In 2019, South African ecologist Christopher Trisos and D.C.-based policy analyst Simon Nicholson assembled an unlikely group of 25 experts — from biologists to economists and even novelists — to discuss climate modeling. In a series of workshops, they mapped out myriad futures for our warming planet, each based on decisions society could make today.
Trisos, a fan of choose-your-own-adventure games, suggested navigating those possibilities through fictional timelines shaped by participants’ choices. That sparked a novel idea: Why not turn the activity into a game and use it to help people work through the various pathways to a livable planet?
Two years later, Survive the Century is ready to play. Created by experts from the same multidisciplinary group, the project was led by Trisos, Nicholson, and Sam Beckbessinger, a U.K.-based writer who dabbles in both horror fiction and kids’ TV. (No, seriously.) The free online game puts players in the role of editor-in-chief of the world’s most trusted newspaper. That role requires shaping the global narrative on what should be done about climate change by deciding what policies the publication will endorse. It begins in 2021 with a timely prompt: Will you advocate for a global vaccine fund to ensure all countries are equally protected from COVID-19, or is it every nation for itself?
From there, you’ll click through a series of geopolitical decisions, selecting one of several options. By the time things end in 2100, your decisions can lead to a variety of outcomes, from global utopia to hell on earth. Things also can end far sooner if you, say, kill everyone with a disastrous geoengineering project. (How could I have known that adding nutrients to the ocean to absorb carbon would suffocate everyone?!) Each decade ends with a page of illustrations and headlines by contributing artists and writers who infuse the game with a mix of absurdity and startling realism. “Thanks to home insect farms, protein diets have improved significantly,” one headline declares. “Translocated polar bear colony decimates penguins in West Antarctic: Polar bear obesity becoming a real problem,” laments another.
Survive the Century was funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, a U.S. organization that convenes research teams to create actionable and impactful projects. The game’s predictions are grounded in the latest environmental and economic data, with information appearing at the bottom of some pages to explain the science behind the scenarios. The creators hope the format captures people’s interest in a way that academic papers don’t.
More specifically, Trisos, Nicholson, and Beckbessinger aim to underscore the severity of the climate crisis while reminding players that humanity still has a choice in its own fate. “I talk to a lot of Zoomers, and there’s just so much nihilism about what’s happening with the climate,” Beckbessinger says. “Sitting in [the workshops] with all of these specialists, I expected to feel sad and terrified. But my biggest takeaway was the fact that the future is not yet fixed.”
Can Survive the Century inspire players to take action in real life? A German study from 2018 posed that same question about the climate-themed game Keep Cool. The authors’ findings suggest that gaming can increase players’ sense of personal responsibility, bolster their confidence in politics as a driver for climate action, and make them optimistic about the potential for international cooperation in addressing the crisis. It stands to reason that Survive the Century could have a similar effect.
Fix talked to Trisos, Nicholson and Beckbessinger about how their diverse team created the game, the response they’ve gotten so far, and the impact they hope it will have. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. I’d love to hear about how this game came together. What was the process like?
Sam Beckbessinger: I’ve never worked on something this collaborative. There’ve been dozens of experts who’ve given input. We’ve had fiction writers contributing stories. We’ve had an illustrator bringing everything to life. As a writer, it’s so fun and fertile to get ideas from people who are studying deep areas. Every expert that we spoke to gave us little granules that are weirder than you could imagine. The group included people from such a diverse range of countries. They all brought unique and fascinating insights.
Christopher Trisos: Often with scenario exercises, you have a group of people who went on a retreat in a cabin in the woods or a wine farm or the basement of the Defense Department, and they have this transformational experience where they envision the future. And it’s like, “Well, great. For the 20 people who were there, I’m sure it was super cool.” There are a few that do [present to the public], but how does everyone else benefit from that except through mathematical or scientific projection models that are super inaccessible?
What was different about this group is, from the beginning, we were thinking about, “If you come up with a lot of climate futures, how do you make those stories accessible and how do you let other people play with them in a way that’s educational and informative and fosters climate conversations?” Instead of it just organizing the research community, [Survive the Century] is something that you could share with a friend or use in a classroom. That was a big part of how we put the team together.
Simon Nicholson: We tried to be pretty careful about the science behind the scenarios. This came out of an academic set of workshops; it’s not just storytelling. We tried to treat this as a translational exercise. Chris combed relentlessly through the narrative Sam put together to make sure that the different decision points took us to places that were consistent with the best understanding of science. That is something that we can learn from as a way to take these arcane findings and make them relevant to people’s lives.
Beckbessinger: Yeah, he also made me take out all of the totally ridiculous things like when Bruce Willis single-handedly saves the world. I was like, “But this is what apocalypse movies have told me is going to happen, Chris. What do you mean?”
