Games for Good – Carbon City Zero

In this Q&A we talk to Dr Sam Illingworth and Dr Paul Wake from Manchester Metropolitan University, about the card game that they have made to develop dialogue around climate change and heat decarbonisation.

What is Carbon City Zero?

Carbon City Zero is a 1-4 player card game in which players take on the role of a city mayor, racing to becoming the world’s first carbon neutral city. Beginning with a collection of cards that represent poor infrastructure and a minimal budget, they must invest wisely to buy new cards that can help to reduce the carbon output of their city. By competing against other ‘mayors’ in a friendly rivalry, players get to experience some of the challenges and strategies that are taking place in real cities around the world.

How was this idea conceived?

The Climate Charity Possible (formerly 10:10 Climate Action) commissioned the two of us to run a series of workshops that brought together different audiences (policymakers, activists, councillors, researchers, and members of the public) to discuss the challenges of heat decarbonisation. Through these workshops we co-created the basic blueprint for a game that enabled players to discuss these issues in an informative and accessible format. After workshopping, and playtesting the game with hundreds of people, we worked with the artist Tony Pickering and the graphic designer Matt Bonner to create Carbon City Zero, launching the game on Kickstarter in late September. We wanted to raise about £500 to cover the cost of printing the game and giving some free copies to climate charities, but ended up being rather more successful than we had planned…

Why a card game?

Games offer an accessible and inviting space in which people can come together and engage in face-to-face dialogue. Some tabletop games can be rather complex, and so when we designed Carbon City Zero, we wanted to make a game that could be played in under an hour, that required very little space (just a small table), and which players could learn to play in under three minutes. Working to these constraints was extremely challenging, but it also helped to focus our design and as a result we think it really helped to improve the quality of the finished game.

What challenges did you face in developing the game?

Despite our commitment to make the game as accessible as possible to our target audience (i.e. people who wanted to find out more about decarbonisation but who didn’t necessarily have an interest in games), early designs of the game were needlessly complex. One of the best decisions that we made was to get a professional games accessibility consultant to peer-review our game and advise us on how to make it more accessible. This invaluable assistance included how to better address colour-blindness and how to streamline the rules so that they were easier to understand for non-gamers. For anyone else who is thinking of designing a game, we would heartily recommend such an approach.

How can the game be used as a learning tool?

Carbon City Zero is a great conversation starter. Taking between 20-60 minutes to play (depending on the number of players and their confidence with card games), it creates an opportunity to enable students, policymakers, and other interested parties to discuss the challenges that we face in decarbonising our cities in an effective and innovative way. Sadly, it is likely that when people read this article the Kickstarter campaign will be over, but a free print-and-play version of the game can still be downloaded via PNP Arcade. We would love to hear what people think of the game, how they have used it in their classrooms or meetings, and if they have any other suggestions for scientific research topics that they would like us to develop a game for!

By Dr Sam Illingworth and Dr Paul Wake who are co-directors of the Manchester Games Studies Network at Manchester Metropolitan University

Featured image credit: Tony Pickering and Matt Bonner

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