’, as one of the team members called it, in the form of a pile of CI tokens that accumulated over the lifetime of the resource. As an example, a good produced in Asia, with a certain amount of CI token already on it as decided by its production method and mode of transportation to Europe, would be purchased from the world market by a corporate player and then sold to a population player. As part of the negotiation to sell the good, the corporate player could offer to sell it at a lower price to if the population player would also take with them all CI tokens – or else offer to take all or some if the CI tokens in exchange for a higher price. The idea of the ‘shame pile’ was for each player to stand at their player board at the end of each turn and take in the sight of the climate impact they had given rise to during the turn. This was intended to provide incentive to opt for products and production methods that would lead to fewer CI tokens for the player, while giving them tangible feedback on their progress towards a sustainable society.

The complexity issue became apparent even with fewer playtesters than anticipated, and we figured out that we needed a better way of managing the small communities in the region, so we thought that having groups of players collaborating in smaller teams explicitly for the purpose of a small community might be a way forward. Also, we wanted to understand if the game design could work with a wider group of players and decided to recruit playtesters from a broader group for the next playtest.

Playtest 3: Decreasing complexity and the breakdown of the market system

Thanks to broader marketing and better advance planning, the third playtest featured a much more varied group of players, with roughly 25 playtesters of varying ages and backgrounds that attended the session. This was the first time we encountered accessibility issues relating to e.g. English as the only language for rules and components to cater the the minority of English-only participants, the height of tables in relation to wheelchairs and other aspects which had not been considered before with our smaller group.

This version of the game was a streamlined version of the one used in Playtest 2, and thought had been given to decreasing the complexity of the game and focus on the sustainability goals while not giving up the idea of simulating the problems faced by the population players in meeting their needs of the various generations of the population strata they represented. Generations were made a more central game aspect as they provided population players with actions and income, and the population players were also given more distinct roles with role-specific actions, e.g. the ability to steal from other population players or increase the resources gained from certain standard actions. The number of players per population had also been increased from one to two or three to decrease the complexity and workload of each player, and as it was beginning to dawn upon the game design team that megagames are played by groups of players, which had been noted in Playtest 1, when individual players banded together to discuss things and make sense of situations. 

The political system, which had been absent in Playtest 2 due to a lack of players, was incorporated into the game through the population player’s vote cards, which allowed them to give one of three political parties their vote. The parties, which were represented by one or two players, between them decided on regional policy. Such policies included taxes and restrictions – the power each party wielded was decided by how many vote cards they had and their ability to make voters stay with their party. The population players could change their vote at any time. This system proved to be rather static, as almost all vote cards were placed with one of the parties and few players gave their vote any thought during the game, leaving the players of two parties to try to get people to change their votes, which was in vain due to them being fully occupied with trying to sort out all of their needs and actions. This may have been rather realistic, as some of the players noted, but not great in terms of game experience. 

Two other roles were completely overwhelmed: the local authority player and the corporate players. These were more or less assaulted by a horde of population players demanding all kinds of goods and solutions to their problems, and getting access to market and local authority players became so difficult that the game rounds ended before all players had had a chance to get to the front of the line that formed in front of the market table. Thus, this version of the game showed that it would be impossible to hold on to the idea of simulating the complexity of the economic system of supply and demand – even in simplified form – by moving cards and tiles from one place to another. This also proved to be the fall of the ‘shame pile’ system as it had been imagined up to this point, as it proved far too problematic to transport the CI tokens in the room.

Research also made a small appearance with the introduction of research players, which tried to get funding to carry out research projects that would improve production processes and other aspects of the game. As this had not been given proper thought, the main role of the researchers, who represented universities as well as private research institutions, became to distribute university education and discuss matters connected to the Swedish government, which was not represented by a player in this game, but rather appeared on screens with different kinds of national policy, which the politicians were to deal with. 

After the playtest, further playtests and the main game event was postponed due to restrictions following the pandemic, which left ample time for reflections and rebuilding the game. In May 2020, the game design team met to discuss a heavily revised version of the game, which relied on the ‘steady-state system’ to deal with the choke points presented by the reliance of population players on the market and local authority players to get hold of the resources they needed to play the game. The object of this was to place more focus on the issue of discussing the overall goal of the game—a societal transformation towards a sustainable society, which had been more or less completely ignored by players during Playtest 3 – again, rather realistic, but not ideal for a game such as the CCM.  

Even though we wanted to illustrate that as citizens we have to spend our time managing our own lives instead of considering changing lifestyles and promoting a societal transformation, this was an unwanted piece of “realism” in CCM. Both game designers and playtesters wanted an immersion in the decisions and dilemmas inherent in societal transformation. To simply implement mechanisms that deflect from those decisions because those mechanisms are in place in real life would not stimulate the kinds of discussions we wanted. In that way, we did not want a “realistic” game experience but an engaging, immersive and relevant experience. We realized the difference between the two at about this point.

Playtest 4: The making of a megagame

The fourth and final playtest was held in October and was partly digital – some players sat by their computers in the same room as the control team (the only restriction at that time involved groups over 50 people) and others participated from their homes over Discord. This was in preparation of the main event, which in the end were to be entirely digital, a fact that was suspected at this point in time. Just under 20 players and control team members participated, and the playing was done using a Miro board. 

