How Climate Change Games Can Give Us Hope

There was no federal climate change game jam for 2018, but it’s not too late for 2019.

J Collins
J Collins
Feb 5 · 3 min read

Most of us just dug ourselves out of another polar vortex event this winter. And most of us hit heat records just this past summer. In between those climate events, it was hard to miss the collection of reactions, articles, and opinion pieces reacting to the IPCC’s climate report. These indicators and reports spell out a dire reality: that human-created climate change is already destroying the planet — and that humans everywhere will be facing a severe climate crisis by 2040.

We have approximately 20 years to reverse course, but “reversing the course” would be a monumental, unprecedented global effort. That seems hard to swallow given that achieving even the modest actions set out by the Paris Climate Agreement has become impossible in the current political climate.

My generation was raised on the idea that “reduce, reuse, recycle” could save us. If we just turned off the water while we brushed our teeth and sorted plastic bottles by the right numbers, we would be OK. Future generations will find cold comfort in that bromide.

We are coming to terms with the colossal nature of the task at hand and just how far behind we are. I have seen many of my friends and colleagues say: I’m just not sure that we’re up to it. So, what next?

In 2014, the White House, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Smithsonian Institution launched the first ever climate change game jam/hackathon. NOAA scientist Peg Steffen and myself (working on game-based learning at the Smithsonian at the time) felt that a game jam would create an opportunity for students to learn “climate change science, solutions, and resilience by creating science-based, interactive experiences”. With a core group of amazing collaborators, scientists, and universities, we hosted approximately a dozen game jam sites across the nation and saw hundreds of students and professionals learn, model, and propose solutions to climate change-related problems. Two other successful climate game jams were held in 2016 and 2017.

These moments are important — not just because game jams are excellent science learning opportunities for students — but because they activate and inspire a younger generation to grapple with the cataclysmic climate problems that we will be leaving behind for them.

Exploring these challenging topics through games, simulations, and models allows all of us to better understand what course the planet is on and how these factors are interrelated. Children don’t read government reports, but they do play games. (The same is true for many adults.)

We are asking a lot of our children. We are asking them to recognize that they will need to be the scientists, politicians, and leaders of tomorrow that will hold this planet together. We owe it to them to provide the tools and interest-based learning opportunities to explore these complex issues at a young age. Games and game creation lessons are perfect for learning about interconnected systems, and the government has been and should remain at the forefront of building our next generation of STEM professionals.

This is their future. This is our opportunity. Let’s give them everything that we can.

J Collins

Written by

J Collins

Computer Science Educator + Game-based Education Evangelist + Trans Advocate. ||| Former Smithsonian & U.S. Dept. of Education Policy Expert. (They/Them)