Columbia Student Presents Climate Change Board Games at COP27
Jiangnan Shen is a student in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management program, and the co-founder of a company called Enviroally that is using board games to teach people about climate change.
The company debuted its newest game, Planet-E, in November at the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Youth. Then, at the COP27 climate change summit, Shen gave a TEDx talk about game-based approaches to climate education. While she was still in Egypt for the conference, we got in touch with her to learn more about the advantages of using board games to talk about climate change and find solutions, what comes next for the company, and how readers can get their hands on one of the games. The Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to start your company?
Our company, Enviroally, is a sustainability education company founded by Qiqi Feng and co-founded by Qidi Zhu and myself. The three of us came to know each other at a climate change simulation event in 2019, where Qidi was the facilitator, and Qiqi and I were the participants. The strong momentum of that event continues to this day and has been shaping our unceasing passion for climate education and action.
We have designed a range of gamified climate education tools, including board games which were praised by professionals and participants of our events. The games proved to be helpful and fun for students that lack academic climate education backgrounds.
We want Enviroally to be not just about board games — we are open to any type of innovative multidisciplinary educational program and initiatives that inspire public awareness of sustainable development topics, especially climate change.
Why are board games an important tool in educating people about climate change?
It’s not hard to imagine these scenarios:
- Environmental science students walk into a classroom, see the board game props, and are pleasantly surprised when they learn that the teaching content will be carried out through this game today. Today’s class gives a different feeling.
- A young person who wants to try his hand at learning about climate change is looking for related activities. He might be drawn to gamified climate education workshops as opposed to very academic or serious educational activities.
- A board game fan randomly picks up a new strategy board game in a game bar, and he doesn’t care that he has no background knowledge about climate change. However, when he and his friends start the game, they obtain information related to climate change through the game rules and mechanisms, the text and pictures on the cards, the character background, and communication among the players. Perhaps, after the game is over, he and his friends will replay the game and he will unknowingly bring in new thinking about climate change.
For those who are not interested in climate change, a free discussion is a very important step in inspiring climate awareness. What’s more, we don’t force slogans and knowledge into the player’s mind — they arrive there as a result of the player’s own initiative.
Could you tell us a bit about how your games work, and provide some examples of how players learn key concepts from them?
Our two board games, Pacific Climate Adventures and Planet-E, are completely different game genres.
Pacific Climate Adventures is a light strategy board game suitable for teenagers and adults. Each player takes on a role, such as an Indigenous person, tribal leader, fisherman, tourist, resort developer, scientist, or film director. The game is based in the South Pacific islands, and players cooperatively answer questions and encounter events under the risk of being submerged by sea level rise, using their skills to help each other to achieve victory. In this perilous game for survival, we believe that teams who are good at cooperation and love sustainable development will win.
Pacific Climate Adventures is suitable for school courses, workshops, community activities, etc. It is especially suitable for people who are unfamiliar with climate change issues in South Pacific Island countries. This game guides players to discuss climate change issues in a relaxed atmosphere. The event host can freely choose the type of cards based on the theme of the activity before the game. For example, the cards chosen may focus on international perspective, community improvement, or personal climate action. We recommend that the host conducts further in-depth discussions with players after the game, based on the content of the cards.
After the game, players can classify the cards according to the information they contain and sort out the knowledge related to climate change. For example, historical events of great significance (event cards related to the Paris climate agreement), disasters caused by climate change (usually in bad event cards), how we respond to climate change, and how we mitigate and adapt (usually in good event cards).
Our other game, Planet-E, is a complex system with seven different landforms, ranging from wetland to forest to farmland. The configuration of these different landscapes changes in each game, giving the players a different gaming experience each time. These landforms will be surrounded by three distinctive ecosystems (coastal, desert, and mountain), which can pose barriers to settlement, but at the same time present unique opportunities.
As the players work together to build a city on Planet-E, maintaining a good balance between the ecosystem, economy, and climate change is of utmost importance, as it will determine whether the team succeeds or not. Collaboration and communication are at the core of this game. As the players transform Planet-E, making it more sustainable, they will need to work closely together and think strategically about each of their moves on the planet.
What do you hope players will take away from your games?
Take Planet-E as an example. Planet-E contains a lot of scientific knowledge on climate issues and ecological protection. Its sources include scientific papers, classic cases of nature-based solutions, and several reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We hope that while helping players understand the underlying logic of climate change issues, they can cultivate their ability to take a close look at sustainable development with systematic thinking.
