Grad student's board game helps teach climate change

Talking to the public about climate change has challenged researchers for decades. The science is complex, and the high stakes drive emotional reactions.

That’s why students and faculty in the School of Journalism and Communication are seeking new ways to make climate change communication more engaging.

Journalism master’s student Robin FitzClemen is examining how adding an element of play can help people learn and retain information about this serious topic. FitzClemen designed a board game that lets players take wildfire management into their own hands while learning about the effects of climate change.

For now, the game is called Wildfire, but FitzClemen plans to keep the game adaptable so that, with a few modifications, it can be used to explore other climate issues as well. It’s now in prototype and ready for public review.

Players of Wildfire take turns rolling dice to determine which management strategy they will use to contain the fires burning across the board. In one version, historic weather data drives the progression of the fires, and in another version historic events affect their spread.

FitzClemen will debut both versions of his new game to the public Friday, Jan. 24, at the Climate Change Game Night hosted by the School of Journalism and Communication’s Center for Science Communication Research, formerly the Media Center for Science and Technology.

Attendees at the public event will test both versions of the game and provide feedback as part of the game development process. They will also get to play a variety of other climate change-themed board games, such as Evolution: Climate and CO2, while enjoying free pizza. They will also be contributing to the development of a new aspect of climate change communication.

To build Wildfire, FitzClemen incorporated information Southern California Public Radio gathered from the public in 2018 when the Camp Fire was tearing through California.

“I'm looking at (the information) to see what people cared about and what people wanted to know,” he said.

His decision to crowdsource areas of interest from the public was motivated by the principles of engagement journalism, which advise reporters to listen to affected communities when deciding what to write about.

Both climate change and communication have been longtime interests for FitzClemen. He studied environmental philosophy and management as a UO undergrad before returning for a master’s in journalism to focus on environmental communication. Before he even started his graduate program last summer, he started studying under media studies professor and games studies researcher Maxwell Foxman.  

Foxman has been studying the potential of play and immersive media for communicating news for years. He sees FitzClemen’s project as an ideal place to engage a student in this area of inquiry.

“Robin is a unicorn in that he has spent years thinking about, playing and analyzing — both informally and formally — tabletop games,” Foxman said.

FitzClemen and Foxman are interested in game play as a new method for communicating to the public about issues that are difficult to capture in mainstream news media. Their work is part of a larger body of research into using games to familiarize people with real-life issues.

To see another example, check out a game The Financial Times developed, using real stories from California Uber drivers, to demonstrate the difficulties of the gig economy.

In his work, FitzClemen is using insight into how stories arise in a player’s mind during a game to help people understand environmental issues beyond their formal education level on the topic.

“If you play the same game a few times, it doesn't matter what game it is,” he said, “you'll develop your individual narrative of what happens in that game.”

—By Kristin Kessler, School of Journalism and Communication