Video games for climate action: Winning solutions for the planet

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NEW YORK — From climate and environment themed videogames to special features, pop-ups, and real-life tree-planting opportunities embedded within beloved classics like PAC-MAN or Angry Birds, the gaming industry is working with the United Nations to engage audiences like never before and inspire a new wave of climate action.

Sometime before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cassie Flynn was heading to work on a rush-hour packed New York City subway train.

As the Strategic Advisor on Climate Change for the UN Development Programme (UNDP), she often used the monotony of the commute to think of innovative ways to get ordinary people involved in the climate fight, and on this day, she noticed everyone around her busy doing something on their phones.

“I was a bit cheeky, and I started looking at what people were doing and I kind of peeked over this woman’s shoulder and saw she was playing Angry Birds, and then I looked over and this other guy was playing Candy Crush. All of these people were playing games on their phones,” she recalled while speaking to UN News.

A lightbulb went off, and Ms. Flynn thought: “What if we could meet people there?”

“You know how in [some] games they have these 30-second ads that pop up? What if we could use that? Instead of it being an advertisement for another game or something else, what if this is where we could talk to people about climate change?”

And that’s exactly what she and her team at UNDP did.

Ms. Flynn’s momentous subway ride gave birth to UNDP’s Mission 1.5 mobile game, which allows people to learn about the climate crisis and at the same time communicate to governments about solutions that could be put in place to tackle it – all while they’re exploring virtual universes.

“More people play videogames on their phones than they [listen to] music and [watch] videos combined, it’s just massive,” says the expert.

Thanks to an inter-agency effort and a partnership with a gaming company, UNDP’s game – which challenges users to make the right decisions to keep the world on the path to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees –went online at the beginning of 2020.

“Fast forward [to today], we have about 6 million people that have played the game so far in 58 countries, with a 50 per cent completion rate. So, when people start it, they really play it, which is something that we’re really excited about,” Ms. Flynn adds.

But it goes beyond educating the users on climate solutions in 17 languages; the game asks them to cast a vote about which strategies, in their opinion, would be more successful to tackle the crisis.

These answers have become the source for what is now known as the ‘People’s climate vote,’ the largest survey of public opinion on climate change ever conducted.

“We took data from about 50 countries, and we were able to use the samples to cover over half of the world’s population in terms of their thinking on how they should solve the climate crisis,” Ms. Flynn explains.

That information has now been shared and discussed by parliamentarians all over the world and during major international meetings, such as the recent G20 summit and the latest UN Climate Conference, COP26. The results were even included in the latest series of reports issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which are very influential for intergovernmental negotiations.

Mission 1.5’s success is only the tip of the iceberg if we think about the reach of today’s video gaming industry, which stretches beyond our smartphones onto the screens of at least 3 billion people in the world – or 1 in every 3 people in the planet.

“The video gaming industry is probably the most powerful medium in the world in terms of attention, reach and engagement,” says Sam Barratt, UN Environment’s Chief of Education, Youth & Advocacy.

Barratt is the Co-Founder of the first-of-its-kind group of private video game sector organizations that have made commitments to help protect people and the planet, with the support of the United Nations.

Launched during the pivotal 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, the Playing for the Planet Alliance has made headlines in recent years for including commitments from some of the major names in the gaming industry, such as Microsoft, Sony and Ubisoft, as well as dozens of other well-known videogame studios.

Barrat was inspired by watching his son spend time exploring, playing, and socializing on these platforms, and seeing how the games created incentives to keep the players engaged.

“[It was] an industry that hadn’t really thought about what difference it could make”, he explains to UN News.

The alliance aims to work with these companies on two fronts: First, reducing the carbon footprint of their industries; and second, harnessing the power of their platforms to include messages or steps they might take related to climate action.

“We’ve built a really strong community of practice on this agenda. We’ve doubled in size – for now, at least over 40 studios – with more coming on board. The way I see our role [as United Nations] is that we’re facilitating leadership, we’re here to help the industry… but in the end, it’s a voluntary initiative where the kind of leadership that they show is determined by them,” Barrat explains.

Playing for the Planet also does a yearly ‘Green Game Jam’, which is an opportunity for videogame studios to get extra creative and integrate green activations within their popular games or create new ones.

This means including environmentally themed features and messages, educating users and inviting them to donate or to participate in UN conservation and restoration campaigns.

Over the past two years there has already been an array of cool initiatives and games that have made a difference outside of the screens.

For instance, different activations in games during the Jams have contributed to the planting of over 266,000 trees, with this number likely to increase.

Another remarkable example is the popular video game Alba: A Wildlife Adventure by the English studio Ustwo, which is a member of the Alliance.

The game features a girl protagonist who tries to prevent the construction of a resort on a beautiful Mediterranean Island. It teaches the importance of conservation and restoration to PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, PC and iOS users, while devoting some of the proceeds from every download to support tree-planting as a strategy to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Alba has so far led to a remarkable 1 million trees planted and 3 habitats restored, with this number set to grow.

During the last Green Game Jam in 2021, UN Environment invited participant studios to support campaigns such as Play4Forests, a petition to demand action from world leaders in protecting forests; and Glowing Glowing Gone, to accelerate ocean protection and climate action.

Studios with a combined reach of 1 billion players participated in the 2021 Jam, and they were able to engage 130 million players around the world with some 60,000 pledges signed for the UN campaigns, and $800,000 in donations to different charities working with environmental causes.

And of course, it was also fun. Just to give you a few examples:

PAC-MAN players were able to play a forest-themed ‘Adventure Mode’ with six stages, an album filled with collectibles and a skin [a download which changes the appearance of characters in the game] as the reward for the event completion.

Minecraft, a 3-D computer game where players can build anything, added an additional lesson plan on ‘Radical Recycling’ to player maps, and therefore was able to make a $100,000 donation to The Nature Conservancy.

Pokémon Go created the first-of-its-kind avatar item to give players a new way to voice their support for sustainability efforts.

Angry Birds fans were able to collect a special Mariner Hat Set for participating in a Sea Adventure, and the campaign reached over 280,000 people. — UN News



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