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Scientists hope to spark action on climate change—by turning it into a game

When petulant children refuse to do their homework, enterprising parents have a solution: Turn it into a game. Now, scientists are taking a page from the books of creative parents to tackle an even more difficult challenge—climate change.

With average global temperatures predicted to rise at least 2°C globally by 2100, one team of scientists wanted to figure out what would be the most effective way to spur the public into action. Until now, most large-scale efforts have been directed at public information campaigns, based on the theory that clear, frequent warnings about the dangers of climate change—and its causes—might spur people to action. But scientists thought approaches enabling people to learn through experience and experimentation might do a better job.

So, they asked thousands of people around the globe to participate in a role-playing game called World Climate, which forces players to save the world from climate change as delegates to a United Nations conference. The ”delegates” get immediate feedback: Their decisions are fed into a climate policy computer model called C-ROADS, which tells them the likely impact of their choices on public health, economic prosperity, and safety from natural disasters.

Researchers surveyed 2042 players before and after the game and found that participants’ knowledge of climate change causes and impacts increased, as did their sense of urgency in fighting it; some 81% said that their desire to learn and do more about climate change had increased, the team reported last week in PLOS ONE. The trend was consistent across the 39 games held in North and South America, Europe, and Africa.

The results also suggest the game can reach people who aren’t usually advocates for climate action, say scientists, such as Americans who vocally oppose government regulation of free markets. The researchers say this demonstrates the simulation’s potential to motivate people to stand up for the climate regardless of factors like nationality, age, education, and even political leanings.

But could it be enough to stop the planet from warming by at least 2°C before century’s end? More players are needed, say scientists, and enthusiasm for the game needs to move into the real world.