Since ancient times, games using role-playing and simulation have helped people navigate through important global conflict scenarios. These include military war games, as well as simulations in space, aviation, and medicine, where the stakes are high and the risks of making the wrong decision — or doing nothing — can be catastrophic. Scientists believe this approach also could be transformational in climate change, smashing through denial barriers, reaching people where other strategies have failed.

“Learning through experience engages both rational, analytic and emotional pathways that motivate us to learn more and drive us to act,” said Juliette Rooney-Varga, an environmental scientist and director of the climate initiative at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “In the case of climate change, we can’t afford to wait for real world experience because it will only come too late. Instead, games…can create simulated experience that deliver the benefits of learning and engagement while avoiding the costs and risks of making mistakes in the real world.”

She and her colleagues have been studying the impact of World Climate Simulation, a role-playing game that simulates UN climate talks, and found that the game motivated people outside traditional groups of climate change believers, including those who know or care little about the issue, among them free-market proponents who typically resist the science-based consensus that climate change is largely human-caused. In fact, the research found that 81 percent of those surveyed showed an increased motivation to fight climate change, according to the study.

“The research gave us an opportunity to analyze …whether or not World Climate can reach across the political divide,” Rooney-Varga said. “Climate change has become increasingly politicized and, at the same time, a growing body of social science research has shown that political views can pose an insurmountable barrier to climate communication. Overcoming this barrier would definitely be a breakthrough and could provide a major contribution to society’s ability to mitigate climate change.”

The game is a simulation of UN international climate change negotiations, designed for groups of eight to 50 people, led by a facilitator playing the role of a UN leader, while the other participants assume the role of delegates representing specific nations, negotiating blocs of interest groups. Within their assigned roles, they then work together to reach a global climate change agreement, an experience that runs for about three hours.

Bonn Climate Change Conference , October 2014. Source: UNFCCC

As in the real deliberations, each delegation presents proposals for their own greenhouse gas emissions. Also, those representing developed nations pledge contributions to the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations reduce their emissions, and adapt to change. Their decisions are then fed into a climate policy computer program, C-ROADS, which has been used to support the real negotiations. Participants receive immediate feedback on predicted effects of their proposals; first round results usually fall short, the scientists said. Then they try again.

“If I were to give a lecture about [greenhouse gas emissions], I would show the audience exactly what greenhouse gas emissions pathways would be needed,’ Rooney-Varga said. “As a World Climate facilitator, I would never show such information.” Instead, participants make their own decisions guided by how they affect global climate, using interactive climate policy models, she said. “Unlike a lecture or film, World Climate teaches through experience,” she said.

The study, published recently in the journal PLOS ONE, analyzed the effects of World Climate on more than 2,000 participants from eight countries and four continents, ranging from middle school students to CEOs. Regardless of political orientation, cultural identity, age, or gender, the participants increased their understanding of climate science, felt a greater sense of urgency and hope, and expressed an interest in learning and doing more about climate change, according to the study. The more people learned through the game, the more their sense of urgency increased, the scientists said.

Theoretical model of learning for action through the World Climate simulation. Source: PLOS ONE

Much of these effects are grounded in the social science research principles of “social norms,” which hold that members of a group often will respond to appropriate — or even inappropriate — values, beliefs and attitudes held by others with their group, she said. “We humans are very social creatures,” she said. “We take cues from our social groups, often updating our beliefs about how the world works based on what those around us believe. So, if people around us don’t believe in climate change, we are also less likely to believe in it. We literally feel better when we agree with our social group.”

Research has shown that negative social interactions cause an inflammatory response, similar to the biochemical reactions people experience as physical pain, she added. “So we’re motivated to avoid topics of conversation that we think are controversial or disagreeable,” she said. “These social factors are aggravated by another misconception about climate change: most of us underestimate the number of people who are concerned about climate change, while overestimating the number of people who dismiss it.”

For example, those personally concerned about climate change may be reluctant to share their concerns with people around them if “their perception is that most people don’t share that concern and would find such a conversation disagreeable or maybe even offensive — even though your perception is wrong,” she added. “In fact, a Yale study has shown that a majority of Americans are worried about climate change, yet you’re unlikely to talk about it because you think that doing so would be disagreeable. As a result, even people who are worried about climate change hesitate to talk about it.”

2018 U.S. public opinion estimates. Source: Yale University

Participating in the game breaks down these communication barriers “by creating an immersive and richly social experience that people have together,” she said. “By the end of the game, it’s clear that everyone shares a concern about climate change, creating an opportunity to move on to the important next step of actually doing something about it.”

As of last July, more than 43,000 people in 78 countries globally have participated in the game, which has been reviewed by independent educators and scientists who found it supported U.S. national science education standards, the scientists said. It has been designated as an official resource for schools in France, Germany, and South Korea, they added.

“A quote from a fellow expert in climate change communication, Mark McCaffrey sums it up nicely: ‘If I were climate czar, it would be required of all high school students before they graduated . . . and incoming freshmen in college should have to do the game,’” said Rooney-Varga, who urged U.S. educators and climate communicators to try the game themselves — and then use it.

“For most of human history, experience has been our best teacher, enabling us to understand the world around us while stimulating emotions — fear, anger, worry, hope — that drive us to act,” Rooney-Varga said. “The big question for climate change communication is: how can we build the knowledge and emotions that drive informed action without real-life experience which, in the case of climate change, will only come too late? The answer appears to be simulated experience.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.