While being ill over the last week or so, I’ve spent some time playing the beta version of Fate of the World, a forthcoming PC game based around climate change which has generated quite a lot of interest in the mainstream media ( see here and here)
The game essentially puts you in command of a global organisation whose mission is to prevent catastrophic climate change (defined in the beta mission as 3 degrees of warmth), maintain a human development index above 0.5 and keep people happy enough to stop more than a certain number of geographical regions from kicking you out by the year 2020.
To achieve these goals you have a variety of tools at your disposal; projects which include boosting renewable energy, deploying CCS technology and subsidising electric cars, environmental and social adaptation/mitigation measures such as drought prevention measures, healthcare programmes and advancing regional water infrastructure, policy measures such as banning oil from tar sands or deploying algae based biofuels, and political measures such as deploying peacekeepers to troubles regions and black ops (including covert steralisation programmes?!).
From a game studies perspective the game is interesting as it provides users with a complex simulation whereby numerous interdependent factors are required to be dynamically balanced in a way that goes far beyond the usual kill or be killed binary prevalent inb most computer games. While there are of course alternatives, particularly in the realm of sandbox simulation games from SimEarth to Civilisation 5, Fate of the World is interesting insofar as it uses data taken from climate models to simulate not a fictional alternative world, but possible futures of this planet, presuming that the current data from climate models are broadly accurate. As such by experimenting with different variables users can glean a different kind of insight pertaining to the challenges posed by Anthropogenic Climate Change to engaging with traditional forms of media, such as watching a documentary or reading the scientific literature. By being able to manipulate how regions react through play, users get a different kind of experience, one driven by feedback, configuration and systemic thinking rather than narrative, affect or rhetoric. While such models will always be highly reductive simplifications of real world complexity, they could provide a useful way of approaching some of the complex social and environmental issues currently facing us, and indeed this kind of argument has been powerfully advanced by game studies scholars such as Stuart Moulthrop, who have advanced the argument that when dealing with complexity, configurational thinking is likely to present users with a better understanding of the area than linear narrative based approaches.
One criticism I have of the game in its current state is that the processes of feedback which reveal how a user’s interventions are effecting the relevant systems are often relatively obscured by their placement two menus deep, and I suspect that many players will struggle to find the data which actually spells out what the the consequences of their actions have been, and without this crucial information actions can appear opaque and indeed this criticism has been made on gaming forums discussing the beta. Hopefully this will something that is addressed before the game is released, as if players don’t understand what effects their decisions have entailed, then the game isn’t achieving its goals.
One aspect of the game which I found highly intriguing is the disparity between the aims and activities the game sets for users and the claims and actions of really existing nation states and supranational institutions. The beta mission in the game sets success as avoiding a rise of 3 or more degrees over pre-industrial temperatures by 2120, which is below the midpoint of the IPCC projections of 1.5-6 degrees of warming this century (dependent on a range of factors, but primarily human measures), but which is considerably higher than the figure of a 2 degree rise which nation states couldn’t agree upon at the COP15 conference at Copenhagen last year. The reason states couldn’t agree upon that figure wasn’t the complete lack of concrete measures designed to practically bring about that change, but because a large number of nations, primarily the 131 countries represented by the G77 group, declared that a 2 degree temperature rise was too high. Earlier this year those nations convened in Bolivia at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, where they drafted a people’s agreement which stated
If global warming increases by more than 2 degrees Celsius, a situation that the “Copenhagen Accord” could lead to, there is a 50% probability that the damages caused to our Mother Earth will be completely irreversible. Between 20% and 30% of species would be in danger of disappearing. Large extensions of forest would be affected, droughts and floods would affect different regions of the planet, deserts would expand, and the melting of the polar ice caps and the glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas would worsen. Many island states would disappear, and Africa would suffer an increase in temperature of more than 3 degrees Celsius. Likewise, the production of food would diminish in the world, causing catastrophic impact on the survival of inhabitants from vast regions in the planet, and the number of people in the world suffering from hunger would increase dramatically, a figure that already exceeds 1.02 billion people. The corporations and governments of the so-called “developed” countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system…
Our vision is based on the principle of historical common but differentiated responsibilities, to demand the developed countries to commit with quantifiable goals of emission reduction that will allow to return the concentrations of greenhouse gases to 300 ppm, therefore the increase in the average world temperature to a maximum of one degree Celsius.
With atmospheric CO2 concentrations currently at 387ppm, and even the most ambitious campaigners in the developed world calling for a reduction to 350ppm, the aims set out at the World People’s Conference appear laudable, but completely unrealistic. Indeed, the goal loosely set out at COP15 of reducing warming to no more than 2 degrees, but with no mechanisms to try to achieve this have been widely criticised by groups such as the International Institute for Environment and Development;
The Accord is weak. It is not binding and has no targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (countries that signed it have until 31 January to list their voluntary actions in its appendix). The low level of ambition will make preventing dangerous climate change increasingly difficult. What countries have so far proposed will commit us to a 3 to 3.5-degree temperature increase, and that is just the global average.
In some ways this may be the most useful role the game plays; highlighting the distance between the rhetoric of political and business leaders who are currently seeking to greenwash the issue, and present their inaction beyond rhetoric as somehow being constitutive of a viable solution to the problems posed by ACC. Despite taking concerted action throughout the game it is hard to maintain warming of under 3 degrees without society collapsing due to a lack of mitigation and adaptation measures, widespread war and civil unrest or widespread poverty and famine in the face of increasingly severe climate related disasters as the next 110 years unfold. In some ways this isn’t that much fun; being told that your actions are resulting in millions starving and armed conflict doesn’t spread warmth and joy, but it does give some indication of how hard things are likely to get as time passes.
One thing that becomes abundantly clear from the game is that the sooner action is taken to dramatically curb CO2 emissions (particularly in wealthy nations where emissions per capita are far higher), the less severe the consequences will be further down the line. This is a lesson we would do well to heed.