The Climate Game
Entry type: Single project
Country/area: United Kingdom
Publishing organisation: The Financial Times
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-04-21
Language: English, Japanese
Authors: This game was created by Sam Joiner, Alexandra Heal and Leslie Hook in conjunction with Wongdoody, an Infosys company (Anthony Brooks, Anthony Cooke, Erin Davies, Jeremy Starr, Max Carroll and Rick Deeks). Additional development by Dan Clark. Editing by Emiliya Mychasuk, Alan Smith and Jason Woodward.
Sam Joiner leads the Visual Storytelling Team, an interdisciplinary group of journalists combining data, design, coding and reporting skills.
Alexandra Heal is a reporter on the Visual Storytelling Team, with a particular focus on producing visual dispatches and deep dives.
Leslie Hook leads the FT’s coverage of natural resources, with a special focus on mining and the powerful trading houses that ship raw materials around the globe.
The Climate Game is a lavishly-illustrated interactive game in which readers are elected Global Minister for Future Generations and tasked with reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
The player is placed at the heart of the decision-making and must balance the trade-offs necessary to protect people and nature — as well as keep voters onside.
We worked with climate modellers from the IEA, who produced bespoke, state of the art modelling for the FT, to simplify the road to net zero and create a game cemented in journalistic rigour which would appeal to policy makers and younger and non-specialist audiences alike.
The Climate Game has had almost 1mn plays since it debuted on the FT homepage. It has proved hugely engaging, with 56% of players who started the game playing through to the end. The game also exploded in popularity on social media, with more than 4,000 shares of the URL in the first week alone.
This early success inspired a flurry of follow-up content, including podcasts and articles explaining how the game was built. We also published cheat sheets, popular in gaming communities, to help readers navigate the game round-by-round.
We are exploring numerous requests for commercially-sponsored translations, including French, German and Spanish. In early September, Nikkei Asia launched a Japanese version.
Staff at local councils across the UK and the Department for Business shared it internally to reiterate the importance of early intervention. The European Commission got in touch to say they had done the same.
Perhaps most importantly, The Climate Game is being used by teachers to create lesson plans in the UK as part of the ‘FT for Schools’ programme taught in sixth form colleges.
We built The Climate Game with React, using individual components that were shown and hidden based on their state. For the state management we used Redux — a way of storing the state in a centralised container that all components can refer back to.
We stored the user choices, including the final temperature players were able to achieve based on their answers, in a database via a POST request to a separate node API. This enabled us to have a customised final screen showing readers how well they had performed against other players.
But the real technological innovation was the state of the art climate modelling that the IEA provided exclusively to the FT. This enabled us to present each reader with bespoke charts for both emissions reductions and temperature projections based on their answers.
Climate models tackle a branch of science in which there is inherently a large degree of uncertainty, but the game gives readers a realistic response to their actions. The model does many hundreds of runs through the pathways included in the game, mimicking the emissions going into the Earth’s atmosphere from human and natural sources.
The game results also show what the Earth’s median temperature is projected to be in 2100. The IEA calculated this using MAGICC v7+ — a reduced complexity climate model that accurately maps temperatures to the decisions made in the game.
It means there are numerous ways to affect the emissions model to amplify different outcomes, and myriad results are possible in 2050.
Context about the project:
Our greatest challenge was striking a balance between capturing the complexities of the journey to net zero without building something too daunting. It involved distilling hundreds of decisions into a manageable and comprehensible series of questions, while also calculating the effect these actions would have on reducing emissions.
Immersive, gamified visual storytelling allowed us to walk this tightrope, and through placing readers in the driving seat we were able to teach them about the biggest challenge of the 21st century through a powerful mix of innovation, entertainment and agency.
We spent almost a full year researching and interviewing to build The Climate Game, but also courting, as we needed to convince the IEA to buy into the project and provide us with the climate modelling we needed to power the game.
We identified the IEA Net Zero By 2050 report, the world’s first comprehensive study of how to shift to a clean energy system, as the ideal framework. Gaining access to the data underpinning this research, effectively 400 global actions focused on reducing emissions, gave the game its structure.
Each CO2-related question in the game is tracked to one of the IEA’s three emissions reductions pathways. But a player’s choices do more than just decide their trajectory within a sector, and answers are interlinked.
If you make the right choice in the electricity sector early on, for example, it pays dividends in transport when you ban internal combustion engine vehicles later in the game. This helps us convey two key messages: early intervention is vital and everything must move together.
We consulted many other experts: Tim Lenton and Carlos Nobre on the impact climate change is having on global earth systems, and climate change analysts Nick Mabey and Mike Berners-Lee on the steps and trade-offs required to get to net zero.
We added questions on methane and land use, both not included in the IEA research, with their impact commensurate with the net zero answers in our CO2-related questions.
We supplemented emissions-cutting questions with those focused on other levers crucial to a net zero future, such as international co-operation, innovation and adaptation.
We gauged their impact using “effort points”, with 100 given to each player. Every answer costs points — as do setbacks such as natural disasters — with players having to weigh up where and when to expend their effort.
We made an Excel spreadsheet to test hundreds of ‘points pathways’ through the game to ensure it was accurate without crushing hope. The fact that 32% of readers kept the planet’s temperature below 1.5C and 27% ended up destroying the world (or sacked!) confirmed we had the balance right.
In effect, the climate game takes hundreds of pages of climate science and distils it into a manageable series of questions and answers. We feel it is no exaggeration to say the game is likely the first time the cause and effect of actions across key emissions sectors and policy levers have been in the public domain in such a digestible format.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
The climate crisis, in its near overwhelming enormity, is one of the defining issues of our time. But communicating its impact on society, finance, business and politics in an engaging way can be challenging for even the most adept journalists.
With climate change growing in saliency every year, it is vital we explain the importance of taking action in innovative new ways. The climate game shows that newsrooms can gamify the climate crisis (and other complex topics of global significance) in ways that are scientifically rigorous, informative and fun.
This is an approach we hope other newsrooms will emulate in future.