Staring at your computer for too long makes your eyes square, my mum always used to say. While clearly meant as a deterrent to drag me away from the screen, the idea that computer games are bad is still prevalent today. Professor Susan Greenfield, the controversially-sacked director of the Royal Institution, has been keen to emphasise the risk that computers pose to our mental and physical health. But could computer games actually have a positive influence through educating the public about science and policy?
Climate Challenge, released back in 2006, is just such a game. Not only does it educate the public about climate change science, but it also demonstrates the huge Catch-22 politicians face when making policy decisions. Produced in conjunction with the BBC and the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, this flash-based game enables players to become the President of the ‘European Nations’. The aim is to manage your economy and resources using certain policy cards, while still reducing C02 emissions and managing the occasional crisis.
Other games have touched on similar issues, such as Civilization’s consideration of the impact of pollution and population on your city’s ‘happiness’. But Climate Challenge‘s level of complexity and depth is unprecedented in a mainstream game release.
The realistic climate modelling systems employed provide a way for people to understand the delicate balance of climate systems. Users see the consequences of altering different climate variables without having to trawl through jargon-heavy literature, while the highly interactive nature of computer games and the sheer amount of time that people spend playing them make then a ideal medium in which to address these complex issues. Very few mediums can achieve such an immersive educational experience.
Games also have the potential to deliver the facts in a way which is not preached from a scientist or authority figure. No one is being told what to do, rather the game provides a feedback mechanism through which players can learn from their mistakes.
In terms of age the demographic is ideal and is a relatively untapped audience, but there is a risk that these games will only appeal to those who are already aware of the facts and consequences of climate change. Further, similar games have failed because of poor aesthetics— a big consideration in gamers’ purchases. For a computer game to reach a big market, it needs to look polished and pretty.
Climate Challenge proved that a market for such a game exists. Red Redemption, the company behind Climate Challenge, are now scaling up the concept in their new release: Fate of the World. The game retains the elements that made Climate Challenge such a success, but includes vastly improved graphics. This innovative medium will give gamers a valuable insight into what the next 200 years could hold for the planet.
See the trailer for Fate of the World below:
 Climate Challenge can be played here.
George Wigmore is an editor at Refractive Index and is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.