During Summer 2020, the game had been reinvented based on the lessons learned during Playtests 1-3 and the lead game designer’s improved understanding of megagames after studying them more closely over the past year. Population players were assigned roles tied to age group (young, working-age, old) rather than social stratum and, together with a local authority player, placed in groups based on which community in Östergötland they represented. This made it easier for players to act as a group against other groups, but also gave each player an individual income and a special ability, which both made them useful to the group and put them in a position to negotiate with the group members to reach their individual goals. The same was done for the corporate players, the researchers, and the politicians, who were all placed in groups (the business community, the research community, and three different political parties) with both common and individual goals. A map of the region divided into hexagons and some rules connected to it made the impact of extreme weather events and actions such as farming and harvesting forest clearer.

The most notable change was the disappearance of the market system and the cards or tiles for various needs as this proved to be a major detraction from the discussions we wanted to promote through the game. The constant negotiations to fulfil needs were replaced by an abstract ‘steady-state’ system in which only changes were recorded, and the needs of each community were reduced to four areas (food, goods, transportation, and housing). Each area was represented by a track with six boxes: three orange (technological solutions) and three blue (changes to lifestyle). By investing economic capital (earned primarily by working-age population players and local authority players), social capital (earned primarily by young population players), and cultural capital (old population players) the communities could either buy technological solutions or make changes to their lifestyle to decrease their community’s CI, which was displayed on the game board in relation to the goal of a CO2-free society in 2050.

Most of the lifestyle changes were available from the start of the game as they involved reducing consumption, often at the assumed social costs (which resulted in negative effect cards being drawn to affect the community occurring at the end of turn). The technological solutions, however, were mostly unavailable at the start of the game and had to be unlocked by the business community, which in turn relied on the research community to make the necessary technological advancements. Thus, economic capital flowed from the corporate players to the researchers, who worked hard to research the technologies that would allow the business players to unlock the technological solutions on the communities’ boards, allowing them to be purchased by the communities. However, even with technological solutions unlocked, community players could choose not to buy it and instead opt to implement lifestyle changes to reduce their climate impact. 

In this version of the game, the business community was made up of corporate players without specific roles, which made them act more like anonymous risk capitalists than local businesses.

Also, in this version the communities’ choices of technology and lifestyle did not affect the income of the corporate players which we realized was a missed opportunity for conflicting interests.  

Regarding research, a single player handled research using a deck of cards in which they put research objectives that came into effect as soon as they were drawn from the deck (this could be sped up using economic and cultural capital to draw additional cards, increasing the chances of success), which made the impact of research very low, which may be a realistic interpretation, but made the research sub-game less rewarding. 

As for the politics, no politicians were included in this playtest and instead one of the control team took on the role of discussing with anyone who wanted to contact the regional/national government, regarding, for example, increased research grants. No vote cards were used as this aspect of the game design was at this time in doubt whether they would actually contribute to the game experience. In the end it was concluded that they would, as they were reinstated in a slightly different form in the final version. 

The game lasted for two rounds out of the planned three, and the general feeling among the players afterwards was that the game would be very interesting to play, which resulted in several of the playtesters joining the control team for the main event. The game design team felt that the game inspired the intended kind of negotiations, even though feedback from the debriefing session mainly related to the game experience rather than to its connection to the real world. At this stage, we felt we were approaching what we imagined a proper Megagame experience should be like, and we were feeling increasingly confident that we could pull this off for a larger audience.

Some of the major lessons from the fourth playtest were that we needed some tighter connections between different groups of players. For instance, all corporations (each being run by one or two players) were given specific abilities and goals that were directly related to either local production (farmers, private forest owners, local factory owners, etc.) or import businesses (food store chains, import goods businesses, import car dealers, etc.), reflecting the conflict between local supply and global trade. The final version of the game was to feature two main contentions as we had uncovered from literature on differences between sustainability visions: technological change and intact/growing economy versus behavioural changes to reduce the economy, and global solutions versus local self-sufficiency.

Also, the community players’ decisions to make behavioural changes was made to affect the income of business owners in the final version of the game and research became directly connected to the business community’s ability to make technological solutions available to the communities.

The main event: Playtest 5

The main event was held November 21, 2020 and attended (digitally) by some 40 players from different countries. From our earlier playtests, we now had a well-functioning control team and managed to host the game from a studio at the local concert hall in Linköping which had been retrofitted into a studio for digital events during the pandemic. Two of us, Ola Leifler and Ola Uhrqvist, acted as both hosts and play leaders. As we ended up with roughly half the players required for a full game, it was decided that half the communites on the map (four out of eight) were not to be played. The work leading up to the event included a control team briefing session held via Discord and session a few days before the event, and a few days before that the sending out of 4-page role and rules documents to players. 

The changes that had been made to the version used in Playtest 4 involved the completion of the business and research communities as outlined above, and the addition of the regional council (politicians) and vote cards. Further reductions in complexity of game mechanics had been made, which resulted in cultural capital being removed and social capital being changed to social change tokens, which represented the snowball effect of change begetting change in that the more social change tokens were used, the more the young population players received the turn after. The old population players were also given a single social change token, as well as the power to make populations (now tokens on the game board) into generalists that could survive without the support of modern society to bring this option to the table as well. 

Final version of the game board: overview.

The politicians were divided into three distinct parties and given the option to grant economic capital to aid the communities and the business and research communities in their efforts achieve specific boxes on their development tracks, which provided them with both incentive for negotiations with other players and collaboration between the parties.

