Design challenges for a realistic Earth system simulation game

Earthers is a simulation game whose core dynamics are provided by real climate, earth system, and economic models — the kind of models used in IPCC reports and academic research. It is turn-based, and inherently social. The mission of the game is to become an engine of our collective imagination: to help players and their societies to understand the set of possible futures that humans face on Earth, and the courses of action that will select each of those various paths.

The game will only be a success if many people choose to play it. It is not a “game for good”, and playing it can’t feel like eating spinach. This means that Earthers’ design has two, equally-important goals: it must provide a high-fidelity simulation of the earth system whose decision-making lessons transfer to the real world, and it needs to be fun and addictive enough to face down Minecraft and the other scary beasts in the attention jungle.

Earthers must tackle plenty of familiar game design challenges: it must deliver periodic rewards that keep players engaged, it should provide markers of status and mastery to represent players’ investment, and it must proffer beautiful and pleasing environments that invite players to dwell for extended periods.

But the game also faces a handful of unusual issues that spring from its concept and mission.

Agency and character identity are tricky notions. Earthers cannot be a so-called God game, in which the player acts as a disembodied and omnipotent force with complete autonomy (within explicit resource limits). At the same time, the global scale of the game would make it awkward and unrealistic to identify players with any one individual or institution, fictional or not. So, just who are the players?

I don’t have a great answer to this question, but I do think that the solution must be guided by the fact that some of the most important challenges in anthropogenic climate change involve difficult tradeoffs and collective action problems. These difficult value judgments, and the social dimensions of navigating them, must be directly represented if the game is to address the true challenges we face.

Standard approaches to gameplay balance do not apply. Most games strive for balance: single-player games shouldn’t be too easy or hard, player rewards shouldn’t be too frequent or rare, and the challenge should increase at the right pace. Multi-player games should strive for fairness between participants, so that no player class or character is able to dominate. But Earthers must strive for fidelity to the real world through the lens of the scientifically-derived models at its core, and satisfying game play must be delivered within these basic constraints. Therefore, what is easy or hard in the game will ultimately reflect the nature of the challenges that humanity faces. As game designers, we cannot tweak the parameters at will in service of the gameplay. The result: some shares will simply be more difficult to play than others, and the degree of difficulty may not increase smoothly as the simulated years roll by.

Play cultivates humility, for it requires us to treat things as they are rather than as we wish them to be. -@ibogost in Play Anything

The rules are — and are not — the rules. The ecological and economic constraints encoded in the models are grounded in reality, and part of the mission of the game is to teach us what it means to take those constraints seriously as a society — this is a version of the humility that Ian Bogost refers to. At the same time, the models are subject to intense and legitimate scientific debate, and they evolve continuously as researchers gather more data and our collective understanding of these systems increases. This is a feature, not a bug, of the scientific process. How should this tension— a tension, it should be noted, that is ruthlessly and deceitfully exploited by some interest groups and political factions — be incorporated into the design of the game, and communicated to players?

Good outcomes are not easy to define. One way to see this is to notice that global climate change is quite simple to solve if we are willing to slam the brakes on economic growth — though this would probably mean a decline of the standard of living in developed countries, and prevent billions of humans in the developing world from ever being able to improve their own situation. The challenge, then, is how to continue the last decades’ rapid progress in economic well-being, quality of life, security, and overall opportunity while avoiding the destructive outcomes of that economic activity.

That is, Earthers needs scores so that players can understand how well or poorly their actions turn out relative to other choices. And those scores will necessarily encode moral judgments — scores are all about valuing certain outcomes over others. But it’s also crucial that the game not be too narrowly prescriptive or normative in these evaluations, since it’s important for players to have real choice in which outcomes they prefer. One likely possibility is for the score to have (at least) two dimensions, reflecting the ecological and economic factors that are so often at odds with one another in our present day.

I’ve never designed a game before, and I’m hoping that there are some relevant precedents for some or all of the design challenges. I’d love to hear from those who might be able to help think it through, or from anyone who is interested in any aspect of the Earthers project.