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Q&A: How Climate Challenge Could Change Minds

A game to help educate on climate change? That's what UK-based developer Red Redemption has just created for the BBC, and Gamasutra talks to the game's producer Gobion Rowlands on why games could be the next big educator on big social issues.

Alistair Wallis, Blogger

January 23, 2007

16 Min Read

Environmental simulator Climate Challenge is the latest title from Oxford based serious games developer Red Redemption. The Flash game was funded by the BBC, and is playable on the broadcaster’s website. Climate Challenge allows players to take control of Europe from 2000 to 2100, and lets them make policy changes with the aim of improving the world’s environment, while growing the economy and staying popular with voters. While this particular version of the title is aimed at young professionals aged 25 to 35, the company is also developing an edition aimed at school children which the game’s producer, Gobion Rowlands, notes will also be multiplayer. British Minister for Environment and Climate Change recently praised the game, noting that the government “understand the challenge of educating people about climate change and recognise that innovative and interesting ways of engaging people are necessary”. “Climate Challenge allows people to interact first hand with climate change policy and other factors contributing to one planet living,” he continued. “I welcome the Climate Challenge game.” We spoke to Rowlands about Climate Challenge, his views on the serious games industry, and the challenges involved in presenting such a message to the public. When was Red Redemption started, and what were your aims at the time? I set the company up in 2000, but we really got going in the beginning of 2001, but I’ve been running the company fulltime since then. Our original aims were really just to make the kind of games we were interested in. It wasn’t initially the educational, ethical, serious games stuff – that came along a bit later. The first game we made was called Steel Law Online, which was an online conspiracy role playing game. We ran that for almost two years and it was good fun, but it was very difficult to run; it was a big online game, and running that with a team of four is very tricky! Steel Law Online came out of a research award from the Department of Trade and Industry. That was what put a lot of the effort into doing Steel Law Online: they backed us when we said we would be working on a Java based server. After we did Steel Law, we decided that we wanted to work on games that were more than just entertainment value. I mean, simple entertainment is great, obviously, but it’s very well covered in the games industry, and we wanted to see if we could make that came from another angle to that. Do you feel that it’s important for the games industry to be tackling issues? Absolutely. Frankly, I think it’s essential. As everyone says, and all those stats say that it’s bigger than film and television and all of that, it has traditionally done remarkably little to tackle wider issues, though I think that’s changing fast. Games like Sim City showed that you could still make games that were fun, but you could also add in some other element to them, so that people were learning. Sim Earth was certainly the first game to deal with climate – and that was a long time ago! They broke a lot of ground, ten years before anyone else was even thinking about it. I think you need to have games that have that stronger element, because the truth is that so many players will play games for so much as their time; it’s the primary media form that they take on board. If possible, you need to be able to use that to get stuff across to them in a helpful way. If they’re just spending all their times playing games that are just violent, or whatever, it seems like a wasted opportunity, when you’re able to reach groups that are otherwise hard to reach. Do you think there’s a specific market out there for people to be playing educational and serious games like that? This is what we’re seeing, I guess. We’re trying to put our money where our mouth is. It depends on the game; I remember when I played Deus Ex I was very surprised, and very pleased, that they tried to filter in some socio-political discussion in there. It wasn’t the purpose of the game, because it was a first person shooter, but I liked that. If you make games that are fundamentally games – that start from being fun – but have that extra element, then that’s brilliant, it’s a slightly more valuable use of the time. Whether we can sell those games in shops yet I’m not sure, but part of what we’re doing is building up that whole market, which is why we work on the business to business games angle; we get funded from other organisations, like, for example, Climate Challenge was funded by the BBC, and then we can give the game away for free. At some point in the not-too-distant future, people will feel confident enough about some of these educational and serious games, that they will believe they are “real” games, and not just something about learning, and will be willing to buy them. We want to give them away for free because we want to get the games out to as many people as possible, and we found that switching from a traditional publisher and developer model to a business to business model has been a good move for us, financially as well and we can really get some good projects out there. Doing the game as a Flash based game on the BBC website is a great way of expanding your audience, too. Oh, absolutely. They had 3.2 billion page views last month, and obviously we’re not going to get even one percent of that – though we are only one click down from the top! But that’s fantastic exposure; we could hopefully have million of players. We’re getting the first stats in a week, so I’m excited to see how it’s going. Do you think there’s a market for games like Climate Change in a retail environment? I think it’s coming. We would love to have a retail market there. My problem with the retail market for games is that it’s so