Do you think that games such as Enviroally’s could lead to real-world solutions? If so, how?
I would say yes. We created an efficient learning tool, so more people will learn about climate change and other sustainable development topics. We believe that before you can act, you need to first know and understand.
Using Pacific Climate Adventures as an example, when we talked to youth from the South Pacific at COP27, they are very surprised that our team is out there advocating for climate change issues in the Pacific and they are very happy to help us and collaborate with us in the future. We are currently exploring opportunities to perfect Pacific Climate Adventures, making sure it represents cultures in the South Pacific and conveys the real voices of the South Pacific.
When people from different backgrounds and different parts of the world are interested in Pacific Climate Adventures and bring it to their community, this board game is functioning as a bridge between people in the South Pacific and people worldwide. More importantly, being a board game, it is a fun and engaging way to learn about stories in the South Pacific. Pacific Climate Adventures can become, not only a tool, but also a platform for sharing stories — in particular, climate change stories.
Who has played the games so far, and what has been their reaction?
The first version of Pacific Climate Adventures was tested at Australia National University. Initially, designing this board game was Qiqi’s group project in college, where they were asked to design teaching props for freshmen. In the end, the prototype of this board game won the unanimous acknowledgment of students and professors. To promote the game to a wider audience, especially to make it accessible to non-environmental students, we have invited international friends to participate in the closed beta of Pacific Climate Adventures.
The first version of Planet-E was tested at COY17 (The 17th UN Climate Change Conference of Youth) in early November. The participants really had fun that day. The closing time of that session should have been 8 p.m.. However, there were three players who didn’t want to leave until 9:30 p.m., when all lights were turned off by the venue staff. One player said she wants to help us translate this game from English to Arabic. Another player recommended this game to his friend and said that it teaches people not only about climate change but also everything about sustainable development.
How can people play your games — are they for sale yet?
The digital version of Pacific Climate Adventures is free. We will upload it on our LinkedIn and Instagram accounts over the next few weeks. The physical versions of Pacific Climate Adventures and Planet-E are expected to be sold in February 2023.
Based on the knowledge content of board games and the characteristics of game mechanics, we have designed some workshops to help players expand their knowledge of climate change. We will hold some such events ourselves; we also expect that institutions and individuals that use our board games for educational occasions can refer to the design method of the workshop. They can have fun by playing games, as well as making full use of game design, such as props and rules, to help players dig deeper into content, lead players to think deeply and communicate, and finally bring the topic back to our daily climate actions.
If anyone at Columbia University is interested in playing these two games, I’m happy to test them at Columbia before our team starts to sell them.
How has your education from the Sustainability Management program helped to shape your games?
This summer I took a course called Sustainable Forest Management, taught by Professor Ralph Schmidt. In that class, I learned a very interesting saying: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” from Aristotle. Professor Schmidt used this sentence to conclude that the benefits of a whole forest are greater than the sum of the benefits of individual trees. Because this knowledge is very impressive, I put this sentence on one of the protection cards of Planet-E.
What are your next goals for your company and board games?
Our short-term plan is to translate “Pacific Climate Adventure” into multiple languages and further promote it around the world. In addition, we hope to open source the design of “Pacific Climate Adventure” through our website, so that more people can join the game co-creation, contribute climate events updates, build the question bank, and further expand the correct answers to these questions in a diversified way. We look forward to establishing cooperative relationships in particular with individuals and institutions from South Pacific Island countries. For example, to improve the art design of “Pacific Climate Adventure” and add more authentic and enriching local cultural elements.
Regarding Planet-E, we will continue to develop multiple versions of the game to keep our players interested. In fact, in addition to the current cooperative version, there are two other independent game prototypes under improvement. At the same time, we look forward to keeping in touch with individuals and institutions that use Planet-E for educational purposes, following up and helping them make better use of the game’s own design, and maximize the teaching effect.
How were the games received at COP27?
We were invited by the working group of the Children and Youth Pavilion to give a TEDx talk at COP27. It is the first time that COP27 has had a Children and Youth Pavilion. This working group also invited us to stay there and show our board games to the audience because they wanted their social media partners to film us. We spent two days in the pavilion. Some representatives of organizations and companies would like to buy our products and cooperate with us. We are happy to see that people at COP27 like our products and ideas, and we hope to attract more people’s attention to game-based teaching and learning.