Change Gamers

Photo credit: Anthony Clark

Video games are maturing. Where players once practiced delivering newspapers or dispatching demons, they are now increasingly being asked to tackle real-world problems like climate change and war. Follow author Dylan Walsh (above) as he surveys the scene and logs on to try to save the globe.

Matt Harvey listed universal truths of gameplay. “First, you must have a collapsing situation,” he said. That is rule number one. “If you sit still, bad things happen. The player’s job is to prevent this collapse.”

We sat in a small kitchen on the second floor of a nondescript building on the outskirts of Oxford, England. A teakettle boiled on the stove. This is Matt’s workplace, the independent computer game publisher Red Redemption Ltd. With eleven other employees he is designing the computer strategy game Fate of the World in which players take charge of global politics and tackle the imminent threat of climate change. Though unconventional, Fate of the World is part of a growing industry of social-impact games – games premised on real, pressing social issues.

“A collapsing reality is the first universal truth of gameplay,” Matt continued. It turns out that climate change, for better and for worse, is a textbook collapsing situation. If you sit still, really bad things happen: ranks of biodiversity are lost to extinction, rising seas inundate coastlines, and fragile ecosystems dwindle to nothing. For this reason, climate change makes good gaming.

Another universal truth, said Matt, is obvious: choose a topic that people find interesting. People love the thrill of crawling under concertina wire and wielding sniper rifles; World War II games fill shelves. People are fascinated by magic and spellcasting, by the dark allure of grimoires, and as much by skidding cars hugging the tight curves of a coastal highway – and so fantasy and racing games proliferate.

By Red Redemption’s reasoning, people also find politics and climate change interesting. If we abide logic – and software developers abide logic – why not make a game about politics and climate change?

Gobion Rowlands, cofounder and chairman of Red Redemption, has wagered $2.5 million on this logic, money fundraised over two years and plowed into the development and release of Fate of the World.

Gobion is among a swelling rank of academics and professionals, philanthropists and non-profits who all support a larger, bolder wager: social-impact games can truly help solve the problems on which they’re based; Fate of the World, for example, might on the screen and the ground provide solutions to climate change. Perhaps we will avert a real collapsing reality by playing through a fake collapsing reality.

The growth of social-impact games has backstory written in numbers. The 2010 release of Call of Duty: Black Ops grossed $360 million in 24 hours, representing the highest earning debut of any entertainment product ever. Fans worldwide purchased 5.6 million copies within 24 hours of release. Continuous gaming, a kind of psychological addiction, has proven lethal to dozens of players who forgo food and water in order to advance their level. This has incited the installation of “anti-obsession systems” on select games. Perhaps the most staggering statistic regards the massive online world of World of Warcraft: the cumulative man-hours devoted to exploration of the virtual continents of Azeroth and Kalimdor thus far sums to more than 5.3 million years.

Put in perspective, 5.3 million years would accommodate construction of the Transcontinental Railroad ten times over.

Naturally, everybody wants a piece of this pie. Government agencies, social enterprises, and myriad other organizations are falling into tighter and tighter orbit around the videogame market. The Knight Foundation is investigating games as a small-scale journalistic tool. The United Nations developed Food Force to educate players about the logistical challenge of delivering aid during humanitarian crises. Even former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is invested in a gaming venture. Dismayed with the state of public civics knowledge, O’Connor founded to engage children with the powers and functions of government.

Klaude Thomas, CEO of Red Redemption, considers the expansion of gaming into new realms inevitable. “New technologies are always first adopted for basic or rudimentary purposes,” he says. “Over time they gain sophistication as we realize new ways to use the technology that had not before been considered possible.” This technological trajectory is obvious everywhere: the telephone developed from a means of communication to a personal office to a money transfer service for earthquake relief efforts; Twitter evolved from documenting the quotidian to sourcing news stories and broadcasting revolution. By describing our government through animated lawyers and speech bubbles on the Third Amendment, Sandra Day O’Connor is in line with this trajectory. Asi Burak, co-president of the Manhattan-based nonprofit Games for Change, is meanwhile hoping to shape this trajectory.

“We’re trying to take games to the next level,” Asi told me as we walked to lunch in a small subterranean restaurant he frequents across from his office. “Like a little bit of Europe in the middle of Manhattan.” The low-hung catenary of heavy drapes muted the winter sunlight. We sat beside a gas fireplace. Asi is not from Europe. He is from Israel. He told me about his work. “You know, it’s very hard to ignore the power of games anymore. You can’t fight it, so why not get on the cart?” Asi devotes himself matter-of-factly to this practiced pitch.