Q. Sounds like a great group. Do you plan to maintain this braintrust? Or maybe even create a follow-up project?
Nicholson: We’ve been trying to put together virtual workshops, but it has a different character than getting people together in a room. There are some academic papers that are coming out of this. One thing about getting a group like this together is that people want to maintain connection. And so we’re seeing a fruitful collaboration coming up.
Beckbessinger: We built the game using open-source technologies as much as possible, and I would love to see other people riff off of it and create different versions for different environments.We don’t want this to be something that is static and never changes. Even as we were creating the game, we had to change it because the present was catching up with the futures we were imagining. [We were working on] the first versions of the game a year ago. And the first choice was, “Imagine a COVID vaccine was discovered.” And we were like, “Oh, well, all right. Guess we’ll have to update that.” I’m thinking about this as a living project that continues to evolve as the future does.
Q. The goal here was to imagine and present different possible futures. What made you choose this format instead of, say, a short story?
Beckbessinger: It’s really fun. One of the things I love about the choose-your-own-adventure format is that it gives you this feeling of agency, which is something that you so lack when it comes to the actual climate emergency, because it’s so big and complicated and we feel powerless.
It was interesting to be honest about the fact that there are still many plausible futures. There’s a huge range of what could happen. Simon and Chris were good at challenging me and the other fiction writers to not just let there be purely good or purely bad futures, but to think about the ways in which we could get things right when it comes to mitigating climate change, but mess up on inequality and other social factors, and vice versa. We try to explore things like eco-fascism and all the complexities and nuances.
Trisos: It’s something you come back to. You explore one pathway and you make some choices and you feel the consequences and you get to imagine what it would be like to live in this world, and then you can go away from it and you can come back and make a different set of choices and explore a different world. There’s a lot of good climate fiction out there, but it takes you down particular pathways instead of offering you something where you can dip back into it occasionally.
When we engage with climate scenarios in the media and in public discussion, it’s hard to start conversations because it’s often [framed like there’s] one solution: Take shorter showers or ride your bike or get off fossil fuels. It’s not the whole society-wide response that this game lets you think through. Like, “Wow, how do vaccine distributions link up with climate change?” [With this game] you can introduce these choices about the planet that people might not immediately connect to the climate.
Q. What has the response been like?
Beckbessinger: We’ve had about 20,000 active players since launching. The feedback that matters the most to me is when people say, “Oh, you really made me laugh.” It’s such a terrifying topic and when people are scared of something, they really can’t engage with it. They just shut down. Creating a thing that people can engage with playfully, that’s a win for me.
We’ve been happy to hear feedback from people using the game in contexts that we didn’t even think of. People using it in classroom situations, using it to spark discussions and conversation — that’s been really great to hear about. When we launched the game, we weren’t sure if everyone would immediately try and destroy the world, embrace their super-villain and be super nihilistic. But what we have found looking at the data is actually almost everyone who plays the game, the first thing that they do is they create an eco-utopia. And then they go back and then they’re like, “OK, but what if we instead, I don’t know, destroyed the planet.” And that’s nice. I think that tells us something about what people want in thinking about this space. They want that feeling of hopefulness, they want that feeling of empowerment.
Trisos: A lot of people have been like, “Oh, I was playing it in the bathroom,” or “I was playing it with my kids in the garden.” And that’s something that you just don’t hear about other academic climate stuff. “Oh, I read this nature paper to my kid on the playground.” That’s never going to happen. It seems to appeal across a really wide range of age groups, from 10 years old to grandmas and grandpas. People can find a hook somewhere that they find interesting.
Nicholson: [My kids] have enjoyed the fact that we’ve had a product like this. They can point to the game and say, “Your dad’s done something.” They don’t understand it, they’re 9 and 11, and they look at the game and say, “It’s not Minecraft, what are you talking about?” But I think they appreciate seeing something on the phone.
Q. Players take on the role of a major newspaper editor, but they themselves probably don’t have that much influence and power. What responsibility do everyday people have in solving the climate crisis?
Trisos: The choices we make today matter a lot. Every bit of degree warming in the future matters. Get socially engaged, get involved in grassroots activism groups, get involved in finding out who your local elected officials are. Encourage them to make the right choices. Do the same thing if you’re at a company: “We should have an environmental and social safeguard investment option in our corporate retirement fund.” That kind of structural stuff is important.
Having you in that elite, decision-maker level hopefully gives you insights into the major choices taking place. And you can be part of it. You can go out there and put up a sign at your school and really have an impact. I think the Fridays for Future movement has shown us that.
Beckbessinger: We had a lot of discussions within the group as to what that “take-action step” should be once you have played through the game. And we decided that the most useful thing for such a broad-based project would be to find a local climate justice group near you. So the last step that we do is we send them to a search tool that helps them find a local movement.
But you aren’t going to do that if you feel like there’s no point, like it’s too late, we’re already screwed, which is the feeling that I see so often, especially when I talk to young people. It felt really important to show the player that there are still choices that matter, and to get out of that all-or-nothing mindset of either we fix the world or we break it.