The individual goal of the politicians was to collect as many vote cards as possible, which all players (not just the populations) had been given and were free to give to any politician at any point up to the penultimate turn. Players could not take back their vote once cast, so it was important not to make the wrong choice or sell out too cheap in negotiations with politicians; most players waited to the very last minute to give someone their vote. The vote was used in an election held at the end of the penultimate turn, which decided which party/-ies would control power in the last turn. As the votes spread quite evenly the party with the most votes still had to make deals with at least one party made deals in the last round, so this did not change matters very much. 

The outcome of the game was that the four communities very nearly made it to a carbon-free society in 2050. As expected, most communities did not opt for only technological solutions or only behavioural changes but went with both, which left the business community rather poor at the end of the game due to heavy investments in research paired with loss of income from the reduction of consumption following lifestyle changes. The differences between communities was mostly during the first round, when some communities (primarily the large ones) opted to wait for the technological solutions to turn up (or even actively invested in research to make that happen), whereas others engaged all they could in lifestyle changes (the small and medium ones, who had little economic capital). During the second and third turns, the former made many lifestyle changes too, likely because they had the capital to do so and did not want to take any chances, and the latter gained handsome deals from the business community, which was trying to expand business to make up for lost income.  

Final version of the game board: close-up.

After the final round and looking at the results, debriefings were held and afterwards analysed (see a separate report. From a game design point of view, it was concluded that the game may have been a bit too easy to ‘win’, as in there may have been too much economic capital in relation to the price of unlocking the development boxes. On the other hand, all parts of the game functioned as intended and there was a great deal of negotiation going on, and the general tendency was for players to become more and more comfortable in their roles with each turn, which suggested that the game is possible to understand and make sense of. This was also suggested by the player debriefings, and the initial confusion reported by some appears to be mostly related to the megagame experience being difficult to envision beforehand, as well as the all-digital format which made it challenging to see how you could engage in conversations with other players when not in the same physical location.


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Building a climate change megagame (Part 1)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You will find Parts 2 and 3 here and here.


Part 1:  Building a game about regional transformation towards a sustainable society

We have made major breakthrough in understanding cultural change and human behaviour”!

“VOTE for the Market Prophets if you believe in emission free transport, eco-building, repair shops and advanced food technologies such as synthetic meat”!

How do you convince people, a lot of people, to engage in meaningful conversations, or wild speculations such as those above, about societal transformations towards a sustainable future? How can you bring different perspectives to life through roleplaying in a way that not only roleplaying nerds can handle? How can you bring over 50 people from all over the world to sit in front of computers for 8 hours, starting from 3am or ending in the middle of the night? As it turns out, a Megagame on societal transformation, the Climate Change Megagame (CCM), was just what the doctor ordered. That it came to fruition as a digital event in the middle of a pandemic came as a surprise to those of us involved, but we speculate that it may have been a result from sending invitations for participation, and with people demonstrating and interest in participating, we settled on a date, panicked upon realizing that we had to create an all-digital version of the whole thing, and somehow forgot our panic and got to work. This is our story, as they say.

In early 2019, two of us (Ola Leifler & Ola Uhrqvist), who had met a number of times before but not really worked together, came to realize that we are both engaged in ensuring that learning becomes a platform for working towards a sustainable development, and we are both interested in creative approaches to learning as well including the use of boardgames and role-playing. One of us had heard about Megagames from a boardgame review site (Shut Up & Sit Down) but we had never played one ourselves. However, the concept sounded interesting enough and we also happened to have some seed money from a pedagogical project involving how to make use of climate simulation data in education, so we enlisted our third core member Magnus Persson as lead game designer and started our journey.

At the start, we wanted to illustrate how a societal transformation towards a long-term sustainable society would induce tensions between regional actors and interests such as conservation groups, business interests, the general public and politicians in a Swedish region of 500 000 inhabitants. Also, we wanted to make it clear that even as climate change effects will not be felt exactly the same by our region as others, and effects will be cumulative and delayed, there will be disruptions to food production and serious extreme weather events in the coming decades.  The exact nature of tensions and future visions were not very clear initially though, even as we read through reports from different research projects as well as national transformation initiatives. It became clear that visions for a transformed society could look rather different. There was also a whole lot of research on synergies and trade-offs between the different sustainable development goals which seemed to indicate that there are many layers of interactions between the different goals, both on regional but also national and international levels. An initial source of tension that we found to be interesting to explore through a Megagame concerned whether to make changes to our current way of life as we anticipate that it is not long-term sustainable, or focus on achieving short-term goals for ourselves such as going on vacation, building a house, buying groceries or finding a decent pair of shoes. 

So, was our challenge just to create a simulation of a region in a complex global industrial society? That would have been far too easy. We soon realised that this was just the point of departure on top of which we also had so simulate different futures depending on the paths the participants would embark upon and the transformation to get there. Oh, yes, we almost forgot, the game had to be comprehensible enough to be grasped in less than 20 minutes. 


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Testing the waters: A science-policy simulation in an ice-free Arctic

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Hubert Brychczyński, Łukasz Jarząbek, Nicole Arbour, and Brendan James Frank.


