I’ve previously written about what I think a game programmer can do about climate change which includes, naturally, making games. In this post I want to revisit that and try to define some core principles that can help guide the development of meaningful â€œgames for changeâ€.
The Games for Change advocacy organisation defines games for change as those which â€œdrive real-world change [and] help people to learn, improve their communities, and contribute to make the world a better place.â€
I’m focusing on climate change as a sort of case study here, but these are intended to be general principles. Important issues rarely exist in isolation anyway, least of all climate change which is so intertwined with other injustices and driven by the shape of our societies and economies.
Broadly speaking I want to create games that achieve as many as possible (and ideally all) of the following: engage, educate, inspire, and empower. Each of these could be an article in and of itself, but I’m just going to touch on each one briefly for now.
I think of each of these elements as steps in a player’s journey that begins with discovering and deciding to play a game (engage), playing and exploring it more fully (educate and inspire), and finally coming away ready to enact change in the real world (empower).
Step One: ENGAGE
Games are pretty good at grabbing people’s attention. They’re visual, they’re interactive and they’re (usually) fun. Climate change, on the other hand, is none of these things. It’s hard to grasp in its entirety, it’s difficult to visualise in many ways, and most of the time it feels too big and distant to be interacted with in any meaningful way.
Depending on who you ask, climate change also has an image problem. Maybe you respond well to photos of skinny polar bears on shrinking ice, or videos of dedicated environmental activists at organised protests, but many don’t. Games don’t appeal to everyone either, but perhaps they can appeal in new and interesting ways.
The proliferation of internet access and smartphones means it’s easier than ever (though not necessarily easy) to get a game in front of people’s faces and into their hands. Someone who would never read an article about the minutia of climate change might play a game that incorporated those details, if they were presented well.
Maybe that’s still wishful thinking; we’ll see. And the specifics of successfully engaging people to play is a whole field unto itself (but a pretty well understood one for games generally). So for now let’s assume we’ve managed to engage someone and they’re actually playing our game, now what?
Step Two: EDUCATE
Climate change is a big, complicated, systemic issue and some people have dedicated their entire lives to studying it from various angles in order to better understand it. Games can be a great tool for presenting some of that complexity in a way that’s easier to digest than, say, an academic paper in a scientific journal.
This could – as seen in games like Eco – take the form of a fully realised digital world that painstakingly recreates and simulates climate systems and ecosystems and lets players see (and interact with) those systems and the connections between then. Hopefully gaining a fuller, systems-level understanding in the process. This is something that games, being systems themselves, are uniquely suited to achieve compared to other mediums.
But it could also be something much smaller in scope, requiring less of an investment from the player and therefore making it more accessible to a wider audience. Such a game might focus on a single aspect of the climate crisis, or it might not even be a full game at all, but something more like a playable news article or an explorable explanation.
Step Three: INSPIRE
Climate change can be a pretty dreary, depressing, exhausting topic. There’s still no firm consensus on how best to present it in a way that conveys the importance of urgent action without causing people to switch off and feel like the whole situation is just hopeless.
One thing we can do is make an effort to not only highlight what we’re going to lose, but what we stand to gain. The beauty and wonder of nature; the amazing complexity of life on earth; fairer, more just, and less exploitative societies that aren’t dependent on fossil fuels and endless growth.
This is where we can take the long view and ask â€œwhat does a fossil-free world, where humans lives in harmony with their environment, actually look like? What are we building towards? Sure, the current system is broken, but what are the alternatives?â€
There are many, many possible answers to these questions and games could be an amazing tool for exploring some of them in a safe environment where the cost of failure is low and, as a result, there is a strong incentive to experiment, innovate and think outside the box.
Or, if such lofty goals aren’t always within reach, inspiration could simply come from a better understanding of the world and our place in it. We’re more likely to safeguard the things that are important to us, so let’s make sure the natural world (and all the people living in it, while we’re at it) are on that list.
â€˜Mountains return to us the priceless capacity for wonder which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence, and they urge us to apply that wonder to our own everyday lives.â€™ Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind [Mont Blanc, 12 April 2018] pic.twitter.com/bBQx1MROpF
â€” Inge Fjelldal Dornan (@IngeDornan) April 15, 2018
Step Four: EMPOWER
The final step is probably the most difficult, but also the most important. The previous steps are all well and good, but if they don’t provide a path for someone to go out and take real, tangible steps outside of the game then they’re benefit is probably limited.
Real action will look different for different issues. In the case of climate change it might be a personal action (e.g. taking specific steps to reduce your carbon footprint) or an action designed to change a system (e.g. political engagement to push for better environmental policies).
Less specific, but still important, is empowering people to overcome feelings of hopelessness and fatigue by replacing them with a pragmatic optimism. Ensuring that the inspiration the player feels while playing the game stays with them even after they’ve finished.
For some games and issues there might be a very concrete link between game actions and real-world actions. For example, a game that simulates a grassroots political campaign â€“ attracting members, writing letters, organising protests, or whatever it might be â€“ could be used as a sort of training simulator that lets players learn by doing.
Alternatively, some games might be better thought of as mechanisms for broadening perspectives and encouraging new ways of thinking. For example, a game about designing sustainable cities. Most players aren’t going to become city planners, but perhaps such a game could encourage local civic engagement, or at least provide a framework that can be used to question planning and neighbourhood design decisions.
So those are the principles I’m going to be keeping in mind as I develop my own games for change. Making games is complex and time consuming, and it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the details sometimes and lose sight of the bigger picture. That bigger picture might just be to have a good time, to relax and escape and have some fun. But sometimes it also includes broader goals, and I thought it was worth solidifying those into this little framework for future reference.
Hopefully this was interesting or useful for you, too. And if you’re also creating your own game for change, or you’d like to get started but don’t know how, please do leave a comment as I’d love to hear from you!