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A game designer's contribution to the climate solution

Posted on 13 August 2012 by Chris Crawford

Guest post by games designer Chris Crawford

Let's face it, climate change is a complicated business. Although it arises from an overall warming of the planet, it changes weather patterns that can lead to cooler temperatures and greater snowfall in some locations. The assiduous efforts of the deniers to confuse the public only adds to the problem. When we try to discuss solutions, the complexities go through the roof. The web is full of great websites, such as this one, that provide clear explanations of the situation, but to see the big picture, readers have to plough through a lot of material.

One alternative is to communicate these ideas through an educational simulation. I'm an old hand at game design, and I did this 22 years ago with a game called Balance of the Planet. 14 months ago, I decided to revive, upgrade, and update Balance of the Planet. A preliminary version of the game can be played at

Be warned, this thing is nowhere near finished; it's not even alpha. There are still gobs of things that need to be built into it. But it is playable and you can get an idea of how it works and where it's going.

Strategies for dealing with climate change cannot be considered in isolation; it's a tarbaby that ultimately requires you to bring just about everything else into consideration: economic growth, population, food supplies, and so forth. It's impossible to exclude such factors from the simulation without in some way reducing its fidelity to reality.

Building a simulation like this is tricky business; it's so easy to mislead the user by using biased numbers. Exactly what climate sensitivity should I use? How big should feedbacks be? The effects of permafrost melting could be stupendous, but how quickly with that develop? A simulation runs on numbers, and it's very difficult to maintain your intellectual integrity when dealing with numbers that aren't well known.

Particularly difficult was nuclear power. From a technical point of view, it's a hell of a lot better than coal or oil, but politically it's poison. There are lots of new technologies that could save our bacon -- but how can we evaluate new technologies when we have no safety record for them?

With all these problems, I first established reasonable upper and lower limits for each coefficient, then picked a number in between to use as the default. The cleverest stunt in the design is making these coefficients user-adjustable in the expert level of the game. If the user wants to increase or decrease climate sensitivity, permafrost melting rate, or nuclear power safety, they're welcome to, and they can see how things turn out with altered numbers.

Another killer problem was tuning the simulation. It has 80 internal variables and nearly 200 controlling coefficients. With such a complex simulation, there's a real danger of the system running wild under extreme inputs. If it's not carefully tuned, one player might be able to create a green utopia by developing natural gas to absurd levels, while another player could conceivably destroy humanity by pushing solar power too hard. Tuning such a system is like herding mathematical cats; all I can say is that it took a lot of work to get it as stable and responsive as it currently is.

I originally intended to sell Balance of the Planet commercially, but recently I came up with the crazy idea of getting crowd-funding for it and giving it away. I have launched a Kickstarter project to accomplish this; so far, we haven't gotten enough money to pull it off. So I'm appealing to the readers to go look at the Kickstarter project at:

and then contribute something to make this happen. Even more important, tell other people: tweet about it, mention it on Facebook, walk down Main Street with a sandwhich board -- anything that might get the word out. Making this thing available for free to the whole world would, I think, make a real contribution to educating the public about the deep doo-doo we've gotten ourselves into.