Let us travel to 2035. According to scientists, the Arctic is going to become ice-free by the end of the decade. Vessels will soon start rushing there, enticed by the promise of year-round sailing opportunities. An international organization, called the Arctic League, safeguards the region’s future development while balancing economic, societal, and environmental considerations… This is the premise to the Arctic Future simulation, which was presented during the Canadian Science Policy Conference in 2020. Coincidentally, 2020 was also the second hottest year in recorded history. With global ice reserves melting at a record rate of 1.2 trillion tons per year, we can see how the trends that inspired the simulation play out before our eyes.

How to bridge science, policy, and society

The unprecedented rate of climate change calls for adequately unprecedented measures, especially at the intersection of science and policy. The WHOUNESCO, and the EEAC, among others, all recognize that successful cooperation between the two areas is key for developing globally consistent and robust responses to climate change. Right now, however, the cooperation is far from ideal. In fact, there is a gap between science and “science users” (policy makers and practitioners) that prevents optimal use of existing knowledge. For example, scientists in their research activities often don’t take into account what kind of results will actually be useful for science users. On the other hand, policy makers often make their decisions based on information that may not be the best available scientific knowledge. How to bridge these gaps and improve the development of both science and policy? Science-policy simulations can help. They create a safe interface for stakeholders, scientists, and policy makers to effectively work on strategies toward a better future.

What are science-policy simulations?

Science-policy simulations are a type of social simulations. The easiest way of thinking about the social simulation is to picture it as an interactive, multiplayer role-playing game. Run either offline or online, it recreates – or simulates – the dynamics of a complex, real-world system by using game elements, such as problem cards, pictures, tokens, boards, etc. Social simulations focus on the social aspect – the freedom of each individual to make their own decisions and explore possible options in interaction with other players and within the simulated reality.

Social simulations belong to a broader category of tools that use mechanisms known from games for purposes other than entertainment. The oldest kind of such tools are strategy games used for military purposes. In the 20th century, wargaming techniques became more and more often applied to non-military contexts. The beginnings of this change can be traced back to World War II, when the approach to wargaming shifted from “rehearsing for war” to “simulation gaming as a (…) method for military policy and planning” (Mayer, 2009, p. 827). It was in that time that applied mathematics and engineering started to inform military strategy development more prominently. This led to the establishment of operations research, a discipline used for military planning in the US, which laid the foundation for the emergence of systems analysis and policy analysis. Called “decision sciences”, the two disciplines started to apply various kinds of gaming methods to non-military contexts, for example to urban and social planning, health care, economy, and more. As a result, such methods as policy gaming, simulation games, planning games, policy exercises, serious games and others were developed to address challenges in different fields.

Social simulation approach was heavily influenced by the abovementioned traditions, combining them with a strong role-playing and performative aspect. It puts emphasis on combining learning through direct experience (Kolb, 2015) with social learning – “a process of iterative reflection that occurs when we share our experiences, ideas and environments with others” (Keen et al., 2005, p. 9). This process of learning is possible because social simulations involve participants with different experiences, types of expertise, and worldviews, who impersonate different roles within the simulation – for example ones in research, administration, business, and NGOs. Within the safe confines of the simulation, they can jointly discuss problems, devise strategies, propose solutions, and diffuse tensions through negotiating and debating. They can also implement the potential solutions and see them play out right away in the condensed environment of the simulation.

Science-policy simulations build on social simulation approach, adding to it an extended narrative layer. The participants take on the roles of different policy makers, scientists, activists, and business people. They face a series of dramatic events. While this storyline unfolds, the participants work in different thematic groups to respond to the changing situation. The storyline is presented using a series of professionally-made videos, news articles, social media accounts, and other materials, such as maps or infographics. The storyline is always created based on available scientific data on the subject matter and consulted with experts from the field. Such crafted simulation allows the participants to gaze into the future and explore how to use the available scientific knowledge to craft better policies to address upcoming problems – and how to conduct research to produce results that will be actionable to support such policies.

The Arctic Future Policy Simulation

The Arctic Future Simulation was prepared for the Canadian Science Policy Conference 2020 in collaboration between Centre for Systems Solutions, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa. It was created based upon the Cascading Climate Impacts simulation that was developed within the CASCADES project

Building on the premise of a future ice-free Arctic, the simulation explores possible challenges and tensions anticipated to arise in the region with regards to international trade routes and security. Participants, assuming the roles of high officials from Arctic countries, negotiate and vote on a treaty that regulates economic, social, and environmental issues in the region. The debate, revolving around trade routes, extra fees, and marine environment, is interrupted by a series of unexpected, narrative interludes – like news about the blockade of Suez and Panama canal.

The design process of such simulation requires close collaboration between a core team of game designers, researchers, writers, filmmakers, and graphic designers, and external subject matter experts. The first step is to prepare a plausible scenario of chains of events based on available literature and expert knowledge. After a few iterations and consultations, we turned it then into a draft storyline. In parallel, we selected the organizations to be included in the simulation (national ministries, business organizations, Indigenous People’s organizations, NGOs, citizen initiatives) – and then created a detailed matrix of negotiation positions for each role, with an emphasis on conflicting values and interests. Iterating the whole process allowed us to reach the desired interplay between the gameplay and narrative layer. 

