Change Gamers

Photo Credit: Anthony Clark

Welcome to 2095. In China, I’ve built out a monolithic system of nuclear energy prone to diminishing plutonium stocks. My failure to invest in next-generation biofuels despite their necessity in replacing petroleum has created an intense competition for land use – food or fuel? – and prophesies famine on a horrifying scale. And chronic inattention to the policies of Southeast Asia has culminated in civil unrest generated by hundreds of millions of migrating climate refugees, their homelands sunk below rising oceans.

I’ve also ushered in a seminal, if modest, era of African prosperity. European policy responded well to the shock of peak oil in 2035, and most economies have continued ticking up in lockstep with environmental protections. The world is not a husk, and hope – the hope of its people alongside the hope of its player – affords incentive to push into the next century. Take another turn. Drop the confetti and mark 2100.

This is my game. It is the future I’ve created. If I tire of it, or if it collapses, then I can scratch the decades of intricately networked policy efforts and start all over again, reset in 2020, the year in which Fate of the World begins.

The game opens centered on a vibrant marble of land and water and cloud spinning slowly on-screen. Tiny lights flicker in constellation as the scythe of night passes from east to west. The main character, if you’d call it that, is not an errant cowboy or urban mafioso, but this, the marble. It is the player’s job to manage environmental and social concerns across the world’s twelve regions. The first few times I played, I destroyed the planet. I scanned online message boards for survival tips. I stumbled across a solitary March 13 tweet from pr1001: “Saving the world is hard!”

Yes. It is.

Like its predecessor Climate Challenge, Fate of the World is a card-based strategy game. Hundreds of policy options are available for play, and each policy drives regional responses that ripple outward to other regions: switching to less intensive, organic agricultural methods in the U.S. can drive up food prices and create political unrest and war halfway around the world; or forest protection laws can slow the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases and improve environmental zeitgeist by establishing national treasures. Ultimately, Fate of the World creates a complex system of policies and responses that interact in long and often unpredictable cascading effects. No policy and no people, you quickly learn, exist autonomously.

As I took charge in 2020, I gravitated first to intervention in regions with the highest annual greenhouse gas emissions. The game provides detailed information on tons of greenhouse gases emitted per year by region and the breakdown across sectors, so I targeted investment accordingly: renewable energy technologies and an electric automobile fleet in the U.S.; nuclear research in China; stricter industrial regulations and better technology in Russia. This was the method: review regional data for appropriate regional policies. When my money ran low, I clicked through to the next turn, pulled in taxes from each region, and leaned back as the timeline surged five years forward. 2025 dawned and news headlines rolled in:

Resource Shortages Hinder Growth;
Degree of Warming over Pre-industrial Levels;
Rise in Arctic Methane Reported;
Global Oil Production Peaks;
Advanced Drilling Breakthrough

The next turn presented a choice that would linger and frustrate me the rest of the game: how much money would I invest in industrial emissions abatement at the expense of poverty relief? Would I prioritize European carbon capture and sequestration, or the distribution of food and medicine in Africa? Would I chase technology, or dispense welfare?

Softhearted, I opened a regional welfare office in Northern Africa. Rampant deforestation in Latin America had established the region as the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, so I laid down long-term forest conservation policy. The choices continued with an endless and impossibly difficult set of trade-offs. Come 2035, the Arctic experienced an ice-free summer and Northern Africa struggled against political instability while Japan heralded smartgrid breakthroughs and North America had maxed out its nuclear power capacity.

Newflashes came and went with a reliable mixture of affirmation and censure. Undeveloped regions became increasingly restive, squeezed between social welfare and environmental protection. There were victories, but they were challenging to achieve and often offset by unforeseen effects. My first “successful” policy offered just such a lesson: ten years after celebrating the success of my forest management in Latin America, timber extraction in Russia and South Asia spiked. With timber demand unchanged, I’d simply shifted the harvest. What was good for Latin America was not necessarily good for the world.

Photo credit: Anthony Clark

I eventually did beat the mission, but was forced to make discomfiting sacrifices. I allowed war in the Middle East to run its course, and I bailed on water infrastructure investments in India. Whether or not you agree with the outcomes, Fate of the World forces a central, difficult question: what trade-offs are you willing to make?

Climate change has been termed a super wicked problem; it has been described as a soft balloon – squeeze in one place and the sides bulge elsewhere. All game long I squeezed, and the bulges kept bulging. This process offers one of the key insights from Fate of the World, an insight that perked Asi from his slouch.

“Feedback loops,” Asi commented, “are extremely important. What feedback loops do is they get you to understand choices and consequences, and they link events together.” Players begin to read connections between events, to understand how certain policy plays might unfold in context. “It all starts to make sense as a system,” Asi said. In the case of Fate of the World, this system is built on the work of Myles Allen’s lab and operates under the direction of genuine scientific principles. The narratives I witnessed while playing through the game were not picked from thin air, but based on advanced climate modeling. And while the future is impossible to predict, this veracity lends Fate of the World a distinctive sobriety. The travails I faced in each passing decade portended some vague and formless future in store for us all.

