You won’t hear many parents telling their child to spend more time on the computer—especially if they’re spending that time gaming. But it turns out that computer games offer an opportunity to teach people of all ages about the dangers of climate change as well as the lifestyle choices to avoid it.
“Global warming games” or “climate change games” show players how their personal choices affect the health of the environment. The games correlate certain behaviors with measures of environmental harm, such as carbon dioxide output, water usage, or energy consumption. The gameplay may vary but the goal is typically the same: They turn a game into a teachable moment that informs players about climate change and what they can do to stop it.
Many climate change games are available on the web for free. One particularly fun example is “Climate Challenge,” developed by the company Red Redemption. The player is the president of the European Union, and each round they must make decisions on national policy, local policy, trade regulation, housing policy, industry regulations, and international negotiations. Players see the impact of their choices in terms of typical environmental metrics—such as carbon output and water usage—and in terms of the budget and approval ratings. The game gives players perspective on the tradeoffs in climate change policies and teaches them about different options.
Another game, “V GAS,” gives users the opportunity to build a virtual 3D house and choose how best to furnish it to reduce their carbon footprint. Players are faced with certain scenarios, such as heat waves or price shocks, and they must respond in the most environmentally friendly manner. This game teaches players about the personal decisions they can make to mitigate their carbon footprint, as opposed to “Climate Challenge,” which looks to national politics.
Some games take yet another approach. Consider “World Without Oil.” Instead of giving players a series of specific scenarios, this game provided one general premise: There’s been a huge oil shock. Players were asked to demonstrate how they would react through blog posts, videos, pictures, and podcasts. The month-long game in 2007 involved thousands of users and resulted in the creation of an “alternate reality” in which a massive resource crunch had already occurred.
Some climate change games are sold to the public. Red Redemption also released a game in November 2010 titled “Fate of the World,” which tasks players with creating policies to stave off massive resource depletion, climate change, species loss, and environmental degradation.
Larger developers are also interested in selling climate change games to the public. Microsoft in 2007 teamed up with “Games for Change” to host a contest challenging students to create a viable and fun game that taught players about climate change. Microsoft hasn’t released a game yet but the fact that they’re exploring the potential is exciting in itself.
Many are perhaps skeptical about the teaching potential of video games, especially when the topic is an issue as frequently mischaracterized and politicized as climate change. But, reassuringly, developers of many of these games—even the free ones—have gone great lengths to make the science behind the games as accurate as possible.
Further, computer games may actually have an advantage in teaching people about climate change—especially children. The interactivity of video games allows users to process information in an engaging fashion. Students can jump into a hypothetical scenario instead of listening to a lecture, and they learn about climate change and possible solutions through hands-on experience.
In other words, video games can make learning about climate change fun. Ultimately, they could be an indispensible part of teaching the next generation about the importance of protecting our environment.