a12 – Games for understanding climate science

By Wendy

Last summer’s catastrophic forest fires were just a taste of what’s in store if we don’t drastically reduce and eliminate emissions from our infrastructure. But how do we make sense of climate science? How do we direct our energy towards the changes that need to happen most urgently?

EarthGamesUW is a game development laboratory at the University of Washington run by climate scientists and their students, and they have created a number of apps and games based on real climate data that can be downloaded or played online for free here at: earthgames.org.

The climate data used in these games comes from the C-MIP6, or the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Version 6, which is considered the best predictive climate data available. At EarthGamesUW, climate scientists sit down with computer programmers to translate the C-MIP data into the Python programming language, allowing game designers to use it as the backend for their games.

Some of these games may seem a bit hokey and DIY when compared to games produced by big teams for profit, but they offer a number of creative ways to visualize processes that contribute to and result from the greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling climate change.

My favorite game that EarthGamesUW has created so far is Infrared Escape, in which you play a tiny beam of infrared energy attempting to escape the atmosphere to cool the planet. Rather than setting the game to “easy” or “hard” at the start of the game, there is a scale that you can use to adjust the PPM (parts per million) of carbon in the atmosphere. The more PPM of carbon in the atmosphere, the harder it is to escape.

Other EarthGames projects include Climate Quest, which is made to look like a 90s-style RPG game, in which you direct a team of specialists in addressing escalating ecological and social disasters that come up due to climate change, and Life of Pika, in which players direct a pika (a real animal that is threatened by climate change) to collect food while dodging predators as the rising temperature threatens your survival in a number of ways. These and a number of other climate games are free to download for your phone, tablet, or computer.

These games are especially handy if you’re homeschooling and want to include a unit on climate change (every little kid alive right now is going to have to contend with this, so better to be honest and prepare them as much as possible while fighting like hell to mitigate the damage while we still have time).

My one criticism is the website doesn’t have any widgets to help you visualize climate data in a more straightforward way. For that, you have to go to a different website (climateinteractive.org/tools/climate-pathways/) to download an interactive graphing tool that shows you how temperature change will be affected by different levels of greenhouse gas emissions over the new few years.

The future trajectory of global warming over the 21st century will be determined by the speed with which humans eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases. According to the IPCC, in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-Industrial average, emissions must be reduced by 50% by 2030, and drop to net zero by 2050 (IPCC 2018). We now have less than 10 years to reduce emissions by 50% to prevent catastrophic climate change within our lifetimes. Rather than panicking, it is a good time to slow down and work to understand the factors that are contributing to climate change so we can make smart collective choices fast.