Could a computer game help avert climate catastrophe?

Ooooh playable. Image: Evojamaps.

It is the middle of the 2040s. After years of warning, scientists have just confirmed that the tipping point for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been triggered. Governments around the world are horrified as the news filters through. The days when they could reverse climate change by cutting carbon emissions to reduce global temperatures have just come to an end. There is now no way of stopping global sea levels from rising by over four metres. Nations and islands around the world are about to be lost forever.

It’s not real life – not yet anyway – but a computer game being played by a group of delegates and other attendees at the UN COP24 Climate Change conference in Katowice, Poland. Earth Remembers plays a bit like a 30-person version of Football Manager. Closely mirroring the real-life world climate change negotiations that take place every six months, each affected player represents a different country and has to negotiate with everyone else about how they’ll spend their national budget.

In-game shot. Image: GCU.

The game is the brainchild of a collaboration between undergraduates and academics from Glasgow Caledonian University, Utrecht University and the Purdue Climate Change Research Centre in Indiana. It uses an IPCC climate model to simulate the effects of each decision on carbon emissions, national GDP and the global temperature. Each turn skips forward five years, enabling players to “live” through the plausible future scenarios of 2033, 2038, 2043 and onwards out to 2118 to see how their decisions affect the world.

Games and the real world

Dang and blast. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The idea of using computer games, known as applied games, to help educate people goes back decades. Some might remember the “edutainment wave” of the 1990s, typified by games like Math Blaster (1994), where players had to do sums to release a tractor beam to pick up space rubbish.

Not only were such titles usually mediocre, the whole approach saw games as a kind of spoonful of sugar to make the nasty medicine of learning go down. It was bad teaching hiding inside bad games, and players were not usually fooled for long.

Fortunately, modern applied games are designed with a much better understanding of what makes games special. One of the best is the space exploration simulator Kerbal Space Program (2011). The object is to create a space programme for a race of little green humanoids called Kerbals. Players are encouraged to experiment and be creative. Once they have built the necessary equipment, they fly it with a simulator based on a realistic physics model.

The game wasn’t originally designed for educational purposes. But after NASA decided to back it, the developers created a version aimed at classrooms. Only by grappling with real-world trade offs between rocket components, life-support systems, fuel and weight, can players get the Kerbals to their nearest moon, the “Mun”, and then back in one piece.

Apparent reality

Earth Remembers was designed with the same sense of jeopardy in mind. Should a country’s budget be spent on researching new green technologies that could, for example, extract carbon from the atmosphere and sink it in the ground? Should it be spent reducing greenhouse-gas emissions with investments in green energy sources or on adapting to the impacts of climate change?

When events trigger in the game, each player/nation is given an event card that describes what has happened to their country. In one game, for example, the US was told that Miami’s coastline had seen significant flooding as a result of the ice sheet melt and that millions of residents were going to have to be moved further inland at great cost to the country. Meanwhile, other nations were coming to terms with news that certain industries had been dealt a massive blow.

Title screen. Image: GCU.

The whole point is to use narrative storytelling and imagination to make the human and economic cost of these events more concrete. As the Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda convincingly argued, people have emotional reactions to what is apparently real – not to what actually is real. Games give us a platform to create just such an apparent reality.

The final part of our game shifts 100 years into the future, and players are presented with scenarios derived from the decisions they have made. The Fijian people no longer reside in Fiji, for instance, but in a part of Australia renamed by one participant “Fijiland”. This prompted discussions about the challenges of identity loss, whether this community should be a separate nation, and who was responsible for this situation.


Our trip to Katowice was the second time we’d simulated the game, having previously demonstrated it to negotiators at the climate change talks in Bonn, Germany in the spring. When the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed in one of the games in Katowice, the sense of alarm in the room was palpable. We got great feedback from players about the way the game made tipping points like this one much more real. Negotiators will hopefully have kept this in mind when it came to the real-life discussions.

Next for us is to demonstrate Earth Remembers for scientists and policy specialists in Washington, DC in a few days’ time. We are also hoping to develop further enhancements to the game. This is where the potential of applied games lies: in mixing together the scientific and the artistic; the rational and the emotional. Do this well and you have the potential to create meaningful change – and maybe even help avert disaster in the process.

The Conversation

David Farrell, Lecturer & Researcher in Game Design, Glasgow Caledonian University and Hamid Homatash, Lecturer, Computer Games, Glasgow Caledonian University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.