Striking the right balance between the exploratory function and narrative immersion was the biggest challenge in making the simulation. After all, the purpose of social simulations is to imitate a system as closely as possible and offer the participants a testing ground for problem-solving. On the other hand, the storyline had to be attractive and well-paced to keep the participants curious about what will happen next. This meant that we had to make the narrative as dramatic as possible while staying true to the scientific background it was based upon. We found this tension between the need for representing real-world systems plausibly and for incorporating fictional elements both challenging and fascinating. 

Ultimately, the simulation was successful. In after-game surveys, the participants not only reported the representation of reality as plausible but the experience as immersive and engaging thanks to the surprising narrative elements. What’s more, they felt like actual diplomats, learning about difficult diplomacy concepts in the heat of the moment.

Summary

In our increasingly interconnected world, the need for close collaboration between science, policy, and society is only expected to grow. Science-policy simulations are a promising tool for mediating this collaboration. They offer stakeholders a safe and life-like testing ground for exploring difficult issues before facing them in reality. Moreover, such simulations are highly adaptable and applicable in many diverse contexts and environments, both offline and online. So far, the Arctic Future simulation alone has been successfully deployed two times already. Cascading Climate Impacts – the simulation it was based upon – was also used two times, with more workshops to come in 2021. Needless to say, we plan to continue delivering such narrative science-policy simulations in the future. 

References

  • Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. FT press.
  • Keen, M., Brown, V. A., & Dyball, R. (Eds.). (2005). Social learning in environmental management: towards a sustainable future. Routledge.
  • Duke, R. D., & Geurts, J. L. (2004). Policy Games for Strategic Management: Pathways to the Unknown West Lafayette, IN.
  • Mayer, I. S. (2009). The gaming of policy and the politics of gaming: A review. Simulation & Gaming, 40(6), 825-862.
  • Susi, T., Johannesson, M., & Backlund, P. (2007). Serious games: An overview.
  • Caffrey, M. B. (2019). On Wargaming: How Wargames Have Shaped History and How They May Shape the Future (Vol. 43). Naval War College Press.
  • Wilkinson, P. (2016). A brief history of serious games. Entertainment computing and serious games, 17-41.
  • Weichselgartner, J., & Pigeon, P. (2015). The role of knowledge in disaster risk reduction. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 6(2), 107-116.

About the Authors

Hubert Brychczyński is a Content Writer at the Centre for Systems Solutions. By night, he doubles as an English teacher and translator – the latter with a focus on visual arts, such as graphic novels and films. A graduate of The School of English at Adam Mickiewicz University, he loves the written word, storytelling, and science communication.

Łukasz Jarząbek is a Senior Game Designer at the Centre for Systems Solutions. He worked on social simulations and serious games in different fields, including disaster risk management, resilience, cultural and natural heritage, climate change, cultural theory, and business sustainability. He is interested in using experiential methods such as games and simulations to aid co-production of knowledge and bridging scientists and stakeholders. 

Dr. Nicole Arbour is the External Relations Manager at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), where she plays an active role in building and maintaining relationships with IIASAs national member organisations (NMOs). She is passionate about the science-to-policy interface, evidence-based decision making, and science diplomacy. She holds a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Ottawa.

Brendan Frank is a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) at the University of Ottawa, currently serving as Interim Research Director. He hosts the ISSP’s new podcast, Disruption Discovered. His training is in science (Bachelor’s in Environmental Science, Queen’s University) and public policy (Master’s in Public Policy, University of Calgary), and he possesses strong research and knowledge mobilisation experience in the public, private and civic sectors

Climate change megagame

The Climate Change Megagame is a research project based at Linköping University that investigates how a megagame can be used to convey knowledge about climate change. The Megagame will take place on 21 November 2020, both in-person (in Linköping, Sweden) and online. You can register to participate here (priority will be given to local participants). The closing date for applications is 21 October.

“The digital version of the game that we have created will give the participants a better overview of what’s happening”, Magnus Persson and Ola Leifler, who are responsible for the project, tell us.

A megagame is a large-scale game with elements of board gaming, role playing and conflict gaming, with a number of players from around 10 up to a hundred. The scenario of the game is placed in eastern Sweden and the participants play various local, regional and national roles, such as political decision-makers and representatives for business. Many of the participants will play the role of local inhabitants.

One aim of the game is to create a meeting place in which different groups in society can come together and discuss.

During the game, climate change will be simulated for the period 2020 to 2100, based on forecasts from the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI). The consequences of the changed climate will present the participants with difficult choices. The goals of the players may conflict with political decisions taken in Stockholm and in Brussels.

Representatives for regional businesses, municipalities and Region Östergötland will participate in the game.

The Climate Change Megagame will collaborate with SMHI, the Swedish National Council for Climate Adaptation, and researchers at McGill University in Canada.

The objectives of the Climate Change Megagame research project are:

• to develop a game that creates awareness of how serious climate change is, and how it affects us

 to develop a university course in which students develop, organise and participate in a megagame

• to study the behaviour of those playing the game with respect to communication, decision-making and conflict management.

Simulation & gaming miscellany, 18 October 2019

 

wordle181019.pngPAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.

Aaron Danis suggested some of the items included in this latest edition.

PAXsims

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The NATO Allied Command Transformation website features a piece by Sue Collins on “wargaming the future” at the 2019 Concept Development and Experimentation Conference.

There has been resurgence in interest in wargaming amongst NATO organizations and NATO Nations. The practice of wargaming has been around for hundreds of years, so it is nothing new, but it fell out of favour to all but hard-core hobby-wargamers and now a new generation of staff are re-discovering the practice and its associated benefits, and building up their wargaming experience.

