One of the biggest challenges in reducing climate change is getting people to understand the issue and take action. Games turn out to be an excellent way to educate and nudge people. Gaming giants, including Sony and Microsoft, are among the leaders.
Educate People about Sustainability
The first step towards getting people to take action to reduce climate change and save the environment is indeed to get them to understand the issues. Even though people read about climate change or weather disasters, other concerns often take priority.
Games can be a powerful way to teach, persuade or raise awareness about important topics that young people should care about, according to Columbia University Games Research Lab director Joey Lee. Games such as KeepCool or In Eco can tackle complex topics like climate change and sustainability in unique ways, he suggests, so that people absorb the content rather than simply learning about it.
Videogames reach more than two billion people and have started making major impacts on climate and environmental action, according to Cornell University researchers, because their interactive and immersive nature allows for a wider range of engagements than other media. The game industry has enormous potential for popularising the sustainability agenda, they said, through raising awareness and influencing behavioural changes.
Highly popular games can have an enormous impact. Minecraft has introduced versions that enable users to design national parks and sustainable cities, for instance, while SimCity has modes featuring climate change, carbon taxes and emissions offsets through planting trees.
Another option is specially designed games. The World Climate Simulation puts participants into the roles of negotiators at a United Nations climate summit, according to NBC. It forces them to make decisions about how to lower greenhouse gas emissions and slow the warming of the earth, and it shows them the consequences if they do too little. A study found that the game left players with a better understanding of climate change science, a greater sense of urgency and hope and increased motivation to learn and do more about climate change.
Another specialised game is Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was released by Nintendo in 2020 and has sold more than 26 million units worldwide. Players create an island, grow vegetation, catch wildlife, and donate fossils and species to a museum. Jessica Fisher and Natalie Yoh, from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology in the UK, said the game works well because of its positivity, escapism and measurable benefits to mental well-being.
Encourage Longer-term Behavioural Change
Once people have more knowledge, games can also encourage them to continue taking regular actions to help reduce climate change.
“We have solid evidence that elements of persuasive play offer long-term effects,” University of Miami Chair in Interactive Media Lindsay Grace told Bank of the West writer Theordora Sutcliffe. “The best games are the ones that let players understand a small element of climate change, which then expands out to the more complex integration of climate science to leave the player understanding how their small behaviour change can make a meaningful change.”
Wildeverse is one game that encourages people to lead more environmentally conscious lifestyles. The ubiquity of smartphones means the gaming industry reaches one in three people on the planet and has the potential to be a potent tool for behaviour change, UN Environment Programme Chief of Education, Youth and Advocacy Sam Barratt told Reuters. “We want to help the industry get people to think differently about their relationship with nature and how they can live an (environmentally) lighter lifestyle.”
Recycle Roundup can similarly excite children about fighting climate change, and it can also engage entire families in investigating what they can do together to help save the planet. “Whether they’re creatively reusing household items, waging a war on plastic or decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” National Geographic observed, “kids will feel empowered to make a difference.”
Green Games Look Set to Expand
Looking ahead, conservation and climate change seem likely to become embedded in more games. Members of the Playing for the Planet Alliance, which was launched during the Climate Summit at UN Headquarters in New York in 2019 and has expanded to 30 member companies, have the ability to reach more than 1 billion videogame players. The Alliance was set up to rally the gaming industry to reduce its carbon footprint, ensure it has the tools to set targets to decarbonise, inspire environmental action through green activations in games, share learnings and explore new strategies for the future around new games and approaches to storytelling.
Members who have joined the Alliance, including Sony and Microsoft, have made commitments ranging from integrating green activations in games or reducing their emissions to supporting initiatives such as planting millions of trees or reducing plastic in their products. The Alliance’s annual Green Game Jam aims to incorporate green “nudges” into existing games to encourage action.
Games can, then, enable people to understand why climate change matters and nudge them to take action to solve it. Organisations and individuals promoting conservation could well have even greater impact by using the unconventional strategy of promoting the right games.