He is compact and broad-shouldered with tightly curled receding black hair and is perhaps most well known for designing PeaceMaker while a master’s student at Carnegie Mellon. PeaceMaker explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a computer strategy game. The central objective is a peaceful and viable two-state solution. Players can serve as the premier of either country, and this decision proved strategically critical to the game’s effectiveness. “The thing about [war] games that allow you to play both sides,” Klaude Thomas told me, “is that you always empathize with the side you’re on. So these games actually teach you something really honest about the nature of war, which is that everyone sees things from their side as being justified.”

The game touched a nerve upon its 2006 release. Media outlets including Wired Magazine, the New York Times, NPR, Time, and Al-Jazeera covered PeaceMaker with impressive enthusiasm. Casual readers of Middle East newspapers praised Asi’s efforts, emailing to say they learned more from playing his game than reading the paper. PeaceMaker offered a level of complexity and perspective absent from “flat news pieces,” as Asi calls them.

The game did not gross $360 million in 24 hours, and it does not, I suspect, need an anti-obsession system. “PeaceMaker is far from being a household name,” Asi admits. He swept his hand out to indicate the other diners. “If you ask somebody on the street, he won’t know the title.” But the game kindled conversation around the role of games in addressing social problems.

Indeed, PeaceMaker drew enough attention that Dani Yatom, a member of the Israeli Parliament in 2007 and former director of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, offered to play the game on broadcast news. His ingrained hawkish disposition proved self-destructive. Yatom was quick to retaliate against a virtual suicide bomb in Jerusalem with the use of military force. “Great! We destroyed them!” he exclaimed after his first turn. But his persistent and uncompromising military pressure ultimately strained relations over the course of play, and his game concluded with the inception of the Third Intifada. “You Lose,” the screen flashed. According to the design of the game – that is, according to decisions made by Asi and his classmates at Carnegie Mellon – Yatom had led unwisely and so suffered the consequences.

Pushed back from his desk with the laptop in three-quarters view, Yatom glibly passed off his loss and talked on-camera with the reporter. “I’ve lost because the computer decided I’ve lost,” he said, “while I believe I took all the right actions. You can’t learn from this game. Nothing about reality.”

Asi counters that, in fact, Dani Yatom’s stubborn failure demonstrates the value of PeaceMaker by illuminating how “the same actions lead to the same desperation.” But regardless of what this televised gameplay demonstrates, it is clear that PeaceMaker did not convert a warrior to a dove. The head of a national intelligence agency did not renounce the error of his ways and pursue the fruits of pacifism. He laughed off his loss because games have limits – limits that Gobion reflected on while discussing Fate of the World. “It’s not our job to change everyone’s mind on our own. We are just a games company.” Red Redemption is not a legislative body. It is not a scapegoat for stalled politics or social ennui. Nor, Gobion noted, is Red Redemption a team of climatologists or glaciologists or meteorologists attempting to carry out hard science. “We’re just trying to find a means to turn what scientists are doing into something that is better understood.”

But Gobion is confident that Fate of the World can help inspire action on climate change. He draws his confidence from two sources. Had Yatom been playing Fate of the World instead of PeaceMaker, the computer’s decisions would have been more difficult to dismiss because Fate of the World is powered by empirical scientific data instead of soft policy prescriptions. This is one source from which Gobion draws his confidence. The other source is the precursor to Fate of the World, a much more compact game titled Climate Challenge, which was built with virtually no budget by a team of young and inexperienced game designers, Gobion among them. Climate Challenge was an idea spawned late one night amid the raucous exchange of an Oxford pub.

Matt Harvey and Gobion founded Red Redemption in 2005 and quickly committed themselves to developing an online spy game. Progress slowed into a muddle that was, in the diplomatic words of Gobion’s wife, Hannah, “not quite working.” Hannah was then completing her master’s degree at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute with a focus on climate change communication. One evening Gobion joined her for drinks with a few classmates and Myles Allen, a professor of climate modeling. After enough imperial pints to lose count, Gobion, high in spirit, boasted that games could be made on any topic. Myles spoke up: Any topic? he asked. How about climate change? Two hands extended, then shook. Myles followed up a few days later and cemented the bet.

Thus the attentions of Red Redemption were turned from a spy game to a game about climate change.