Recent examples of wargames that Allied Command Transformation staff designed include; a matrix game for Allied Command Operations to test NATO’s Military Deterrence Response Options and further the Deterrence Concept; a human-in-the-loop simulation wargame to test Anti-Access Area Denial strategies; and a game to validate NATO’s Urbanization concept. Upcoming games are planned to explore and test the NATO Mine Warfare concept and the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept.

At the 2019 Concept Development and Experimentation Conference in Madrid, Spain, there will be a workshop called “Wargaming the Future” where participants will be introduced to the practice and get the opportunity to play games including a dilemma game and matrix wargame. The games will focus on scenarios relevant to Allied Command Transformation’s Strategic Foresight Analysis exploring future trends such as the Arctic and High North, China and new technological advances. Participants will learn how wargaming can be applied to individual Nations’ Concept Development and Experimentation projects. The “Wargaming the Future” workshop is a joint venture between Allied Command Transformation and the Netherlands Defence Research Agency.

Beyond the workshop, NATO is continuing to advance the art and science of wargaming. NATO Nations host annual wargaming conferences, and the NATO Science and Technology organization are sponsoring research task groups to advance wargaming practices.

PAXsims

csm_Koerber-Policy-Game_What-to-expect-if-the-US-withdraws-from-NATO_25ce26163c.jpgSpeaking of NATO, how would Europe organize its security and defence if the US were to withdraw from the alliance? The International Institute for Strategic Studies organized a policy game to explore this issue in July, and the report is now available.

The Körber Policy Game brought together a high-level group of senior experts and government officials to address a fictional scenario that involves a US withdrawal from NATO followed by multiple crises in Europe.

Recent developments in transatlantic relations have reignited the debate about the need for Europeans to assume greater responsibility for their own security. Yet, efforts by European leaders to substantiate the general commitment to ‘take their fate into their own hands’ are so far lacking sufficient progress.

Against this backdrop, the Körber Policy Game brought together a high-level group of senior experts and government officials from France, Germany, Poland, the UK and the US to address a fictional scenario that involves a US withdrawal from NATO, followed by multiple crises in Europe.

How will Europeans organise their security and defence if the US withdraws from NATO? To what extent will future European security be based on mutual solidarity, ad-hoc coalitions or a bilateralisation of relations with the US? Which interests would the respective European governments regard as vital and non-negotiable? What role would the US play in European security after the withdrawal?

The Körber Policy Game is based on the idea of projecting current foreign and security policy trends into a future scenario – seeking to develop a deeper understanding of the interests and priorities of different actors as well as possible policy options. The starting point is a short to medium-term scenario. Participants are part of country teams and assume the role of advisers to their respective governments.

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The UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory has put together a brief overview of the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference.

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For more on Connections UK 2019, see also the Connections UK website and PAXsims’ own report on the conference.

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Linköping University in Sweden is planning a climate change megagame for April 2020.

“The Climate Change Megagame” takes place in Östergötland. It starts in 2020 and the scenario may run right up until 2100. The participants play various local roles, such as politicians and representatives for the business world. At least half of the participants will play the role of local inhabitants. As the climate changes, they will be faced with new situations and must take difficult decisions.

“One aim of the game is to cause participants to consider how we will have to adapt the way we live in response to climate change. We also want to know more about decision making in a future characterised by uncertainty about the climate. This uncertainty is not just about the physical climate, but also the political climate, where effects such as large-scale refugee movements, and food and water shortages, may have an effect”, says Ola Leifler.

One intention of the research project is to investigate whether a megagame is an effective way of passing on knowledge about climate change.

“I hope that the game can be held as a course here at LiU in the future.”

This is the first time that a megagame is used for research at Linköping University.  Ola Leifler wants to determine whether decision making can be studied using this type of game.

“Do the players gain insight into the significance of climate change? Some members of the project team are experts who have previously studied how decisions are taken in simulated worlds.”

PAXsims

Event201-logo.jpgThe Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, together with the World Economic Forum and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, hosted Event 201: a high-level simulation exercise for pandemic preparedness and response, in New York on 18 October. According to a report in Modern Diplomacy:

The exercise will bring together business, government, security and public health leaders to address a hypothetical global pandemic scenario. It will also feature a live virtual experience from 08.50 – 12.30 EDT to engage stakeholders worldwide and members of the public in a meaningful conversation of difficult high-level policy choices that could arise in the midst of a severe pandemic.

The world has seen a growing number of epidemics in recent years, with about 200 events annually including Ebola, Zika, MERS and SARS. At the same time, collective vulnerability to the social and economic impacts of infectious disease crises appears to be increasing. Experts suggest there is a growing likelihood of one of these events becoming a global threat – or an “event 201” pandemic – that would pose disruptions to health and society and cause average annual economic losses of 0.7% global GDP, similar in scale to climate change.

“We are in a new era of epidemic risk, where essential public-private cooperation remains challenged, despite being necessary to mitigate risk and impact” said Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Shaping the Future of Health and Health Care, World Economic Forum. “Now is the time to scale up cooperation between national governments, key international institutions and critical industries, to enhance global capacity for preparedness and response.”

Additional information can be found at the Event 201 website.

