Game Designer / Professor / Optimist

5 minutes at the UN Climate Conference (COP18)

Hello from Doha, Qatar! I was given the amazing opportunity to speak for 5 minutes on games at the Development and Climate Days, a popular weekend event at the UN Climate Conference. I was invited by the Red Crosss Red Crescent Climate Centre, along with people who are much smarter and more important — including Mary Robinson, former President (and first female president) of Ireland! The Red Cross is leading the humanitarian sector in using games for their work, and Parsons PETLab has the privilege of working with them.

Here’s what I said:

COP18 Development and Climate Days 5 minute talk
Doha, Qatar

I’m going to start out by asking the question you are all probably asking: Why on earth is a game designer given 5 minutes at this conference? As Pablo Suarez says, I am likely the most eccentric attendee in the entire COP. I’m glad I have the company of my former students Mohini and Ben to buffer my eccentricity.

If you were here yesterday to play some of the games designed by Pablo, Janot, Mohini, Ben and my students at Parsons, you are likely able to guess what I am going to say about games: That they are a great tool to spark the fires of engagement, that they are an antidote to Powerpoint in making a point, or that they help us think through the complexities of the world by modeling it in manageable bite-sized pieces.

But I am going to go further out on a limb and suggest something more about what games are good for. I would argue that if we (humanity) spent more time playing and making games with each other we would all be better off. Because beyond games being ways to present ideas, they provide us with the training for systems thinking — a paradigm shift that everyone needs to make to find leverage points in a system (thank you Donella Meadows for writing the must-read essay “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”).

Not too far from here archaeologists found the first set of six-sided dice, dated back to 5000 BC. Games have been a part of human culture — and many scientists say human evolution — since before we were able to write. I know of very few human endeavors using the exact same technology for over 7,000 years. Clearly games have been useful to humanity to have persisted and evolved with us for so long.

Games are the cultural medium of systems (I think designer and genius Frank Lantz first made this observation). Fellow game designer Naomi Clark compares games to music, saying that they are both where math and emotions collide. However unlike music, games do something else: they help us understand complexity, and beneath that, see ourselves as active participants in systems. Games are not as good as other media in telling us about facts and issues with precision – they are about verbs more than nouns; but games do tell us what we can DO about things. I would argue that seeing ourselves as active participants in a system of climate change — whether it’s reducing our carbon footprint or preparing for natural disasters of increasingly deadly scales — is a necessary step in preparing us to solve this wicked problem.

One of my primary areas of work, in addition to the privilege of working with the amazing people at the International Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and the American Red Cross, is to bring games and game design back into the classroom. I believe that games teach systems literacy, and when we design them, they teach systems literacy as well as empathy (because in order for our games to be played, they need to be humanely accessible).

These two modes of thought, from both sides of our brain: a systems perspective and an empathetic outlook prepare us to be actively engaged problem-solvers. And when we design games for each other, we learn one more thing. We learn how to bring out the best in people. So no matter how inconsequential you might think games are — what they do is not inconsequential, especially for this challenge we are all here to confront: one that is systemic and has deeply human consequences.

I’ll end with a quote from one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace:

“And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is. Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time.”

Let me change that a bit:

“And that if the game designer does her job right, what she basically does is remind the player of how smart the player is. Is to wake the player up to stuff that the player’s been aware of all the time.”

Let’s make games that remind humanity of how smart and capable it is. This is the power of games, and by taking a leap of faith and embracing them in our development and climate change efforts, we’re pretty smart too.

Thank you.