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Virginia Tech researcher finds ‘serious games’ help people understand, adapt to climate change

October 3, 2016

Game image
A design option in the Harboring Uncertainty role-play simulation exercise. Courtesy of Todd Schenk.

A role-play simulation exercise, designed and tested by a Global Change Center researcher and his team, significantly improves people's levels of understanding about climate change and how communities can respond.

The findings of this and another similar study were recently published in Nature Climate Change.

“Climate change poses serious threats to communities worldwide,” said Todd Schenk, an assistant professor in the urban affairs and planning program in the School of Public and International Affairs. “Our study showed that people who played our game reported increased knowledge about climate change, an elevated level of concern, greater confidence that they could adapt to the effects of climate change, and even an enhanced willingness to collaborate with each other.”

For the game, approximately 76 government officials and other stakeholders from three different cities — Boston, Singapore, and Rotterdam — were recruited, based on their involvement in decision-making around public policy issues in their given communities.

The exercise presented a hypothetical yet entirely possible situation in which decision-makers and other stakeholders are confronted with potential risks associated with climate change — sea-level rise and extreme weather — and tasked with considering how they might alter their transportation infrastructure investment decisions in response. Participants worked together to assess the risks, consider their options vis-à-vis their respective interests and priorities, and seek consensus on how to proceed.

Participants around table
Participants in a run of the Harboring Uncertainty role-play simulation exercise in Boston. Photo courtesy of Chun (Lola) Zhou, The Boston Harbor Association.

“It was good to have the stakeholders around the table and let them think about and discuss the consequences of climate changes for investment decisions because their decisions could influence each other,” said Nienke Maas, a participant from the Netherlands. “It was surprising that the uncertainty around traffic forecasts is much easier to deal with than that around climate change. For traffic forecasts, we say  ‘we do not know, so let's take the maximum base load’. In contrast, for climate forecasts, the attitude was ‘we do not know so we do not take this into account’.”

Schenk and the other co-authors of the Nature Climate Change paper — Danya Rumore of the University of Utah, and Lawrence Susskind of MIT — are hopeful that these sorts of games and exercises could prove to be powerful tools for government agencies and other stakeholders grappling with climate change.

Temperatures at Earth’s surface and in the oceans have increased over recent decades, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment Report. Because climate change is largely a result of human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, it will be up to humans to change behavior. Unfortunately, however, we are likely already ‘locked in’ to significant climatic shifts, which will necessitate adaptive responses in the design and management of our infrastructure systems and built environments.