PAXsims

“A series of September and November wargames led by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff will evaluate new battle plans for fighting China and Russia, Pentagon officials say.” according to Defense One.

“What we don’t have is a concept that accurately and with rigor describes how the services will fight against a peer adversary,” Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, deputy commanding general of U.S. Army Futures Command and director of Futures and Concepts Center, told reporters Wednesday on the sidelines of the Defense News Conference.

A key part of the Global Integrated Wargame will be testing new gear intended to help troops in the various military services to communicate more seamlessly with one another. Today, each branch generally uses stovepiped networks — meaning, for example, that a pilot over the battlefield cannot easily talk to ground troops, who cannot easily talk to a ship’s crew just offshore.

PAXsims

Many studies of educational simulation and gaming use self-reported learning as a measure of effectiveness. However, we have long known this is a poor indicator, since students are likely to assess teaching methods (in part) on how much they have enjoyed them—not how much they have actually learned. Ars Technica discusses recent studies that suggest “College students think they learn less with an effective teaching method.

PAXsims

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A posting at the Institute for World Politics discusses 9/11 – The Second Wave, a strategic game designed by IWP interns.

An eight-week summer gaming workshop utilizing the skills of IWP’s intern team resulted in a mid-August presentation at the Connections 2019 wargaming conference at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA, by project coordinator Professor Aaron Danis.  “The poster session at Connections garnered a lot of foot traffic and interest, as it was the only terrorism-themed analytic game at the conference,” stated Professor Danis.

The strategic analytic game, titled 9/11 – The Second Wave, is based on a little-known disrupted al-Qa‘ida plot to attack the West Coast and Midwest with aircraft after the 9/11 attacks.  While al-Qa‘ida was unable to conduct follow-on attacks because of increased U.S. security measures, the plot remained in the mind of 9/11’s primary planner until his arrest in 2003.  This “what if?” game postulates that the Second Wave became the primary targets for 9/11.

Prof. Danis comments: “The purpose of this game is to provide students in my Counterterrorism and the Democracies course with a challenging terrorist scenario on scale with 9/11, while mitigating some of the hindsight bias of those who have read a lot about or have personal experience from 9/11.  Game objectives include counterterrorism response, crisis and consequence management, and indications and warning of further attacks.”

The interns did research into the plot, worked on game mechanics, designed the play map, and drafted the action cards that drive play.  They also did an initial playtest of the first day, which focuses on the actual attack, its consequences, and the U.S. response.

PAXsims

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Rebel Inc is an outstanding iOS game that is also perhaps the best stabilization simulation out there. Now it’s coming to the PC, in an expanded version, Rebel Inc: Escalation.

According to Rock Paper Shotgun, the full and final versaion will be available in late 2020. The early access version is already available on Steam.

PAXsims

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Giaime Alonge has written a thoughtful piece on “Playing the Nazis: Political Implications in Analogue Wars” at Analogue Game Studies.

PAXsims

Last month, a truck turned too sharply on Interstate 75 in Atlanta and spilled much of its load: 216,000 gaming dice.

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Further details at Kotaku.

PAXsims

Board-demo.pngThe Military Operations Research Society Cyberspace Wargaming & Analytics II Workshop is taking place 22-24 October in Alexandria, VA.

The primary objective of the workshop is to build upon the success of the 2018 Cyber Wargaming Workshop and continue the collaboration on data, models and wargaming best practices and sharing lessons for current cyberspace wargames and operations.  This includes describing the current state, clarifying gaps and developing solutions for cyberspace operations data, models and wargaming.  The workshops are geared to span the spectrum of wargaming experience from the novice wargamer, who want to increase their knowledge of wargaming techniques in the training working groups, to master game designers, who want to share and increase the wargaming body of knowledge within a cyber-context.  A new addition this year is a working group which will focus on cyber data science.

There is still time to register.

PAXsims

 

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The American Political Science Association’s 16th annual Teaching and Learning Conference will be held 7-9 February 202 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The conference includes a simulation and gaming track:

Simulations and games can immerse students in an environment that enables them to experience the decision-making processes of real-world political actors. Examples include in-person and online role-play scenarios like the Model European Union and ICONS, off-the-shelf board games, Reacting to the Past, and exercises that model subjects like poverty, institutions of government, and ethnic conflict. This track will examine topics such as the effects of gamification of course content on student motivation and engagement, cognitive and affective outcomes from simulations and games in comparison to other teaching techniques, and the contexts in which the use of simulations and games makes sense for the instructor.

Additional details can be found here.

PAXsims

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Registration is open for the 2019 annual conference of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association, to be held in Chicago on 6-9 November.

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The Winter conference of the Reacting to the Past Consortium (“Engaging the Future: Purposeful Teaching for Real World Learning”) will take place on 18-19 January 2020 at the University of Georgia. Further information is available here.

PAXsims

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On the subject of conferences, don’t forget that registration is also now open for the Connections North professional wargaming conference at McGill University, Montréal on 15 February 2020, as well as the ATLANTIC RIM megagame on February 16.

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Serious gaming the challenges of humanitarian preparedness

Pablo Suarez (associate director of programmes at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre) was kind enough to drop us a note highlighting some of the work that they have been doing over the past few years using serious games to highlight and address the humanitarian consequences of climate change and extreme weather events. Some of this work has been done in conjunction with the PETLab at  the Parsons—The New School for Design, who have also put together a website (here) devoted to this particular case of “developing public interest games for better crisis-decision-making.”

