Games bring climate science to life

January 18th, 2011 by Laurie Goering

Laurie Goering is the Climate Editor for AlertNet, which is a free humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This article was published originally on 7 December 2010.


(click image to expand snapshot image of beta version of the 'Fate of the World' video game. The video game will be released on 15 February 2011)

When Pablo Suarez began trying to teach humanitarian workers at the Red Cross how to incorporate climate change science into their emergency planning, he brought in scientists to lecture. The sessions were a disaster.

“The usual approach was the scientist gives a talk with a lot of complicated Powerpoint slides. Then the Red Cross people at the end of the session ask, ‘I’m sorry, but could you say what is the most important thing for me to know so I can make better decisions?’

“And the scientist would often explain the same science but in a more irritated tone of voice,” said Suarez, a climate research fellow at Boston University in the United States and consultant to humanitarian aid and development groups such as the Red Cross and Oxfam.

“Because of the understandable differences in language and priorities, it was hard to get a conversation going,” he said.

So one day, during a training session in Ecuador, Suarez tried a different tactic. He brought two Frisbees to the training session, and threw the first to a colleague he’d planted at the end of the room. She caught it quickly, symbolising how disaster workers are often adept at handling emergencies they’re familiar with, such as hurricanes hitting an area long prone to storms.

Then Suarez pulled out a much bigger Frisbee and flung it down the room, where it whacked into the unprepared crowd. When he explained how climate change is warming the oceans, which may lead to bigger storms landing in different areas than normal and producing unexpected challenges, people were listening.

“At the end of the session, people were talking about climate change, which had never happened before that day,” Suarez recalled. “Until then, science was irrelevant and boring.”


Since then, the Argentine climate researcher – also, coincidentally, an award-winning developer of board games – has brought together his two passions to try to spark a revolution in helping people understand climate change, its impacts and its complexities.

In Ethiopia and Malawi, working with Oxfam America and other groups, he has designed a game that has successfully helped illiterate farmers understand how micro-insurance works and how it can benefit them.

In Senegal, working with the Red Cross/Red Crescent and a New York design school, he’s put together a disaster scenarios game in which at-risk coastal residents select option cards – such as “Take your children to their grandparents’ house” – and then see how their decisions might play out in a real storm.

“The games can create an atmosphere where people, by themselves in a short time, figure out through an ‘aha!’ moment that this matters to me,” said Suarez, who is promoting the approach at this week’s U.N. climate talks in Cancun. “They notice patterns and realise decisions have consequences. Then they themselves work out what would be the best decision.”

Games, he said, can help explain the complexities and threats surrounding climate change and raise awareness about the options for dealing with it before a storm, crop failure or flood hits. They also are a useful way of gathering ideas from local people as to what adaptations might work, he said.

In Doune Baba Dieye, a village in Senegal, where coastal farmers face worsening climate-related storms, Suarez used a game in which residents chose options for action from a deck of pre-printed cards. The selections led to animated discussions, and by the end, the players themselves had created 300 new option cards.

In Ethiopia, illiterate and innumerate farmers were able for the first time to grasp the value of insurance and how it worked after playing a game that let them opt whether to buy insurance, then roll a dice to determine if they had needed it or not that particular year, and what their costs would have been with or without it.

Climate Games for all

“You can tell the moment where they suddenly figure out how to play the system to do better,” Suarez said. “You can also see how people who outperform their peers like to brag about how they figured it out. That creates a peer-to-peer dialogue that leads to more trust in what is being learned.”

Using games can have its challenges, he warned. Cultural contexts need to be taken into account – gambling games don’t work in Muslim communities, for instance – and the games require good facilitators and at least 20 to 40 minutes to play.

But “games are underexplored as a communications tool”, Suarez said.

He isn’t the only person building highly interactive climate games.

The Potsdam Institute has developed a complex climate simulation board game called “Keep Cool

(Click on board game image to go to Keep Cool game website)

And “Fate of the World“, a global strategy videogame based on climate modelling by Myles Allen, a climate dynamics expert at Oxford University, will be released on 15 February 2011.

(click image to go to the 'Fate of the World' video game website)

But Suarez’s simpler games are aimed at a different audience – the poor and vulnerable, as well as those trying to help them prepare for the impacts of climate change.

To expand the use of the climate games and create new ones, Suarez is now working with the Parsons The New School for Design in New York, which has a team of experienced game designers. The aim is to create a range of freely available open-source climate games that will be posted on a website to be launched early next year.

Suarez hopes that will lead to game-based climate learning “going viral”, and strengthen preparations around the world for the impacts of climate change.

“I now have an easy time helping people understand why climate science can help make better humanitarian and development decisions,” he said. “Games are memorable – and they’re a lot of fun.”

Re-published on Sustainableguernsey with permission.

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