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Can playing games protect cities from climate change?

Social strategy games can help urban planners and developers learn the complex trade-offs between climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies in cities.

A new study asks whether its time to bring fun and games to climate change research. A group of social scientists led by Sirkku Juhola at the University of Helsinki report that people playing a new board game Broken Cities learned about the complex tradeoffs between climate change mitigation and adaptation decisions facing urban planners and developers. Observing this gameplay also revealed key insights about the criteria players used to make urban planning decisions in the context of climate change.
Understanding how individual actors – from urban planners to real estate developers – perceive and act upon climate change is increasingly crucial, especially as cities begin to take a front seat in the global climate change discourse. Cities contribute over 70% of greenhouse gases and consume more than 65% of energy globally. Furthermore, over 75% of large cities are in coastal areas, making them vulnerable to sea level rise. More than half of the world’s population lives within 60 km of the ocean. In other words, cities disproportionally contribute to and are impacted by climate change.
A growing body of research suggests that social strategy games can increase learning rates and give participants a safe environment to test strategic initiatives. The research team designed Broken Cities, a turn-based social strategy board game similar to the popular Monopoly board game. However, instead of bankers in jailors, Broken Cities players either act as real estate developers and or as a local government representative in a fictitious urban community. 
The research team devised a study in which over 100 participants played Broken Cities under careful participant observation. The players consisted mostly Masters level engineering and urban planning students from Europe and the United States.
The rules of the game are straightforward. Each developer had a “territory” of the board in which they could develop four possible housing types: low-cost, conventional, green, and retrofit. Each housing type had its own cost, rent and CO2 emissions profile. Developers chose to locate their developments near the coast or near green spaces, a choice that influenced cost and rent but also climate vulnerability. The local government representative’s goal was to maintain CO2 emissions below a certain threshold. When cumulative CO2 emissions surpass predetermined levels, players draw from a stack of cards representing climatic events such as drought or hurricanes. 
The winner was the player who could maximize rents while minimizing CO2 emissions and avoiding climate impacts. While the rules are straightforward, the strategy is not. Climate change mitigation and adaptation actions sometimes work against each other, both in the real world and in the game. Climate change mitigation actions are those that protect nature from cities (e.g. reducing greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency), and climate change adaptation actions are those that protect cities from nature (e.g. relocating infrastructure way from flood-prone areas). In these examples, the adaptation action - relocating roads and water infrastructure - would be extremely energy intensive thus working against mitigation goals to reduce energy-related carbon emissions.

To compete successfully in Broken Cities, players representing local government and urban development interests must think through these types of scenarios, weighing the risks and advantages for themselves and for their competitors.

This research concluded that gameplay gave the participants a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the trade-offs between climate change mitigation and adaptation. Participant observation techniques also revealed insights about the criteria players use to make decisions. For instance, decisions that required a consensus, such as whether to use regulation or voluntary programs to reduce emissions, players considered perceived fairness, sharing of financial burden, and social equity.

Playing games could be a much more effective – and fun – way to communicate the urban planning decisions that are difficult to quantify and to communicate to diverse stakeholders via traditional methods. Games like Broken Cities, including future computerized versions, could help harness people’s competitiveness and creativity to identify real world win-win climate change mitigation-adaptation strategies for cities.



Further Reading:
Sirkku Juhola, Patrick Driscoll, Janot Mendler de Suarez, and Pablo Suarez. “Social strategy games in communicating trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation in cities.” Urban Climate. 4 (2013), 102-116.
Corresponding author.  Sirkku Juhola , Department of Real Estate, Planning and Geoinformatics, Aalto University and Department of Environmental Sciences, University
of Helsinki, Finland
Tel.: +358 50 512 4631; fax: +358 9 470 2 4071.
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