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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.