“You are the senior editor of the world’s most popular and trusted news organisation. You have the enviable power to set the news agenda, and thereby shift the zeitgeist.” So reads the introductory text to Survive the Century, an online game. Also my dream bio, but I digress.
What follows is a Choose Your Own Adventure-style series of prompts that allows you to game out the next decade as the world battles the pandemic, climate change, inequality, and conflict. At the end, you get to read the headlines from 2030 based on the stories and ideas you championed for the public. It’s a novel way to make the big forces that shape our world manageable, putting them in the hands of everyday people — and it allows players to imagine how to change course from our current destructive one.
Survive the Century is the brainchild of two climate scientists and an author of a book about managing money and horror. (Those are separate topics, though sometimes they go hand-in-hand.) The collaboration grew out of a workshop convened two years ago by Christopher Trisos and Simon Nicholson, climate researchers at the University of Cape Town and American University, respectively, who helped conceive the game, that brought together people from different backgrounds from around the world to think about the climate emergency. Sam Beckbessinger, the aforementioned author, was one of those attendees and the game’s co-creator. (There are also four fiction writers who contributed as well as a slew of scientists who advised the project.)
“I think for a little bit of extra madness sprinkled on top, they brought in some science fiction writers, which is how I ended up there,” Beckbessinger said. “And we had this incredible series of conversations where we were trying to do exercises around imagining futures. Chris had actually been talking about the Choose Your Own Adventure format for a while. It’s something I loved as a kid.”
In the intervening two years since the workshop, the pandemic has changed everything, and it figures prominently in the game just as it does in society. And while Survive the Century begins in late 2021, the choices are ripped straight from today’s headlines focusing on vaccine access and distribution in poor countries. The opening prompt reads that “poor countries, who haven’t been able to afford vaccines, are seeing wave after wave of the virus. Experts are worried that it’s continuing to mutate and to become more aggressive. They say our best chance is to get the whole world vaccinated.”
The choices for how to get more vaccines to the rest of the world reflect the worst tendencies of society — relying on billionaires, traditional government donations, or conspiracies to dictate vaccine distribution — as well as the possibility of something new. The most progressive choice is having each country kick in 1% of its GDP to a vaccine fund, reflecting a world that relies on cooperation and shared responsibility rather than rich folks and lies.
As a climate journalist, I’m pretty prone to doom and gloom. But the first pathway I tried to wander down was the most positive one. There’s no shortage of bad climate news. The past is rife with failures and damage to the climate from Big Oil’s decades of lies to sow doubt to former President Donald Trump’s deregulatory bender, to the fact that despite two-plus decades of climate talks, global carbon emissions have risen. But the beauty of a Choose Your Own Adventure approach is that past results do not have to dictate the future. I chose the GDP commitment option and continued down the road of cooperation in my subsequent choices.
In 2030, I was treated to headlines involving Chevron’s CEO facing life in prison for ecocide as well as surprises like a rise in “illicit underground meat restaurants … commonly known as ‘meat-ups’” (I chortled) after California banned the sale of animal products. That’s the thing about the future and even the best-laid plans.
“I’ve been trained to think about the future,” Tristos said, noting that the rigidity of modelling made him feel “like once you’re in that box, it’s hard to find your way out of it. This Choose Your Own Adventure format, for me, was very liberating because it opens up the potential for rapid change, for surprises, for unexpected consequences of particular decisions that can take you to really good places. The other thing it does is it shows that sometimes you can stabilise the climate, but the world is not so friendly to live in.”
Indeed, in other endings, the world met the Paris Agreement target of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius but structural issues persisted. In one particularly gross future that nevertheless had a stable climate, Brazil erected a massive statue of Jeff Bezos in an effort to lure his business. This was, unfortunately, all-too-easy to imagine for me (cough, cough Climate Pledge Arena, HQ2), and I quickly closed the screen. Still other futures were more harrowing.
“This is not a predictive tool at all, it’s about opening up possibilities,” Nicholson said. “It’s about helping people explore what futures might emerge, given what we know about today.”
The team behind the game will be collecting analytics (anonymously, of course) on gameplay to gauge what pathways people choose and how they jump between them. The dynamics of gameplay reflect the dynamics of the world, which is prone to occasional lurches toward good decision making. Tristos likened it to a highway with multiple exits, saying “if you miss 1.5 [degrees Celsius], there’s still a good reason to get off at 1.6 or 1.7.”