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. Hi Chris, I really enjoyed Balance of Power, SimEarth and Patton vs Rommel. But what I want to talk about, designer to designer (I'm credited on a number of Firaxis and Firefly titles) is this game. I'm concerned by the gameplay you talk about on the kickstarter page. TBH, it doesn't sound very appealing as a game. You make a couple of decisions at the start and then let the game play out by itself. The fact these taxes/subsidies are static for the 60 years of the game is very unrealistic, and from a player perspective, very boring. You have to remember, this isn't the 80's/90's where strategy/simulation gaming was still basically the realm of the hard-core grognard (like you and me) who didn't mind sitting there for 30 minutes waiting for a turn. ;) Firstly, in the real world taxes and subsidies change over time for a massive number of reasons, even down to simply who's in power at the time. But there's economic reasons, diplomatic reasons, foreign reasons, even totally random reasons for taxes and subsidies to change. From a player perspective you are removing the player from 95% of the game. As a design issue, this is the biggest one. Players need to be engaged throughout the game, not restricted from it. I understand you're selling this as an "educational simulation" but you need to look at the audience. You're going to be competing with the "angry birds/fruit ninja" generation. With so many shiny, flashy offerings on the market (and most of that for free too) the modern day game designer has quite simply 15 minutes to "win" over the gamer. If you don't win over them in 15 minutes, your game is shut off and never opened again. As a suggestion, considering taxes and subsidies change over time, and engagement rather than restriction wins audiences, why can't some alternative concepts be tried? For instance, why not allow the player to alter a couple of the taxes/subsidies up or down a couple of points each 5 years? The simulation is still basically the same, but you allow the player to address variance within the game. There's plenty of alternatives, and the one I suggested is no way the only one (or even the right one for your game). All I can strongly suggest is that I feel you need to engage the player during the simulation and let them alter the outcome. Lastly, I just want to mention that if you haven't already seen/played it, look up "Fate of the World". It's an economic/social/environment simulator. That's what you'll be competing against. Thanks for reading Chris, and please take my post as positive criticism, and not a negative jibe. Dale
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  2. "This is a close judgment call" Anyone remembering the advisory board within "Balance of Power" will rightly admit that there are only few who could possibly bring a realistic "mini GCM" to the playing masses ;-) There is no close judgment call here - go for it, Mr Crawford!
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  3. Hmmm. Games. I actually got given a copy of 'Fate of the World' as a gift. Never really got into it. I still think a genuine global warming/eco version of Civilisation is the only way of getting genuine game play and ethical reality truely working together. You need to be able to see failure happening on a big map and the migration that would result as drought hits etc.
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  4. Paul @3 Try Civ3. It modeled global warming and sea level rise. As the world's industry grew, the chance of warming increased. If the event triggered then tiles across the map would become desert, the polar ice tiles would recede, as well as some coastal tiles would become sea tiles.
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  5. Potentially, Chris, if it's true to climate science and doesn't over-hype the subject, this is a brilliant idea and could target exactly the sort of people who need to be reached. As a sixty-two-year-old who finds gaming anathema I'll give it a miss, but I will pass a link on to my sons who are professional coders working for major players in the industry. I'll be interested in what they think. Best of luck with it.
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  6. I enjoyed fate of the world although I wasn't very good at it. The only time I won was by pumping sulfates into the air in order to dodge 3C by 2120. Pyrrhic victory methinks.
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  7. Great idea, I look forward to playing with it. Suggestion for a different clever stunt for the values that are not perfectly known: Why not have the game pick a value at random (from a distribution that best matches our current knowledge) and /not/ let the player know what it is until the end? This could be a way of factoring in that we have to deal with these uncertainties when planning our future course.
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  8. Potentially a great idea, and I hope you can succeed in developing something workable. Something that people find very hard to comprehend is the scale of change and the kind of momentum in the whole system, then grasping the kind of change (positive and negative) required to alter the system for the better. Having experimented with scientific simulations, I can certainly sympathise with the challenge of tuning a large number of factors to produce something stable, yet vaguely realistic! Dale, you make some good points, I'll just comment on Civ3, having enjoyed playing that a bit myself - it had global warming, but never at the point that it would seriously slow down a march to domination through massive industrialisation. You'd lose the odd tile here and there (a little lost production as you have to compensate for lost food), but cities are usually big by that point and it doesn't affect the outcome. A Civ version where global warming led to real economic damage would certainly be interesting.
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  9. Hi Paul, I'll ditto what Dale said @4. Also, you asked about strengths of feedbacks. Why not set them up as parameters by which game difficulty is determined? Minor feedbacks for an easy standard of play and feedbacks at the upper end of possibility for the nightmare scenario.
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  10. Wow, so many comments so quickly! I have good answers for all of them. First, I've gotten massive amounts of great feedback on the Kickstarter site, and those comments have boiled down to four major changes: Three turns instead of one. In fact, the game was designed from day one to have whatever number of turns I felt best. I reduced it to a single turn to permit easier testing and tuning, and never got around to re-activating multiple turns. The standalone version of the game (which resides on my Mac for faster testing) has already got this change; it will take a little while before the web version catches up with the standalone version. Second, I decided to ditch support for the iPad, which was seriously constraining the screen real estate and making the program unnecessarily cramped and difficult to use. This allows me to open up more screen real estate so that I can add the additional UI stuff for easier play. Not implemented yet. Third, I'll be arranging the causal factors in order of the magnitude of the impact they have on each variable. In other words, if you're wondering why the Global GDP went down, you can look at the various causes to it and immediately see which one had the biggest impact on the change. I'm still working on an additional indication of the magnitude of the impact of each causal factor. Not yet implemented. Fourth, and biggest, I'll be changing the levels of the game to have just four levels. Level One has only 39 factors (pages) in play, dealing only with climate change and the economy, so it will be simpler