heavily focused on teenage men, and games like Climate Challenge, from what we have found, tend to work as strongly - if not stronger – with a female audience. What we’re trying to do is make sure that games continue to make their way out of the “ghetto” that they used to be in. It is great that there are games for teenage men – I used to be one myself, and I love playing those games, but I think it’s important that games can be for a much wider audience. Especially given that, in the UK, there’s a 50/50 split between male and female games players, though most of those female gamers will play online games, or games they’ve got from other sources, like games on their mobiles. But they’re generally not the kind of people who go into shops and buy games – we wanted to get to them. So, I think there is a market for retail games to come out soon, but it’s going to be an interesting one to establish; people have got to know they’re going to get a good, interesting game, but also that it’s going to have some kind of intelligence to it. We’ve got very close partnerships with Oxford University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact in Berlin, so we’ve always tried to make sure that they games start from the data and go from there. They’re still games, but we make sure that, as a company, everything we do has extra depth: with Climate Challenge we did a set of notes to go with it, so that the game would a starting point for people to go and learn more from other sources. That’s interesting though, because if we were to sell a game like that in a games shop, I don’t know where it would go on their shelves, because it doesn’t really fit with any specific genre. I think that probably deals with issues with the retail sector of the industry than anything else, though. Well, yeah – we could certainly boxed games via Amazon or the like. At the moment, I don’t think, or I didn’t think, that we could get the kind of backing financially to do retail games in this genre, which is why we’re trying to build the market. The flipside to that is that it’s a terribly fast growing market, and we’re currently working on another three climate related games. That’s why doing the business to business model has been fantastic for us, because it’s taken us out of the traditionally vulnerable position that developers find themselves in. We know what the budget is for each game before we even start it – financially, we’re in a very stable position. It doesn’t have the open-ended profit in the same sort of way, but with Climate Challenge we have retained all the rights; the BBC have the rights to host it, but we have the rights to the game, and the product and all future versions of it. We didn’t do that just financially, but we know that working with big partners – and this is through no fault of their own, because they’re all good people – a project can just disappear. So it would be a shame that if it were successful and worked well that more wasn’t made out of it – we’re just trying to make the most of it. At the moment, we’re also developing a second version of the game, which is a multiplayer version for use in schools, for children aged 15 and 16. We’re doing that for the UK initially, but we’re hopefully going to be doing an Australian and possibly a US version as well. How is the version for children different from what you’ve done for the BBC? Firstly, it’s built around a lesson plan and teaching pack – that’s the key thing. Secondly, it’s scenario based, so currently in Climate Challenge, you deal with all the issues in one go, but that’s not so useful for teachers. From our research and talking to a number of teachers, we’ve found that they want to be able to focus in on a specific area such as bio-fuel and alternative energy sources – they don’t necessarily want to have to deal with energy sources and social policy and trade situations and all of that in one go. We’re also reworking the content, because what’s in Climate Challenge is aimed at 20-plus professionals. It’s not that we’re reworking it, it’s just that there’s more explanatory notes to accompany each point. So it’s more streamlined in the way it disperses information? Yeah, and in some ways it will also be a slightly smaller game, and it will be slightly less broad – it won’t cover as many subjects, and it will go deeper into detail on those subjects. Essentially, the teacher has them choose a scenario, they play through it, they compare, they get to do some international negotiation against each other, and then at the end they have their score, which they get to print out, and which leads them onto further research. We follow up every game we do with research, and we believed that Climate Challenge was very effective at communicating information about climate change, but we wanted to really know that – it’s not enough to think it, we needed the information to really prove it. What we found was quite interesting; we found that the majority of players learnt a bit more about climate change, and that they felt a bit more empowered about the issue. That was great, because we can’t change the world with one game, but it was good that we moved things forward just that little bit more. That’s interesting – I found my experience with the game to be rather difficult, and I wondered if you did that intentionally to reflect the kinds of challenges that governments would be facing with climate change in the coming years. Oh, yeah. We tried to make sure that the game lived up to the “challenge” side, which is why a lot of players don’t make it through to the end of the game. But the thing is, even if you don’t, you don’t lose out, with what information you get from the game. If you get voted out of office, you get a full set of feedback, as if you’d completed the game, but obviously in some areas you won’t have done so well. But it is a challenging issue. For me personally, when we did all the research for the game – and that involved reading hundreds of reports and journal articles, from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the EU report and everything else – the more I read about it, the