When world leaders arrive in Egypt next month for COP27, they’ll be charged with navigating some of the weightiest challenges humanity has ever faced, from setting aggressive emissions-reduction targets to deciding if poor countries are owed reparations for the climate havoc wreaked by rich countries. Negotiations will last for weeks, only to pick up again in another year at COP28.
For players of Daybreak, the challenges are identical — but the solutions roll out in seconds.
Sayanti Sengupta, a technical advisor for the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, was one of the first people to try the beta version of Daybreak, a highly anticipated board game from creators Matt Leacock and Matteo Menapace. Playing at home, she marveled as her friends slapped down cards to deploy solar farms, struck multilateral climate deals across the table, and swapped out tiles to phase out fossil fuel energy. Together, they counted up little gray cubes representing carbon in the atmosphere, a binding moment every round where they paused to celebrate and reassess.
“Every time we could do a round without losing communities or without raising the temperature, people were more into it. Like next time, they want to do it better,” Sengupta says. “This is exactly what you need to feel for the climate problem. You need to keep at it.”
After three years in development, Daybreak will hit the commercial market next spring, joining a plethora of climate change-inspired games. Leacock, best known for his cooperative board game Pandemic, is adding his own spin to Daybreak: The game is based on real-world data and policies, with a degree of game abstraction. Like Pandemic, it’s tricky to win, and players must work together to achieve collective solutions. In the runup to COP27, the creators say that Daybreak offers a miniature model through which to understand current events.
Here’s how it works: Four players assume the roles of China, the US, Europe and the “Majority World” — the Global South — each of which comes with its own strengths and vulnerabilities. In each round, they convene to decide on a global project, draw individual opportunities and brace for unknown crises.
The central tension lies in trade-offs. Do you use your opportunity cards to fund the global project, or do you capitalize on growing social movements in your region? Do you invest in mangrove forests, hedging against future floods, or do you prioritize the rapid shift to renewable energy? The center game board keeps an ongoing tally of the temperature and thawing ice as droughts and heatwaves escalate.
Daybreak has been in development since March 2020. In the early days, Leacock and Menapace found themselves lost in the sheer size and breadth of the climate crisis. Both rejected the narrative around individual carbon footprints that encourages people to fly less or rethink having children. Citing BP’s 2000s campaign, Menapace wrote that “framing climate action as an individual carbon diet would be playing the enemy’s game.” But it wasn’t until they read The 100% Solution by Solomon Goldstein-Rose, which lays out a comprehensive global plan, that the duo found a foothold.
“The tendency I saw was that people would say, ‘Oh, this is the answer to the climate crisis,’ and everyone would say, ‘Well, of course not, that’s not big enough,’” Leacock explains. “Where if you change the frame and say, ‘We need all of these solutions,’ and you can see them and see their part in the larger whole, then I was able to better understand the nature of the problem and really wanted to be able to communicate that to other people.”
Leacock and Menapace consulted a wide array of environmental advocates, from Greenpeace and WWF to the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, which has developed dozens of DIY educational games. Long-time climate activist Bill McKibben was instrumental in helping them understand the role of the fossil fuel industry lobbying, which they eventually folded into the deck of crises. Early feedback also pushed them to move beyond technocratic carbon addition and subtraction to concentrate instead on the impact on communities.
“When we started to thread all that in there, threads of climate justice and so on, the game became much, much richer,” Leacock says. “Suddenly, we could be picking up books on the Green New Deal, all these policy books, and we could see anything as a climate solution, whether it’s healthcare or city greening or what have you. They all had their role in the game.”
In its current form, Daybreak offers almost 150 cards with different solutions to fight climate change, from citizens’ assemblies to walkable cities to green steel and alternative cement. The name itself, Daybreak, was chosen to evoke the feeling of a new dawn, solar energy and the reality that the world, in fact, has many tools at hand. (One earlier title: Climate Crisis.)
While playing, Sengupta watched as her friends grew curious about the real-world implications of various solutions. One was enthralled by a card on agrovoltaic solar farms, which he wanted to see at home in the Philippines. “The [unique selling point] of the game,” she says, “is that it’s not only something that brokers knowledge, but also actually gives you hope that you can do something collaboratively.”
Daybreak’s forerunners each tell a different story about climate change. In the game CO2, players adopt the role of energy companies going green, while Energetic assigns players as politicians, entrepreneurs, activists or engineers pushing the clean energy transition in New York. Online games featured in the community Earth Games range from building trust between disaster-stricken societies to battling disinformation. You could even argue that Terraforming Mars, in which players change the climate to create a biosphere on the Red Planet, is yet another symptom of humanity’s existential crisis here on Earth.
Research on climate change games has demonstrated their efficacy in educating players and instilling hope — even in inspiring players to take more action after the game. Dr. Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the Climate Change Initiative at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, has conducted dozens of sessions with World Climate, a dual-simulation game that models both the scientific reality of anthropogenic climate change — sea-level rise, more frequent storms and flooding — and the interpersonal reality of United Nations conferences.
As in Daybreak, World Climate participants take the position of government leaders. Role play has proven effective in activating how closely people pay attention, as it offers a layer of responsibility absent in a lecture or film. Real-time feedback on decisions, which truncates the timeline between action and outcome, is also essential. “It’s actually that sense of increased urgency that drives desire to learn more and intent to take action on climate change, as opposed to a change in your analytic understanding of the problem,” says Rooney-Varga. “It’s that combination that I think of as really powerful.”
What Daybreak does particularly well, says Pablo Suarez, innovation lead at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, is illustrate the trade-offs of us versus them, now versus later, and certainty versus uncertainty, such as whether to invest in adaptation when you’re not sure if an extreme event will actually occur.
Suarez offered his own example of a trade-off: At a workshop at the White House in 2012, he explained that the frisbee he was about to throw into the standing crowd symbolized a hurricane. Participants who sat down “evacuated,” while those who remained standing were suddenly keenly aware of their vulnerability. The moral of the game was to demonstrate the importance of early warning systems.
“Games are uniquely well-suited to help people experience complex issues where you have limited information, you have to make decisions, and your decisions will have consequences,” Suarez says. “Playfulness allows people to engage very intensely into imagining the range of possible futures.”
To Leacock and Menapace, Daybreak gives people permission to talk about climate change, to learn about the diversity of solutions and try, round after round, to fit them together effectively.
“You might hear the government is putting forward a plan to tackle a certain aspect of the climate crisis,” says Menapace. “And you still feel like, ‘Okay, that’s good, but they need more cards. They need to do more of that.’ It really gives you a way to quickly assess what’s happening in reality.”
To contact the author of this story:
Erin X. Wong in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
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