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Weather or Not is a simple game where participants are given the probability of a major storm, and then must decide whether or not to pre-position relief supplies. If they DO and there IS a flood (or if they DON’T, and there is NO flood) all is good. However if they DO and there is NO flood (or if they DON’T and there IS a flood) they are punished for over-reacting or failing to prepare. The game can been seen in use in the video below, with a graduate class at Columbia University: 

The best game strategy here seems rather blindingly obvious (prepare if the chance of a flood is above 50%), so presumably this would best be used to either familiarize people with probability estimates or to spark a larger discussion of the emergency preparedness.

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Before the Storm is a card-based game where groups of participants are given a series of weather forecasts (at 10 days, 48 hours, and 12 hours) and are asked to select the appropriate preparedness measures from the deck. They can also develop their own ideas, and summarize them on their own card. This seems to me to be a much richer use of a game mechanism, with participants not only encouraged to weigh the pros and cons of various options but also challenged to think of new approaches of their own. In the video below the game can be seen being used in Senegal. In this case, once the game had been played and new various options had been generated, the group visited a flood-prone village to get community feedback on their ideas.

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Spreading the Word is a version of the party/children’s game telephone, used to highlight problems of communication between scientists, relief workers, and local communities. You can see it at work here (at 04:00 to 17:45 in the video) in a workshop in Bangladesh. While the outcome isn’t surprising to anyone who has played the game before, it does seem a very entertaining way of highlighting the point in a lecture or workshop setting.

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Choices in a Changing Climate looks at the twin challenges of flood and drought (longer version here). Again, the game is as important for the way that the game mechanics stimulate and facilitate discussion as it is for the lessons built into the game rules themselves.

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Dengue, Catch the Fever! is designed to teach primary school children (and, secondarily, their parents and other stakeholders) about the risk factors for Dengue Fever, and the way these relate to issues of climate change. You’ll find an overview of the game here, and the game instructions here. Very clever, and it looks fun to play!

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The Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Change Centre also has links to other serious games used by national Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies:

  • Goose Escalera, a Spanish-language snakes-and-ladders type game for children (board, instructions) used to highlight environmental and climate change issues in Colombia.
  • Earth Savers, an Arabic-language boardgame on climate change for children, this time prepared by the IFRC for use in North Africa.
  • A Syrian computer game on the same theme.
One also shouldn’t forget a couple of other browser-based games with somewhat similar themes that we’ve discussed before at PAXsims, namely Stop Disaster (developed for the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction) and Inside Disaster (an interactive videoclip game on the Haiti earthquake). I’ve used both of these with students with great success.

Overall, there is a lot here to spark ideas as to how similar approaches can be used to address other humanitarian and developmental issues.  Moreover, as the work of IFRC and PETlab shows, you don’t need to make these complicated or electronic to get the basic point across. From a gaming perspective,it  is also easy to think of a number of existing card and boardgame techniques that might be applied to the issue of disaster preparedness. It would be interesting, for example, to design a cooperative card-driven game somewhat akin to Pandemic that whereby event cards generated disaster risks, forcing players to adaptively switch emphasis and limited resources from longer-term mitigation strategies to shorter-term emergency preparedness and response.

(Coincidentally I spent part of the holidays designing and play-testing a disaster response game. On the plus side, it was a hit with my local gaming group. On the other hand it may not be of much practical use, since it involves a future zombie apocalypse. Even without prodding from the IFRC, however, we did work climate change into the basic game setting!)

Managing the “Rizk” of climate change

Many belated PaxSims apologies to Adam at the London Science Museum (where I spent many happy hours as a teen), because I only just spotted this feedback from a couple of months ago:

Hi guys, It’s Adam here from the London Science Museum. Hope all is well with you and PaxSims. We’ve just launched our brand new online Flash game, called Rizk. It would be awesome if you featured / reviewed it as well.

Visually influenced by sci-fi posters of the 50’s and 60’s, we created an original risk strategy game set on an alien world where players must find and develop resources to nurture and protect their mother plant whilst defending it from indigenous threats. Every action you take affects the level of risk to your plant and hence there is no perfect strategy for completing the game’s 20 levels. RIZK builds on the classic tower defence model in that you expend wealth (coins) to invest in defenders to mitigate against threats of varying impacts. RIZK, however, is played from a 2-D, side-on perspective much like a platformer. As a result of the 2-D side-on perspective to the game, the enemy’s paths of movement are more varied than a traditional tower defence game. This also allowed us to create very intricate worlds right from the first level. This unique game is launched as a part of Climate Changing… the Science Museum’s three-year series of thought-provoking events, exhibitions and installations. The game is all about understanding risk and its relation to our climate.

The game was designed by Playerthree, and launched back in December 2010.

Rizk is a beautifully-rendered, fluid, and very-engaging game. The game’s commentary about resource scarcity and the environmental consequences of natural resource extraction are subtle—perhaps a little too subtle at times, given the likely attention span of the youthful demographic that it presumably targets. On the other hand, I’m sure it must pull folks onto the Science Museum’s website, where there is a great deal of additional information available.

Give your own green thumbs a try, and see how you do! (For those of you with less patience or an unrelenting propensity to kill houseplants let alone alien flora, you’ll find level walkthroughs available online here.)

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