The year is 2100 - what's the world like? What choices did we make to lead us to this point? In the internet branching narrative game Survive the Century, you can try guiding humanity through key decisions we may face as we encounter the challenges posed by climate change. Along the way, you'll be faced with the consequences of your decisions and the results of events beyond your control.
This fictional game was created by a group of storytellers and climate scientists to illustrate how the decisions our leaders and our society as a whole make could impact our lives. You take the role of an editor of "the world's most popular and trusted news organization", and make decisions about what position to promote to your readership. While real-life decision-making is much messier than the opinions of a single newspaper, it is still a useful storytelling approach. By illustrating the hypothetical, yet scientifically informed, results of high-level decisions, you start to understand how the world might change around us.
Part of the excitement of a branching narrative game is to play through multiple times to find different outcomes and storylines. One of the first decisions you're confronted with is not, in fact, directly related to climate change - it is about the global pandemic and how to vaccinate the world in order to bring the pandemic to an end. This and the series of choices that follow illustrate the importance of the current moment - the opportunity we have to "Build Back Better" and accelerate the shift to a climate-compatible political and economic system. Try both investing in climate resilience now and the alternate scenario of taking a slower approach, and see what happens as a result! The results are enlightening and reinforce how, despite the horrors of the pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity in front of us to achieve significant change quickly.
As you move through the game, you monitor three key resources: Conflict, Temperature, and Economy. Keeping them in balance turns out to be quite difficult. If you optimize for one, the others tend to take a nosedive. Will you decide to avoid conflict but potentially damage the economy in the short run? It becomes clear that there are neither clear wrong nor clear right decisions at every point, and you can and will agonize over every single one. It is remarkable how this game manages to present only 3-4 decisions each decade between now and 2100 while clearly demonstrating that those few decisions lead directly to the portrayed outcomes. It reminds you how, in some ways, the climate crisis is simple: reduce emissions quickly and avoid the largest impacts, or reduce emissions more slowly and deal with the consequences.
The true storytelling magic appears after you've made your choices each decade, and you're presented with some hypothetical headlines illustrating the results of your choices. Some are dark and thought provoking, like "Amazon basin formally loses “rainforest” categorization, reclassified as 'savanna'". Some are factual and head-scratching like the dystopian image of the world described in the headline "Trans-Arctic shipping surpasses trans-Pacific shipping for first time". Others are more amusing, but similarly disturbing such as "Translocated polar bear colony decimates penguins in West Antarctic: Polar bear obesity becoming a real problem". The headlines and their backstories are all based in science - these are outcomes that could in fact happen. When you read the headlines, you can imagine the impact of the portrayed events on your own life. Do you live in a coastal city? This game may have you rethinking that choice by the end of it.
Towards the end of the game, you're likely to be faced with decisions about geoengineering. Geoengineering attempts to directly influence our climate through actions such as making clouds brighter to reflect sunlight. In a poignant graphical design choice, the game portrays a decision to pursue geoengineering as a roll of the dice. Again, this randomness represents the best scientific thinking we have about the risks and rewards of geoengineering. Play through the game a few times and try various geoengineering decisions, and you'll see what I mean - the outcomes can vary wildly. Another fascinating aspect of the portrayal of geoengineering is the way the game frames it as a collective action problem - does one country go about making decisions about changing the whole world's climate, or do we try to reach global consensus first? These are difficult political questions that, as you'll see, don't always lead where you might expect.
Despite the challenging decisions and many paths to dark outcomes, there is a way to "win" and create a better world by the end of the century. In one successful scenario, the game describes "the 21st century as one of profound change, mostly for the better". In all scenarios, both good and bad, profound change is coming to our lives. This will be difficult, as change tends to be for humans, but there is the potential to emerge successful. Presenting these pathways to success or failure in game form can be a useful way to help navigate conversations about the impending changes in our lives.
As the game creators state: "Our choices matter. It’s not over. There are still a lot of decisions we can make that will lead to dramatically different futures." This brings me to why playing Survive the Century resonated so much with the IvyCo team and drove us to share it here. At IvyCo, we believe that as individuals, we are empowered to create change through the economic decisions we make every day. We can and do shape the future of the world, and by making the abstract personal through storytelling, we can begin to visualize how our everyday choices change the world for the better.
Give the game a try - how will you do?