Game Over for mankind?

In the BBC computer game Climate Challenge you become the president of a Europe facing disease, death and disaster. So fun all round, then.

Lee Jones

Topics Culture

If you thought computer games were meant to be fun, you obviously haven’t seen the BBC’s new Climate Change Challenge. It’s possibly the most miserable game ever created. As ‘President of Europe’ you have a century in which to save the planet from the scourge of climate change by eliminating Europe’s carbon output and convincing the rest of the world to follow suit. It’s a game you can only win by screwing the electorate and destroying the fruits of modern civilisation.

Political game simulations, such as Sid Meier’s long-running Civilization series, where you lead a people from a small tribe to world domination, can compel you to fritter away countless hours. And although you can win Civilization by colonising Alpha Centauri or, in one version, building the UN and convincing other nations to vote you the global supremo, in general the game engine favours a pretty ruthless, expansionistic strategy where victory means crushing opponents beneath your heel. Climate Change Challenge, which has been assembled with the help of climate change scientists at Oxford University, is far more limited, reflecting the limited political imagination that seems so prevalent today.

First, it is apparently impossible to balance all the different requirements of the game. To reduce carbon emissions you can play up to six policy ‘cards’ per turn, each of which may impact on your level of cash, energy, food, water, CO2 emissions and your government’s popularity. You can in fact ‘save the planet’ by reducing your carbon output to below zero by 2080; however, this will ruin your economy and cause your food and water supply to dwindle. Believe it or not, this calamitous scenario actually generates a ‘victory’ screen, which you can see here. Despite the fact that the economy is in tatters, people are starving and society has generally collapsed, the screen says ‘Well done!’ The important thing, it seems, is that you saved the organism that is the planet; never mind about the societies of people that used to live on it.

As a strategy, this could roughly be summarised as: ‘Fuck the people, save the planet.’ Such a message is reinforced in several ways. So you can, if you like, play policy cards like ‘Improve National Healthcare’ or ‘Build Affordable Housing’. But such measures will either consume vast sums of money or, even worse, use up valuable water and energy and produce even more CO2. The game constantly suggests to players that it isn’t really worth doing these things, except possibly as part of a cynical bid to offset your voters’ disgruntlement with the new carbon tax by giving them some nicer hospitals and houses. But you are encouraged to rise above the apparently narrow-minded urges and desires of the masses and take the nobler, lonelier road to saving the planet.

Some might say ‘It’s just a game’. In fact, its message is unwittingly realistic, reflecting some of the prejudices underpinning the climate change debate. Surprisingly, in the game the ‘promote recycling’ policy only uses up money and produces no reduction in CO2 or energy usage – a boldly accurate reflection of the pointlessness of recycling in the real world (1). However, the game is not so honest when it comes to nuclear power. You can opt to fund research into nuclear fusion and, over time, convert your entire electricity supply to nuclear power. Yet the total impact on CO2 emissions is less than if you opt to encourage your electorate to use energy-efficient lightbulbs, and much, much less than if you give everyone their own wind turbine. Now, I’m no nuclear physicist, but I have a hunch that if we stopped burning fossil fuels and ran everything from nuclear reactors, significantly less carbon would be released into the atmosphere. Conversely, less than 30 per cent of our current energy usage could be provided by ‘renewable’ sources, many of which, such as wind farms, are neither cheap nor green (2).

In the end, however much you may want to pursue progressive options to stop climate change, the game forces you to become increasingly authoritarian and rob the electorate of their hard-won luxuries. To fund your policies you have to raise general taxation, enforce new fuel taxes or raise the retirement age to 70. To drag your CO2 emissions down, you have no choice but to introduce carbon allowances, tax CO2 output, restrict air travel and ban standby buttons (3). You are forced to forgo ‘non-essential’ things like safeguarding your food and water supplies, because promoting high-intensity farming (in addition to vastly increasing your carbon footprint) uses up all your water – and you can’t get more water, because water treatment works and desalination plants (running on nuclear power) apparently also splurge huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The game captures very well what happens when we turn climate change into the greatest peril of our age: we’re compelled to select whatever options are rigged to satiate Mother Earth, producing a miserabilist vision of the future where people are forced to use recycled rainwater rather than have clean water on tap; where food is scarce and we dare not import it (with who knows what impact on the developing world); where we are taxed until the pips squeak; and where leaders are congratulated for ignoring the wishes of their electorate. But never mind – at least Gaia is happy, even if we all have to go back to living in caves.

Apparently the BBC thought a game like this ‘might be a good introductory route into climate change and some of the issues this creates for governments’ (4). Presumably this is part of its charter mission to ‘educate’ rather than entertain. The BBC appears to have bought in wholesale to the pernicious idea that we must scale down our ‘selfish’ desires and abandon our ‘luxurious’ expectations of running fresh water and foreign holidays. The national broadcaster has joined the environmentalist lobby in promoting a dark and pretty unpleasant vision of the future.

The narrow options put forward for dealing with climate change – both in this game and in real life – essentially tell us, in the words of the famous Second World War propaganda poster, to ‘make do and mend’ (5). I prefer the postwar, 1950s optimism of individuals such as Levi L Strauus, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who said: ‘It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.’

We have indeed made great advances, including reaching a situation where a broadcaster can build a vast game playable by any of the millions of people with a computer and a connection to the internet. What a shame that the game communicates such a doom-laden message about what happens next.

Lee Jones is a doctoral candidate in international politics at Oxford University, where he studies sovereignty and intervention in Asia. Play Climate Challenge here.

(1) See Rob Lyons, A Waste of Time

(2) See Robert L Bradley, Renewable Energy: Not Cheap, Not ‘Green’, Cato Policy Analysis Paper 280

(3) This is another rather dubious policy, given the wildly varying statistics being thrown around to ‘prove’ how turning your TV off can save the planet. See Matthew Parris, The Truth About Those Little Red Lights: A Tale of Power and Poppycock, The Times, 22 July 2006

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Topics Culture


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