Matteo Menapace
over 1 year ago

Project Update: 📗 Design Diary 1 – Why We Made Daybreak

Hello Daybreak friends,

Matteo here :) 

Over the next few weeks, we'll share with you the story of how we designed Daybreak. What we learned, what we experimented with, what we kept, what we parked. Are you sitting comfortably? Let's begin.

When a real pandemic hits start a new project!

Matt and I started designing this game in Spring 2020, after the word “pandemic” had suddenly taken on a whole new meaning.

Around mid-March I wrote a blog post about the COVID-19 pandemic and what we can learn from one of my favourite games. Then I discovered Matt had written an op-ed in the New York Times about Pandemic too. I didn’t know him at the time, but that op-ed gave me the impression we were on the same wavelength, and the courage to reach out to him on Twitter.

I was quite surprised when Matt messaged back:

Thanks for your really thoughtful piece […] I spent some time looking over your work and writing. I’ve started doing some research for a cooperative game on the climate crisis that I might pursue. If you’re interested, I’d love to have a conversation with you about that.

Why the climate crisis?

The 2019 youth strikes brought the climate crisis in the public spotlight, and left many of us with an urgent question: what can I do about climate change?

On our first call, Matt told me about how he had been toying with the idea of designing a climate game, but he kept oscillating between fear and hope, overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the crisis. At the same time he knew he couldn’t ignore it. Those feelings really resonated with me. I also had been dipping in and out of climate books for years, but had not yet found an outlet for my questions. 

The problem with the question “what can I do about climate change” is how it implies climate action is like a single-player game, with you alone fighting against this huge invisible enemy. As Mary Annaïse Heglar wrote in April 2020, while “it's true that you can't solve the climate crisis alone, it's even more true that we can't solve it without you. It's a team sport. [So] do what you're good at. And do your best.

So we could team up, do what we’re good at, and make this climate game together.

Design goals

We started our collaboration by agreeing the game we wanted to design would be:

  1. about systemic solutions
  2. realistic – but not “educational”
  3. cooperative with individual autonomy
  4. empowering

Let’s dive into each goal.

1. A game to explore systemic, high-impact solutions to the climate crisis

We both find it frustrating when climate action is promoted as a matter of lifestyle choices: eat less meat, #flyless, maybe don’t have kids? We didn’t want to design a game that tells players that reducing your personal carbon footprint is enough to match the severity and urgency of the climate crisis.

The very idea of a “personal carbon footprint” was first popularised by oil company BP as part of their “beyond petroleum” media campaign, to shift responsibility for global warming away from the fossil fuel industry and onto consumers like you and me. So, framing climate action as an individual carbon diet would be playing the enemy’s game.

Instead, we agreed our game should frame the climate crisis as a global problem, and encourage players to explore collective action and systemic solutions

2. A realistic but not “educational” experience

So what exactly is the global problem that players would try to solve?

Climate change is caused by the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. Gases like carbon dioxide (CO₂) and methane, mostly emitted by burning fossil fuels, which turn the atmosphere into a greenhouse. This is driving up global temperatures and making the weather worldwide more extreme and unpredictable. The effects of greenhouse gas emissions impact everyone on the planet, especially communities in the Global South who are least responsible for them.

The direct causes of global warming are therefore emissions. And the root cause is a global economy built on extraction and exploitation, which produces all those emissions, and disrupts the fragile planetary balance on which life on Earth depends.

We decided the game would be based on real-world data, and while we knew that a board game cannot afford the complexities of an accurate scientific model, we wanted players to viscerally experience the emissions piling up on the board and their knock-on effects.

We also agreed we didn’t want the experience to feel preachy. Games with an educational focus aim to teach players the “right” thing to do. Of course all games teach players something, their rules and reward systems at the very least. But there’s a difference between teaching and preaching. We wanted to design a game where players make meaningful choices, instead of one that preaches the “right” ones. 

A game that people actually want to play and enjoy, and not chocolate-dipped broccoli, as Matt likes to say.

3. Players act in total cooperation while maintaining individual autonomy

We know there are powerful economic (and therefore political) interests against systemic change, so one could make a game in which a player represents the fossil fuel industry, for instance.

Matt and I started from another perspective. What if we (as in “collective we”) had pressured our leaders to take the climate crisis seriously? What if they worked together (as our current ones pretend to be doing) to solve it? Climate change has been so marginal to the political debate for so long, that we’ve not allowed ourselves to even imagine what can possibly happen, when a coalition of interests that actually wants to tackle the crisis has taken power. Maybe the game could help players explore the challenges ahead.

That means total cooperation between all players. No traitors, no overlord, no single winner. It’s a big leap from the current state of climate (in)action, but not an unreasonable one: what seems politically unthinkable today might become common sense in a few years, and we aim for this game to play a role in accelerating this shift.

Total cooperation sounds great, but even in coop games it can enable problematic behaviours, such as one “alpha” player taking control of the game and directing everyone else. One could argue that it’s a personality issue (“just tell them to stop playing the dictator”) but we shouldn’t wave our designer hands, because the rules we design can make this behaviour more or less likely to emerge. 

Before this could become an issue, Matt and I decided to experiment with unique player abilities, and give each player ownership of one slice of the bigger problem, so that they shouldn’t be tempted (or have time) to control others.

4. Players feel empowered

Empowered as you play Daybreak because your individual contributions are unique, powerful, and specialised.

And empowered after you play it – whether your team is successful or not – because you’ve had a chance to explore climate science and real world solutions. You’ve learned that reversing global warming is an incredibly hard challenge, but that it’s possible, and you’re inspired to choose leaders who will take decisive action on it.

These four design goals became both our compass, setting our direction, and a high-level checklist to return to each time we found ourselves in the weeds!

That's all for today 

Next week we will dive into how we have modelled the problem: global warming and its impacts, with a focus on the evolution of the game board, the crisis cards and the planetary tipping points.

Thank you so much for supporting this project. We've been blown away by the response so far and we appreciate each and every one of you!





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