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Playing on the Brink of climate change

25 Jan, 2012

One of the major, if not the major challenge of our age is climate change, with the health implications a major part of the Wellcome Trust’s work. Threats include heat waves and flooding, changing patterns of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue, and water scarcity and rising sea levels, which could displace hundreds of thousands of people.

Understanding these health impacts is a challenge for science. Communicating and acting upon that information is a challenge for all of us. Artists have been helping with this important process, for example the 2005 visit to the Arctic by a joint group of artists and scientists, which produced the novel Solar.

Video games have, in their own way, responded too. There are games that look specifically at the health issues (such as Climate Health Impact by the Wellcome Trust and Playgen) and games that put the player in the position of trying to persuade the world’s countries to act together (Fate of the World). But there are also games that use the changed world as a narrative setting.

Brink is a first-person shooter. Most such action games use aliens, World War II or terrorism as their setting. Brink uses climate change. I asked the game’s writer, Edward Stern, why. 

“We knew the narrative backdrop for Brink had to be visually distinctive and explain why people are fighting, what they’re fighting for, and why they don’t just leave. All of this seemed to require resource scarcity and isolation. Perhaps an island of some sort, but why would people be on an island?

“I’d read about the Sea Standing Institute and seen some other terraforming/engineering solutions to rising sea levels on Jeff Manaugh’s BLDG BLOG. So that lead to the Ark, Brink’s techno-visionary artificial island – built to combat climate change but cut off from the outside world and running out of spare parts… it wasn’t anything I’d seen in a game before… But it also plugged into current concerns.”

Given how much the science drives what you know (and don’t know) about climate change Stern looked for credible sources to inform his writing, but sorting what’s reliable in a controversial topic like climate change was a challenge for a non-expert.

“My training, such as it is, is as a Historian,” says Stern. “So my test for researching a topic is; have I read the primary sources, or am I relying on secondary sources, or have I just read one book, or have I read several web posts but they’re all misquoting each other?

“I used to follow the science and the culture/media brouhaha surrounding [climate change] as best I could, mainly starting with Science Blogs and Real Climate and following links from there. I couldn’t understand absolutely every detail of the Mann ‘Hockeystick’ and the stolen CRU emails, but I went through them as thoroughly as I could, keeping as open a mind as I could. If I couldn’t be an active combatant in the information wars, I could at least be a well-informed civilian.”

And how does the wealth of scientific information contribute to the creative aspects of the game?

“There’s the old statistics joke that the plural of anecdote is not data. But from a writer’s point of view, the singular of data is not anecdote – you can’t just invoke a scientific buzzword and hope that will make things seem credible or dramatic to a player/reader. It has to be something you can show or tell within the game.”

“I love it when a game connects to the non-gaming bits of the brain. I always cite Deus Ex as the first game I played where I genuinely didn’t know what to do. Not just what the game would reward me most for, or what would move the action along, but because I genuinely didn’t know how I felt about the real world choices and issues the designers had put in their game for my character to deal with.”

I’ve completed Brink and the setting of the game, and the characters’ responses to the world they’re in is credible and engaging. Given that climate change is a hot political issue, and will be for some time, its a bold decision to place the issue front-and-centre in a key part of popular culture – gaming. This is key as a growing number of people play games and see games as a primary source of understanding about the world around them. As Stern told me, “I was trying to make it as easy as possible for players to let the game stick in their minds, to plug into their existing concerns and prejudices about real world issues. And few people know or care absolutely nothing about climate change, whatever their outlook.”

Tomas Rawlings

Tomasis a Video Games Consultant for the Wellcome Trust. You can read the full version of Tomas’s interview with Edward Stern on his blog. See also his previous posts on games and science.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s support for games.

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