Serious play: a game-changer for local climate action?



David Donnerer

Publication date

September 4, 2018

Games are meant to entertain us. But can we have fun while improving our abilities to learn, make decisions and collaborate to bring forward the energy transition? It seems possible thanks to serious games about climate and energy, which can educate citizens about pressing challenges and increase the ability of public officials to take action at the local level.

Serious games, whether board or video games, have been around for decades already. In schools for example, such games are used to teach children mathematics or languages in a playful and accessible way. For many professions such as doctors, pilots or firefighters, serious games are a key part of training, be it to practice for surgeries, simulate flights or prepare for rescue missions.

When it comes to climate change and the energy transition at the local level, serious games dealing with these key issues focus on raising awareness, developing players’ knowledge and encouraging them to come up with ideas and solutions to overcome challenges and obstacles. Furthermore, by means of role-playing, these games seek to enhance the ability of participants to assess risks, make decisions and collaborate. Serious climate and energy games address areas such as managing trade-offs between long-term sustainability and short-term economic growth, mitigating climate change by shifting to renewables and energy efficiency, or finding innovative ways to adapt to its unavoidable effects such as harsher floods, droughts or wildfires.

© Photo: Jaciel Melnik on Unsplash

In the shoes of Policymakers: discussing energy and climate through serious games

In many serious climate and energy games, players are confronted with hypothetical yet realistic situations in their cities that are caused by climate change, such as sea-level rise or prolonged heatwaves, and have to decide how they would adapt urban infrastructure accordingly. The US-based Virginia Tech Center, for example, conducted a role-playing simulation with 76 public officials and stakeholders from the cities of Boston, Singapore and Rotterdam, where participants assessed together how they would alter investment decisions for transport infrastructure in response to climate hazards.

Building clean energy cities is another key focus of serious games. In “Energy City”, a game developed by the digital education branch of the renowned National Geographic Society, players take on the role of policymaker to develop a clean energy city in the long-term. Confronted with six different baseline scenarios, the objective is to move away from depleting fossil fuel resources to a 100% renewables mix, while at the same time maintaining a healthy environment, good air quality, a balanced budget and high stakeholder support. A similar approach is also used in a game developed by the EU project “EnerCities”, co-funded by the Intelligent Energy Europe programme.

Fostering urban sustainability is also a key notion in many serious climate and energy games. The DUBES game for example, developed by researchers from TU Delft, was created to support decision-making for sustainable urban renewal and development. Players explore sustainable development opportunities for a real urban renewal project or a fictional neighbourhood, taking into account factors such as quality of life, environment and feasibility. After the players have reached a consensus on the way forward, their decisions are entered into a computer modelling program, which then provides them insight into the consistency, effects and consequences of these decisions.

"Master of the Covenant", example of a serious game

© Photo: Francisco Leal

Multiple benefits of serious climate and energy games

So what can these serious games bring to the table? As it turns out, a number of actual, tangible benefits for the citizens and city officials playing them. After Virginia Tech Center’s role-playing simulation, participants reported that they now knew more about climate change, had a higher sense of urgency to act on it, a greater confidence they could adapt to its effects and were keen on collaborating further. The researchers from Virginia Tech Center therefore concluded that such games should play a more important role in the training of city officials. In a similar exercise in the State of New England (USA), more than 500 city officials, citizens and researchers participated in role-play climate adaptation workshops. The workshops turned out to be effective for enhancing local climate action in several cities in New England: in Cranston, the results of the game led to integrating more climate change considerations into the city’s short- and long-term planning. In Dover, the game reinforced citizens’ confidence in the local government’s ability to address climate change risks.

A useful capacity-building tool to support local energy and climate action

Increasing citizen’s awareness, enhancing government officials’ skills and self-confidence and reinforcing people’s ability to make decisions and collaborate more – serious games are a useful capacity-building tool to support local energy and climate action, start a conversation and build the foundation for ambitious real-world measures. Climate change is no game, but serious play is definitely the most enjoyable way to support cities and their inhabitants in their local energy transition!

Further reading:
A selection of serious climate and energy games, compiled by the NGO Centre for Systems Solutions
Research paper “Role-play simulations for climate change adaptation education and engagement”, published in July 2016 in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change
“Master of the Covenant” – New board game supports municipalities in making their local action plans (Covenant SECAPs)