and easier to get started on. Level Two adds more environmental considerations such as air pollution, coral bleaching, acid rain, and species loss, for a total of 64 factors. Level Three will have the current set of 85 factors, plus a few more. Level Four will be the one where the player tinkers with the coefficients. By proceeding through the levels, the player will be brought up to speed to the full complexity of the game. I looked at Fate of the World and my characterization is that it's a game first and an educational simulation second. It's educational value is pretty slim, but it's a hell of a lot more fun than Balance of the Planet. Ollie, your idea of random values is interesting and would indeed make the game more challenging, but so far I haven't heard anybody say that it wasn't challenging enough. Besides, I spent three months tuning the system to get it to balance properly under the entire range of inputs, and even then the balance is rather delicate. Throwing some randomness into it would make final tuning impossible. Not that it's a bad idea; it just increases the testing load by an order of magnitude. Thanks for the feedback. Balance of the Planet is still quite incomplete and will be considerably improved by all the comments. Now if I can just get some funding...
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  11. Dale@4 That reminds me of this with the reoccuring icecap melting. Only mildly related to the topic, since obviously Civ2 only has a crude climate model.
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  12. skywatcher @8 I used to play modded Civ3, and from memory I believe it did beef up the global warming concept. Chris @10 Only reason I mentioned FotW is because it's already being used in some education circles. It literally is your competition (since it's the ONLY game/app in that arena right now). Lanfear @11 Yeah Civ2 was pretty basic environmental models. Civ3 has the strongest environmental models out of the 5 Civ iterations. I know for fact it was basically removed from Civ4 (and never re-implemented in Civ5) for the simple fact the concept was totally negative for the player and deemed a "bad concept".
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  13. Chris I too have a global warming simulation you may want to look at. It is at Michael Hillinger
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  14. Mike, I looked over your simulation. Very interesting. Organizing it so that each country has its own team is an interesting approach, but I'll caution you that some people will resent being given a podunk country, so you should probably lump countries together into groups large enough to have an effect comparable to those of the biggest countries, such as America, EU, and China. Certainly all of Africa would have to be lumped into one unit because Africa comprises such a small portion of the overall problem. Indeed, it might be interesting to lump countries together by characteristics. Thus, the USA and EU constitute one group, the East Asian nations another, Africa a third, and so forth. A question: are the three team members from each team awarded points individually or do they win/lose as a team? That will have an important effect on their interactions. The greatest value of your simulation, I think, will be in demonstrating how political considerations cripple our ability to address these issues.
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  15. I have played Civ II to V and haven't been impressed by any of them when it comes to environmental issues. In Civ IV they lost the plot and linked it to nuclear war. The problem they have is that they do not show how to develop alternative political strategies to achieve a result. You are stuck with war, trade and no differentiation between low carbon strategies etc. There isn't a built in analysis of carbon footprints based on certain trade stategies. eg. I doubt if there is a difference between importing a product rather than producing it locally. Hence you can't experiment to see what happens if all nations make do with what they have locally etc. What if your nation went vegetarian? And what about developing low carbon tech? There is tremendous potential in Civ to create a genuine low carb product that challenges players to try something different.
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  16. Paul @15 The problem is, Civ is a war-game, not a planet simulator like Chris is creating. That's why environmentalism doesn't really get a lookin in Civ. ;) Try Alpha Centauri if you're looking for a more environmental focus.
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  17. I'll chime in with Dale by noting that Civ is fundamentally a war game. That's its point and purpose. It wasn't designed to teach history, economics, military science, or environmentalism. It was designed to be fun -- and it does that very, very well. I love that game. Balance of the Planet can't hold a candle to Civ in terms of fun. That's because it was NOT designed to be fun -- it was designed to be educational, and in that, it greatly outpaces Civ.
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  18. I like Ollie's suggestion of randomized (and maybe hidden) biases. Combining that with multiple turns (3 still sounds a bit low) should make for good replay value. Let the player review and respond to the results each turn. That's what made the DOS game engaging, before getting familiar with all the effects. No mass fall deaths in this version? That was kind of funny...
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  19. Wow, you've got a good memory! Yes, the original game had a factor for people falling off their roofs while cleaning their solar units. This really is a significant consideration -- a LOT of people die each year falling off their roofs. I've forgotten the numbers, but the overall number per gigawatt-year was in the same league with most other energy sources. I didn't include it in this edition because nowadays we're talking about more centralized solar installations, or installations on large buildings that would be serviced by pros, so the death rate goes way down. But yes, I had to dig through numbers to come to that decision.
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  20. Chris: Here's a crazy thought. Have you contacted the people/orgs directly in the climate/energy business? This includes research facilities such as GISS, Suzuki Foundation, WWF, energy companies, Govt Climate Commissions, and dare I say it, the Koch's? There's also "people movements" such as GetUp here in Australia (which can move a LOT of small people in a very short time). Specifically people/orgs with a direct interest in climate communication and getting knowledge out to the public.
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  21. I don't think war is going to go away just because everyone becomes green. Civ reflects what we know about ourselves and of course people like playing competitive games that involve winning a fight. There is no reason at all why Civ can not include the use of green developments and seeing how they do against fossil fuels. Really it requires the setting of a different goal for winning. That will then determine how a game is played and what technology is used.
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  22. Dale, I have contacted more than 150 different organizations, ranging from green to "peak oil", climate change, environmental, energy, education, conservation... it's amazing how, by following blog rolls, you can find an ever-larger circle of possibilities. I balked at government organizations because they're too slow to respond to the short time window of a Kickstarter project. I didn't try the Koch brothers, but I did consider blackmailing them: "Gimme a million bucks or I'll publish this thing!"
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