The project began with three full-time employees working from home. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), at that time launching a comprehensive investigation into climate change, learned that Red Redemption was designing a game on the subject and offered them a spot on their Science and Nature website. In December of 2006, Red Redemption completed and released Climate Challenge in collaboration with the BBC. The game centered on the management of U.K. climate policy for the next 100 years. Constituent and budgetary concerns had to be balanced against environmental policy choices, all of which were playable as cards: an energy efficiency card, a carbon tax card, and so forth. Into the early months of 2007, millions of people played the game, many repeatedly, exploring different scenarios and outcomes. The player traffic and response exceeded Red Redemption’s wildest hopes – “We occasionally received letters saying, ‘You changed my life!'” said Hannah. Jolted by public response to his first – perhaps the first – game explicitly about climate change, Gobion envisioned a grander sequel, and very soon began working to realize his vision.

He canvassed major game publishers for start-up support, the kinds of publishers that sink tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into the so-called triple-A games­ that mark ever-higher revenue records. “All the publishers,” said Hannah, “told us, ‘That’s a great idea, but we can’t help you.'” Though intriguing in theory, accountants and shareholders demanded more than theory. There were no proofs-of-concept or sales figures for social-impact games released on the commercial market. Until that point, social-impact games had been released in a distinctly separate forum: commercial games made profit, social-impact games were sponsored. Foundations or corporations used social-impact games to train employees, governments used them to explore policy options, and schools used them as instructional tools. These same organizations that used them, financed them, therefore buffering social-impact games from the stiff competition of the game market. After all, how could the Red Cross’ Food Force be expected to compete against The Sims? With this model in mind and no historical samples to support positive returns on investment, the industry offered kind words in place of capital.

A screenshot of Fate of the World. Photo credit: Red Redemption Ltd.

Spurned but not dejected, the team of three rented a cramped and noisy backroom from a cramped and noisy computer repair shop. They set to work independently on their next big project, Fate of the World.

Over development, the team grew to 11 full-time employees, with Klaude Thomas as CEO. The company eventually moved into a larger space on the second floor of the same computer repair shop. In the open office, vinyl window blinds are perpetually closed. Thin fans of light split the imbrication and a plastic clacking stirs whenever the ventilation thrums on. Over lunchbreak, employees eat sandwiches hunched over their keyboards while battling online in Starcraft 2 or World of Warcraft. Beside every monitor lie loose cables, cushioned headphones, and stained coffee mugs. A small library of textbooks and manuals on game design fill the freestanding shelves angled to create a makeshift waiting room. The meeting space in back overlooks the damp and dreary road. Double-decker buses coast down the nearby hill with engines whining. A straight shot down this busy artery and around a traffic rotary, is Oxford University and Myles Allen’s Climate Dynamics Lab.

Myles manages the world’s largest climate model, a cloud-computing operation hosted at, and the data from his models flow those three miles back around the rotary and up the road where they are put to use as Fate of the World’s bedrock.

The very core of the game is Myles’s climate model. Early in production, Red Redemption decided to connect the climate system in Fate of the World to real scientific data. Much as cars in racing games accelerate, skid, and tumble according to Newtonian mechanics, Earth’s biosphere in Fate of the World evolves according to the forecasts of Myles’s climate model. And though climate dynamics are fuzzier than Newtonian mechanics, this connection lends the game a degree of veracity. Hannah is the guardian of this veracity.

Hired full-time by Red Redemption as a science advisor, Hannah keeps the design team honest by stocking playable scenarios with factual numbers. Her weeks are full of research, data collection, and friendly tugs-of-war with the creative designers who tend to demand more than the science can deliver – more melting! higher oceans! bigger storms! greater privation! Or, conversely, Hannah will push for inclusion of scientific facts. Lecturing on, for example, the terrific importance of Earth’s albedo as a positive feedback mechanism, Hannah will describe how the melting of white icecaps exposes the dark surface of the ocean which absorbs heat faster and leads to more melting ice caps. The designers will nod and look at her and complain, “’But that’s boooring.’”

Obviously, good entertainment need not adhere to good science, and good science needn’t translate into good entertainment. While space colonization makes for interesting gaming, no player, not even the most diehard, would wait eight years during virtual transit from Earth to Mars.

Despite this debating at the fringe, the essential complex dynamics of climate change have proven well suited to gaming. “Complexity is good,” Gobion said. “We,” meaning game designers and game players, “like complexity.” Hannah corroborated: “The tensions, the challenges, the complication, the detail – that makes gameplay.” At any given moment, World of Warcraft players manage 156 active user interface elements simultaneously. Equip your bow, mount your horse, check your health, cast a spell, collect the gold, etcetera.

Or as it applies to Fate of the World: phase-out US dependence on oil, develop renewable energy in China, provide job relief in Northern Africa, fend off drought in Russia, manage forestry regulation in Brazil. Etcetera.

Dylan Walsh

Dylan Walsh graduated from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2011 where he studied environmental communication. He is an Editor at The Solutions Journal and a freelance science/environment writer.

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