I was able to see this future because the game accordions time, and what might normally take 50 years to occur instead takes 50 minutes. The long, slow processes of climate change snap with urgency; though it might require a hundred years for the Greenland ice sheet to slide from its volcanic foundation into the warming Atlantic where it will bob and melt and raise sea levels worldwide, Fate of the World allowed me to personally witness this gloomy outcome. I watched take place what I could otherwise never see take place, and this made for a powerful tool of engagement and illumination.

“Those who separate education from entertainment don’t understand enough about either,” said Gobion as we ate lunch. “The best education is always entertainment,” he reiterated. “Always.” In this vein, Red Redemption hopes Fate of the World will spur people to think and talk about climate change by entertaining them with climate change.

The degree to which Red Redemption has succeeded in its goal is debated among reviewers. PC Gamer scores Fate of the World 61 out of 100, describing the game as “well-intentioned and beautiful, but…small, hard and depressing.”  Paste Magazine gave a high 8.9 out of 10, with a review to support this score: “Instead of cracking skulls,” writes Nathan Grayson, “Fate of the World had me crack books and pore over graphs. And I loved it…It had played on my expectations as a gamer – my desire to master systems and worlds – in order to make me obsess over a topic of real relevance.” And, as if a company shill, Grayson concluded, “that’s when it hit me: Fate of the World had tricked me into learning.”

These words alone may be worth the $2.5 million of fundraising, the uncertain and lengthy development process, the steady call for personal sacrifices from Gobion, Hannah, and the rest of the Red Redemption team. For all of their hard work, these words may be payoff.

After a pizza lunch with Gobion and Hannah the waitress delivered a profiterole for dessert. “You’ve earned it,” Hannah said as Gobion took a quick forkful. He sank sighing into the red vinyl bank, like a spring uncoiling.

“Hardest job I’ve ever had,” he said shaking his head and chewing and going for another forkful. “Hardest.”

He had recently returned from a ten-day, fourteen-city, rapid-fire promotional tour in the US. Over two years he has been forced to learn extensively about business development. “I’d never raised a million Pounds before, I’d never done publicity for a big A-type game before, I’d never done distribution channels before, or even established a distribution deal,” he said.

Hannah chimed in: “But then, none of us had ever made a game about climate change on this scale.”

Fate of the World was launched February 24th, 2011, at the “Gaming the Future” conference in Asheville, North Carolina. A team of NOAA scientists was the first to try the game, followed by a line of conference attendees who took turns at a long bank of computer terminals. Gobion gave a short ribbon-cutting talk, dressed sharply in a three-piece suit, red tie, and French cuffs. “When I’m confronted with a subject that terrifies me,” he pronounced from the lectern, “that I don’t know anything about, that I’m intrigued by, I’ll make a game about it.” He leaned into the microphone. “Gaming is my way of interacting with the world, of processing what we do here.” When I talked to him, he said that, of course, he would be thrilled with commercial success. Of course it would be nice to break even, or even turn profit. “But, really,” he said, “I just want as many people as possible to play the damn thing.”

When I asked Asi what it would take for the successful beachhead of social-impact games in the commercial market, he sipped his coke and said, “a lot.” Pressed further, he went on: “It’s complex, and we need many things to happen together: money, distribution, changes in public perception and support. And we need more stories,” he said – stories to support the place of gaming in social uplift.

Whether this incursion would then lead to genuine, durable social change is another question entirely, one answered only by the slow flow of real, not virtual, time. Whether the force of games as educators will translate into the force of games as changers remains to be seen. But there is at least one powerful story of gaming from 2,500 years ago. It is recounted by Jane McGonigal, a fellow at the Institute for the Future, in her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. The story is from Herodotus in the first book of The Histories.

“In the reign of Atys the son of Manes their king there came to be a grievous dearth over the whole of Lydia; and the Lydians for a time continued to endure it, but afterwards, as it did not cease, they sought for remedies; and one devised one thing and another of them devised another thing. And then were discovered, they say, the ways of playing with the dice and the knucklebones and the ball, and all the other games.”

“These games they invented as a resource against the famine, and thus they used to do:—on one of the days they would play games all the time in order that they might not feel the want of food, and on the next they ceased from their games and had food: and thus they went on for eighteen years.”

The famine gave no sign of respite after these eighteen years. With its resources strained thinner every year, the Lydian kingdom attempted a final measure of survival by splitting in two, with half of the population seeking new settlement. Though Herodotus passes this migration off in one sentence, recent discoveries have linked Etruscan DNA to the Lydians, suggesting that long ago, if imperfectly, a game of dice saved a civilization from collapse.

Climate change is not a famine, and Fate of the World is not a dice game, and in present day there is no king neatly calling out mandates, but one must wonder what parallels hold.

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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