The Climate Trail

“The Burn,” years of uncontrollable and widespread wildfires fueled by prolonged drought and unrelenting heat across the globe, has devastated much of the United States.

You’re trapped in a survivor camp in the ruins of Atlanta along with thousands of other climate change refugees, and the only path to relative safety is due north into Canada.

You set off with a small band of people, among them Katherine, a former climate scientist; Albert, a hardened Army veteran of the Resource Wars; and Bonnie, whose parents died from the plague when permafrost melted, releasing the disease back into the environment. You provision your group with water, food, and a portable and valued currency, sorghum seeds, and begin an uncertain journey.

So begins “The Climate Trail“, a free (and ad-free) video game released this past fall that leaps from the pages of today’s climate change news and into a postapocalyptic future said to lie just a few decades ahead of us. It can be played on iOS, Android, macOS, and Windows.

“The Climate Trail” was created by William Volk, a video game developer from the San Diego area who has worked in the industry for four decades – notably as the vice president of technology for Activision in the late 1980s and early 90s. He says he modeled “The Climate Trail” after “The Oregon Trail,” a popular educational video game that dates back to the 1980s.

A game based on proposed – likely? – worst case scenarios

The game is played against a backdrop of some of the worst-case scenarios feared from unchecked greenhouse gas emissions, with extreme heat and drought, wildfires, shortages of food and water, and extreme weather having forced people to seek refuge in the north. As players travel from city to city on their way to the Canadian border, they must choose whether to rest, rummage for more supplies, or trudge on – sometimes in the face of violent storms and punishing heat waves. Whether they make it depends on how well they ration supplies, cooperate with one another, how fast they travel, and other factors.

As he developed the game, Volk says he thought of the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road, in which an unnamed catastrophe – maybe nuclear war, maybe the extreme consequences of climate change – have led to environmental ruin. He also was inspired by a fictional short story titled “A Full Life,” in which a teenager named Rue has her world unravel when she and her parents become climate change refugees. The story appeared in MIT Technology Review in a special issue on climate change in April 2019.

Look at current headlines … ‘far worse than media paint it’

The game paints a bleak future, and Volk says he was deliberate about creating the world that players confront in the game. Look around in today’s news, he argues, and the path from today to that future is not so far-fetched. Methane gas is emerging from melting permafrost and the sea floor in the Arctic, alarming some scientists, who for years have warned of accelerated global warming from a sudden release of the powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Extreme heat and humidity in India and other places in coming decades could kill huge numbers of people. The particular epidemic that appears in the game was inspired by news of an anthrax outbreak in Siberia, which scientists suspect arose from a decades-old deer carcass that emerged from melting permafrost.

This past fall, there has been a crescendo of warnings from scientists around the globe on where our warming world is headed: in the journal Nature, at the World Meteorological Organization, and elsewhere.

Game developer Volk: We are ’emotional creatures’ making decisions based on our ’emotional guts’

“The situation is really far worse than the media paint it,” Volk says. “The funny thing is, just as I was [developing] the game a lot of people sort of started jumping up and saying the same things,” Volk said. “You had the recent thing about the 11,000 scientists signing the statement about how serious this existential crisis is.”

Volk says he wants schools to use “The Climate Trail” as a tool to teach kids about climate change, and he says he worked with environmental writer and activist and co-founder Bill McKibben to incorporate into the game basic science about climate change. He says he plans to add more components, including additional graphics that cover the science more comprehensively. He also hopes to further develop the characters in the game so players feel more emotionally invested in their fate. Volk wrote all the programming for the current version of the game, and he recruited a well-known musician in the industry, George Sanger, to compose music for it. In all, he says he’s spent a few thousand dollars of his own money to develop the game, which has gotten some press, including on The Weather Channel.

A call to action and ‘a sense of urgency on order of World War II’

The game is ultimately designed as a warning to compel people to act so we can avoid the future it depicts, Volk says. In that sense, it’s evocative of one of his favorite films, 1959’s “On The Beach,” which helped change how people thought about the arms race with the Soviet Union.

“I want to invoke the same feelings about our ever more likely climate apocalypse as ‘On The Beach’ did for nuclear war,” Volk wrote in a blog post at the website Gamasutra.

Social scientists have cautioned that motivating people to act won’t happen simply by giving them the facts of climate change – although the game was designed in part to help educate people, Volk says. It’s the game itself – the stark landscapes it creates, the dangerous journey north, and the relationships among the characters – that he hopes makes players emotionally connected to what many now describe simply as the current “climate crisis.”

“I want people to have a sense of urgency about the climate … so when they rank the things that are important in the world, they figure that climate change is a serious crisis on the order of World War II,” he says.

“What I believe is this: You can throw facts at people all day long and it won’t make a difference. People don’t make decisions based on facts. They really don’t. We are emotional creatures, and we tend to make big decisions based on emotional guts. You know the United States was completely isolationist before Pearl Harbor. … it took the image of thousands of people dying in our sinking ships to get people to feel like they had to go to war. And everyone, by God, showed up at recruitment the next day.”

Also see: ‘Cranky Uncle’ smart phone game will show you how to disarm climate deniers

More about “The Climate Trail”

The Climate Trail: A bleak look at what awaits us if we fail to address climate change,”

A new video game tests whether you can survive the climate apocalypse,”

This game is ‘Oregon Trail’ meets climate catastrophe,”

The Climate Trail: How to survive the climate apocalypse,” Journal of Geek Studies

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...