more I realised climate change might be the biggest opportunity we’ve ever had. It’s quite a tough one, but it’s the first time humanity has had a problem like this that we’ve been aware of, and have had the ability to deal with – it’s a situation where we ourselves can make changes to the world. But, at the same time, it is a challenge. It’s quite a tough one to do. What we did was, for the baseline information that goes into the game we used the IPCC data – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and they have seven primary scenarios of how society might operate over the next hundred years. All the way from doing bugger all about climate change and burning as much oil as we can and trying to do as much damage as we can, to the other extreme, which is basically going back to a minimal use of energy. The scenario we used for the game is the mid-point: it’s the one that is, frankly, most likely. It’s the one where we make a substantial amount of changes, but also turn a back to it with governments trying to grow their economies, and things like that. It’s certainly a viable solution, but it’s a challenging one, and we have to try and reflect that. In our first beta versions some of the balancing was out, and it was a little too easy. It didn’t accurately reflect the data at all, but we’ve reworked that. You’ve had the support of Environment and Climate Change Minister Ian Pearson – what’s it like to have that support from the government? Well, the Department of the Environment are the ones who are funding our multiplayer game for students. They’ve been fantastic, actually – incredibly supportive. They realise that their aim is to communicate understanding of climate change, and they want people to get involved and learn the issues, and they were very quick to learn that computer games are a good way of doing that. They’re not the only way, and they’re obviously supporting other methods, but they know that it’s a great way to hook people in and engage them in a fun way, so that they’re not just terrified about the subject or apathetic. We put in a funding pitch to them, and they took it and went, ‘yep, we should do this’. So I’ve been very impressed how proactive they’ve been with this, because we’ve been involved in a number of other climate related projects, and sustainable related projects, and everywhere we go: they’re there. That particular part of the British government seems to be very much on the ball, and the Minister has been very approachable. How much of a challenge was balancing the message and the gameplay? It’s a big challenge! Hopefully we’ve got it right. The key thing we had to get right in the message is that it is a game, and it should not be treated as the final source of information. That’s why we had to accompany it with a notes pack, so that people could do further reading. The challenge of getting the balance in the game right took hundreds of iterations; we tested it with five hundred people, and then made revisions, and then re-examined everything. We checked our statistical analysis and all our data so that it was not only accurate, but also benchmarked in a consistent way across the board – how much micro-generation are we talking about? Or, how much tax? It’s very much a case of ‘how long is a piece of string?’ and you have to chose a benchmark level. How do you deal with data like that without making it condescending? It depends how you approach the project. We always said that the game was largely a sandbox, and that we didn’t want to sell any particular message. We weren’t making any statements that any government was good or bad, or that any policy was good or bad. We wanted to just give them the options, and we approached it that way, and we weren’t pushing some kind of secret agenda – we wanted people to make up their own minds. People are much more confident with their own thoughts and beliefs if they’ve had a chance to play around with ideas: if they want to play the game and try to cause as much damage as possible, they can do that. If they want to try out different situations, like trying to get to Mars, they can do that, and there’s various paths they can follow. We found that was very important. The main thing was that the game should make people think; it shouldn’t tell them what to think. They’re not going to believe it from us, necessarily, and why should they? When we were dealing with a lot of our testers, we found that a lot of them were coming to the table with a lot of preconceptions, and stereotypes about regional groupings – for example, that America is bad when it comes to climate change. But, we know that’s not necessarily true – the federal government might be doing one thing, but the states on the west coast might be doing another, so it’s a much more complex issue. We didn’t want to just force feed some kind of view down their throats – we wanted to give them scope to play with the issue. The game isn’t the only one dealing with global warming right now – do you feel a sense of competition with other games dealing with that subject matter, or do you think that the message overrides any sense of financial bearing? Well, everyone has some kind of level of natural competitiveness. But, it is an important subject, and there’s scope for a lot of other games out there. We’re our own competition, really, as I say, because we’re making anywhere from three to six other games that will deal with that. I think it’s important that the issue is dealt with properly. I mean, compared to other sections of the games industry, it’s remarkably uncompetitive. So, I’d like to see more organisations getting into it, but at the same time, we’d like to keep our advantage. For example, we’re closely tied with academia, and I don’t think have gone into quite as much detail on the research as us – after all, we have an in-house climate change scientist! But it’s amazing how fast the serious games market is growing – a year ago, we couldn’t have made games on climate change, and now we’re making six!

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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