Erin Robinson Swink is a seasoned indie game developer and founder of Ivy Games, and she’s trying set the world on fire. But in a good way.
She’s a Phoenix-based neuroscientist-turned-game-creator and developer of games such as Gravity Ghost and Puzzle Bots. She’s worried about global warming. In a quiet but passionate voice, she gave a talk about it at the Gaming Insiders conference in San Francisco yesterday.
Climate change is happening, she concluded, based on the evidence before us, with California drought and the melting of the polar ice. As she read up on the subject, she became upset. She searched for a solution, and she found one that game developers can help make it happen. And if it works, these game developers and their followers will help save the planet. Game companies have more effect on culture than almost any other industry, and they can be very powerful in this fight, she argued.
It’s what one of those goals that Built to Last authors Jerry Porras and James Collins called a BHAG. Or a “big, hairy, audacious goal.” The authors of one of the most popular business books in history say that if you don’t have a BHAG, you can become listless. And what’s a bigger BHAG than saving the planet?
Robinson Swink criticized the modern environmental movement for manipulating our feelings with guilt and shame.
“They failed us, trying to make saving the world about individual actions, like not using plastic covering or driving our cars less,” she said. “I feel it profoundly offends our sense of justice that we are supposed to do these little things and the big polluters, who pollute the water and the air, are allowed to do what they do endlessly.”
So she checked out and made her games. She wasn’t a political activist until she read a story about the melting polar ice caps. She started reading more, and what she learned was overwhelming.
“It scared the shit out of me,” she said. “The good and the bad news is that individual actions about the environment don’t matter anymore. We need plummeting fossil fuel emissions, and we need a rapid switch to renewable energy.”
She powered through the depressing stuff, such as the notion that a 2-degree change in the planet’s climate could turn the world into hell. We’ve already raised the temperature 1 degree Celsius thanks to several hundred years of burning fossil fuels, which send chemicals into the atmosphere that trap heat, she said.
“I learned that nature if very resilient, but it is not infinite,” she said. “From where we stand, the sky may seem to go up forever. But it only goes up 10 miles.”
She didn’t want to believe it. But 97 percent of scientists agree that global warming is a problem. The theory is that if we stop global warming at 2 degrees Celsius, we can avoid dangerous climate change.
Robinson Swink realized that game developers can appreciate climate change better because they can understand complicated systems. And there’s none more complicated than the Earth. She didn’t think that carbon credits and a free-market system to incentivize people to stop polluting would work. Con artists and cheaters would game the system, and that’s what’s happening, as big polluters can buy credits and still keep polluting. She told a friend, and he said it’s like gold farming in World of Warcraft. The carbon credits market collapsed, and pollution went up.
“It was an easily exploited system,” Robinson Swink said. “It’s bad game design, and it doesn’t work.”
Solar energy would help, but to believe that a single technology alone could really make a difference on a grand scale is “magical thinking,” and that has to stop, she said. Wealthy tech entrepreneurs come up with some schemes like using solar radiation management, or reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth by spraying sulfates into the air. The problem is that a permanent haze would surround the planet. We would never see blue skies again, and it’s an example of geo-engineering. Robinson Swink doesn’t agree and says it would simply divert attention from the task at hand of reducing carbon emissions.
We’ll have to defeat the fossil fuel lobby and the climate change deniers, she noted. Those are powerful forces entrenched in our political systems, especially in the U.S. — Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) chairs the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee, and he’s a climate change denier.
Her solution is divestment, like the economic pressure that was put on South Africa in the 1980s to end apartheid, that nation’s former racial segregation policy. By pressuring companies to divest their shares in companies that did business in South Africa, the companies put a huge amount of stress on the government that supported apartheid, and it eventually had to change. She thinks that could work again, and she’s about to call upon people to pressure video game companies to divest their investments in fossil fuel companies. Last year, Stanford University divested its $18 billion endowment from coal companies.
It’s a small start. But she feels it will work, and she wants to make it happen. She recommends Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything.
“I’m scared,” she said. “I’m scared to start a family because I see what could happen if we don’t get this under control. But fear is normal and it keeps us alive. When you scare people, they need a place to run to. Or they freeze up, and they will reject the information you tell them. Misinformation will come in and tell them everything is going to be fine and to keep doing what they are doing.
“Everybody needs hope. I have found a lot of hope. Nobody is going to come save us except ourselves.”
She noted that the price of solar energy is plummeting fast and that home solar may soon spread exponentially. Since 2009, half of the coal boilers in the U.S. have been shut down, thanks in part to the efforts of the nonprofit Sierra Club. And there’s progress on small fronts, like Aspen, Colo., shifting to 100 percent renewable energy this year.
“There are more green jobs in the future than fossil fuel jobs,” she said.
So far, she’s had a tiny audience. Maybe a dozen people were in the room during her talk, which came at the end of the day in San Francisco on Thursday. She passed out some sheets for a petition that she is preparing. She wants people to sign an open letter to the leaders of the game industry.
“I expected it to be a little more crowded, but that’s OK,” Robinson Swink.
Her strategy is similar to what 350.org did in forcing museums to go fossil-fuel free. She’s working with them to create an open letter for the industry.
“I think we should divest the video game industry,” she said. “Imagine if we stick up for the millions of kids who play our games. I think it will be a sensation. We could be a beacon of hope for the future and for all the people who look up to us and love us. I can see it. I can see the headline.”
I could get behind this. You have to start somewhere. Yesterday, the Pope addressed Congress about saving the planet. During the talk, the New York Times alert beeped on my iPhone. The message said that China would adopt a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions. Whatever you think of cap-and-trade, it reflects some growing global alarm and a sense of responsibility.
She mentioned that she wasn’t there to ask the crowd to make “eco games.”
“I’m asking to open your hearts and minds about what I’m telling you,” she said.
But I asked her at the end if that might be a better way to educate people and get their attention. After all, SimCity can be pretty good about teaching kids about pollution. (Erin Hoffman, a game designer at the nonprofit Glasslab Games, pointed out that SimCityEDU, a classroom version of the title, was designed precisely for that educational purpose).
I think that games can be a powerful force. They’re memorable, and they have made a huge impression on what I think about the world. Robinson Swink should definitely carry out her plan to encourage divestment. But I think there’s more that game designers can do, creating games that can inspire people into much more meaningful acts that could save the planet. One such global survival game that just had a successful crowdfunding is Eco.