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Board game designers aim to make tackling climate change fun

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(NEW YORK) — Board games like Monopoly, Clue and The Game of Life are iconic in many Americans’ lives and in pop culture. Now some designers are exploring a wider range of topics, including how to use games to spark discussion about bigger issues.

One of those games, Daybreak, is set to launch this spring after years of development to tackle one of the most complex topics of all, how to bring the world together to combat climate change.

“The game started from a conversation on what could we do about climate change as game designers,” game designer Matteo Menapace told ABC News. “We felt we can use games to talk about climate change, to model this big problem in a way that is playable, that is understandable by players and in a way that gives people agency over their choices.”

In Daybreak, players take on the role of world powers like the United States, European Union and China and have to negotiate ways to achieve drawdown, which is the point when greenhouse gas emissions are reduced enough to prevent temperatures from continuing to rise. Instead of playing against each other players work together to win against the game, but the whole group will lose if any player has too many communities in crisis from the impacts of climate change.

Designers Menapace and Matt Leacock, who also designed the game Pandemic, said they were overwhelmed by all the problems associated with climate change at first, but wanted to use their skills to help do something about it.

They said the game became a way for them, and they hope for players as well, to process their feelings about climate change and better understand the possible solutions.

“I think that just watching it kind of play out through the dynamics of the game made it also easier to kind of understand and get my arms around and feel better about. So it was a very positive thing for me to develop it. And I’m kind of hoping that people who play the game will have a similar experience,” Leacock said.

Board games surged in popularity in recent years, with a 33% increase in sales in the first year of the pandemic, according to market research firm Circana. Several independently designed games like Cascadia and Wingspan have taken on nature-related themes and have been recognized with multiple design awards.

But even with the gains in popularity, it actually isn’t the first time board games have been used to help players interact with or learn more about nature.

Sherri Sheu curated an exhibit at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia focused on environmental board games. Sheu’s work as a historian focuses on environmental history and she said there are clear parallels between what you see in games from decades like the 1960s and 70s and the conversation about environmental issues going on at the time.

“I think most people tend to think of board games as fun family entertainment. As things that we’re just we play on a Saturday night with our friends or we’re playing at home with our families and usually we’re thinking more about, more in terms of who’s cheating at Monopoly than we’re thinking about what we’re learning from these games,” Sheu said.

“But what we discovered is actually that game makers and game designers have just been fascinated by environmental issues and have made a lot of games about environmental issues over the last 50 years,” Sheu said.

She said some of those games, like Litterbug a children’s game that teaches about the consequences of littering or Clean Water, a game created after the passage of the Clean Water Act, came at a time in the 1970s when people were becoming a lot more politically engaged and aware of environmental issues.

“These board games really serve as a way of both harnessing this really strong energy that people are having about protecting the environment, that they want to get out there, that they want to do something about it, and also showing that these issues can often be quite complex,” she told ABC News.

Adam Procter, a professor at the University of Southampton’s Winchester School of Art who teaches game design, said he sees a similar energy in his students today who come to work with him because of his focus on using gameplay to tackle difficult topics.

Procter and his students helped test Daybreak. In those sessions, he said he noticed that even losing the game sparked conversations that relate to climate solutions in the real world.

“Afterwards, the conversation about what they think they should do better and that .. they want to play like almost straight away again, too, because they suddenly realize ‘oh okay, we need to collaborate on this. We should definitely have done more of that. I think we need to invest in this technology or these things’,” Procter told ABC News.

“And so the conversation after the game is really interesting because they certainly are having conversations about the climate crisis, which is not just, it’s not a topic you just want to bring up,” Procter said.

Leacock and Menapace said that despite the serious nature of the subject matter, the game had to be fun. And that in addition to providing a fun experience with friends and family, the game can help people navigate the anxiety and sense of overwhelm that’s often connected to climate change.

Leacock said the game provides a safe space to talk about climate-related topics and they also plan to include links to resources to learn about the real world equivalents of the scenarios in the game.

“You’re seeing that you can actually make a difference or that people, society can make a difference. So you’re less likely to be caught up in a feeling of doom and that can feel pretty empowering,” he said.

Daybreak will be shipped to people who pre-ordered it in June and is expected to be available online and in stores later this spring.

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