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

Developer William Volk hopes his game will help raise awareness of how the problem is worse than we think

Once again, California is on fire. The current wildfires are expected to be the most devastating on record, which is what they said about the fires last year, and the fires the year before that.

You might be sensing a theme of "everything keeps getting worse," and that's because it does. Whether it's heatwaves, floods, or melting ice, each year the numbers climb a little higher and the situation grows more desperate.

In the discussion around climate change, one often overlooked factor are feedback loops. Wildfires are a prime example of this: as the wildfires get worse, they become harder to control, do more damage, and spew more carbon into the atmosphere. This feedback mechanism effectively undoes the efforts by the state of California to reduce carbon emission.

This is what game developer William Volk describes as "The Burn". Formerly of Activision, Volk has a long career working across different areas of the tech and gaming industry. These days he is a director for research at an R&D firm, but the impending climate disaster saw him commit his spare time to develop a free game that he hopes will be a catalyst for change in the industry.

Released earlier this month and inspired by The Oregon Trail, The Climate Trail is a bleak journey through an unrecognisable America, turned to ash by climate change. It's undoubtedly a depressing experience, but Volk says he doesn't want to shy away from the problem, and that the wider games industry is doing a disservice to its audience by avoiding the subject.

"The climate thing is really close to home, and I think people really don't want to hear about bad it could be"

"The games industry doesn't do it," he tells "I was at Activision for a long time and I was at one point the vice president of technology. The games industry is very conservative, because unlike the film industry they don't have the secondary markets to market their game. So if they are doing a AAA title with a budget that exceeds $100 million and it fails, it's a really big problem... So the games industry is notoriously into using the properties they have and continuing with them."

There is a reason why the Second World War or zombie apocalypses occupy so much real estate in the games industry, while the very real and present threat of climate change is disregarded, Volk says.

"[The war is a] really a great scenario because there are real villains and real good guys and it's very black and white. It's very easy to do a game based on that -- ditto with the zombies. The zombies aren't your friends... The climate thing is really close to home, and I think people really don't want to hear about bad it could be... I deliberately did everything I did to make it that way. I really wanted it to be a shocker."

The Climate Trail is a free mobile game, and Volk's main goal is to raise awareness rather than cash. There aren't any in-app purchases or ads, just the harrowing reality of a climate catastrophe. The game's opening moments prove to be a grim realisation that things are probably worse than you thought. Volks says he wants people to "feel like this could happen," but that it is preventable.

"I had an opinion that was much more optimistic when I first started research on the game," he says. "My opinion was that we will slowly decrease our [carbon emissions], and then we will figure out some sequestration strategies.

"What I realised is how far down we are. We are at the point where we have the Siberian methane leaks occurring; we are at the point where we are close to a blue ocean event in the Arctic where all of the ice is gone, and the albedo changes so the earth is absorbing much more heat because the ice has disappeared...

"So I started the game far more optimistic than I ended. I was far more optimistic about our progress. I'm not saying all is lost, but I am saying that -- if it's a good analogy -- we're going to have a Pearl Harbour where bad, bad, bad things happen."

"I had an opinion that was much more optimistic when I first started research on the game"

Getting the word out about the issue comes with its own challenges though. Volks attempts to market the game on Facebook hit a speedbump after his ads were banned for "being political." Despite the obvious threat presented by climate change, there is a reluctance to engage with the issue; Volk believes this is because it's "too close to home." Driven by our action (or inaction) as a society, the existential threat of climate change is cosmic -- like Cthulhu, it's so inconceivable and vast and seemingly insurmountable that it breaks us.

Combined with tribalism across political party lines and the rise of anti-intellectualism that comes with populism, "we've gone backwards" in addressing these issues Volk says.

"Basically what's happened is the nationalist movement, white nationalism, conservatism, alt-right or whatever you call them, they have done very well," says Volk. "You have Brexit in the UK, Trump in the US -- those people are tribal. Whatever the tribe believes, they believe. So climate denial has become their nom de plume, and they basically tout those theories in greater volume, because that is what the tribe is about.

"There is no such thing as climate change. Climate change is [made up], all that usual nonsense, because that's the socio-political group they belong to... The people who are on that side of the fence tend to be climate denying."

This backsliding is what prompted Volk into action. With climate change denial spreading across social media, Volk says he was "depressed with what was going on," and decided The Climate Trail was his way of trying to do something about the "slow rolling, accelerating disaster."

"By the time people realise it's really bad, will it be really late? That's the scary part. We will have our disasters. The one I think is most gruesome to me is the 'wet bulb temperature' exceeding 35 degrees [celsius]. That is a real possibility. We've come close in a couple of places in the world. When that happens, it's awful. It puts everything else to shame."

Despite Volk's efforts, the question still lingers over whether the games industry can rise to meet the challenge of climate change.

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Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.
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