Virtual Reality

Video game developers can educate gamers on the real…

The ice caps have melted. The continents have been reduced to a handful of islands. Survivors seek to rebuild what is known as floodplains.

It’s the premise of a video game released this year that represents a new approach taken by developers: using games to educate players about climate change and what could happen if they fail to get a handle on it.

In a previous game, Eco, the earth is still dynamic and human society is growing. Eventually, an asteroid hits, but the locals don’t know it yet.

Eco and Floodlands approach climate change differently – the former as an impending disaster, the latter as its consequences. Both are part of efforts by the $200 billion gaming industry to be part of the growing climate change discussion.

“The game shows the worst-case scenario,” Kacper Kwiatkowski, designer of Floodlands and head of game studio Vile Monarch, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via email.

“Our initial research indicated that a realistic sea level rise is several meters. We decided to assume 10-15 [metres] in the game for more drama. Now, it appears that this dramatic scenario is not necessarily improbable,” he said.

Globally, there are approximately 2.6 billion gamers. Activists and governments hope to encourage behavioral change in gamers through green “nudges”, where points are awarded for environmental protection in mainstream games, or explicitly educational interactive games.

The aim is to bridge the psychological gap between what people know and what they resonate with, said Hamid Homatash, lecturer in computer games at Glasgow Caledonian University.

“You can be told all this information that the ice caps are melting, but what does that really mean? It’s quite alien in a way, because you can’t really understand that experience,” he said in a video call.

At the 2017 United Nations climate summit in Germany, COP23, and at COP24 in Poland the following year, Homatash presented a game called Earth Remembers, in which players battle the effects of global warming based on a model of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showing the temperature rising.

“People in the room playing it had audible gasps,” Homatash recalled.

“They were shocked and horrified when they saw this happening right before their eyes.”

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“Damaging Understandings”

In the United States, only 42% of adults think tackling climate change should be a top priority, according to US data and polling organization Pew Research Center.

In Israel and Russia, about half of people think global climate change is a minor threat, if at all, he found.

UK player Ewan Dineen says playing Eco has made him more aware of the climate crisis.

“I was aware of climate change before, but I didn’t really pay attention to my own impact on the environment,” said Dineen (19), an engineering student at Western University. England to Bristol.

Since spending more than 500 hours in the game, Dineen says he thinks more about his climate footprint – walking instead of driving, eating less meat and carrying his own water bottle.

But while video games can encourage beneficial behavior like Dineen’s, experts say they can also instill bad practices.

In Nintendo’s popular Animal Crossing game, players can sustainably plant fruit trees or harvest the island of all its resources by ruthlessly chopping them down.

Research shows that gambling made players feel positive about their choices, regardless of whether the action was considerate or exploitative of natural resources.

In another game, Civilization VI’s Gathering Storm, players must ponder how cities prepare to survive as rising carbon dioxide emissions cause sea level rise, droughts and weather extremes.

This includes defenses like flood barriers, but also new and controversial technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS).

While the game can help players grasp the adverse effects of climate change, it also shows that technologies such as CCS are implemented with relative ease, which can have detrimental effects in the real world.

“[It] can give the impression, without all the politics involved, that there is a technological solution that can solve the problem of global warming,” said Elliot Honeybun-Arnolda of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia.

“The way he portrays technology without politics and politics without conflict can lead to a pretty damaging understanding of possible solutions to climate change.”

dystopian games

There are few data tracking sets that feature climate change, and the number of such sets is probably still small.

However, the number of dystopian video games has grown in recent years and accounts for around 3% of the industry today, according to industry tracking platform VG Insights.

But not all of them are linked to the climate crisis. Many feature pandemics and other disasters.

Platforms like YouTube and Twitch have encouraged some climate researchers to experiment with streaming to attract viewers, but with mixed results.

In 2018, Henri Drake, then a PhD student in physical oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started the ClimateFortnite channel to stream the popular Fortnite video game on Twitch. As he played, the guests talked about politics and the environment.

Several major publications covered the channel, but Drake shut it down after a few months.

ClimateFortnite has gone “virtually as expected,” Drake said in an email. But he said the format was not an effective way to talk about science due to the fast pace of the game and the concentration required to be effective.

An attempt to switch to games like Eco and Civilization VI, which were better for climate talks, came at the cost of lower viewer engagement, he said.

“These games are great and effective at communicating both the problem of climate change (and, more importantly, its solutions), but unfortunately they don’t look very appealing for live streaming,” Drake said.

“The fundamental difficulty in making climate exciting (in games and in reality) is that it is a gradual, progressive problem caused largely by invisible gas.” DM/OBP

This article originally appeared on:

Reporting by Adam Smith, @adamndsmith; edited by Yasir Khan.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit


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