Making a Game Out of Climate Change Fights

Despite the scientific and popular consensus over the threat of climate change, deniers somehow always seem to have the upper hand in debates. That’s because they aren’t arguing sincerely held beliefs; they’re running plays. They’re making bad faith arguments designed to confuse or rile up climate realists who wind up talking in circles and endlessly arguing with someone with no real interest in the truth.

So if global warming deniers are acting like our fast approaching global environmental devastation is a game, people who accept the truth might as well make a game out of it.

That’s what John Cook of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication decided to do. The game, Cranky Uncle, demonstrates rhetorical techniques climate change deniers rely on to sow doubts and confuse debate opponents.

As a cartoon Cranky Uncle makes his case against climate science, players learn to recognize the flaws in his arguments. Answering multiple choice questions, players identify techniques like slothful induction (chalking things up to coincidence despite overwhelming evidence pointing to a real cause), red herrings (unrelated points meant to distract) and the use of fake experts (academics touted as experts without performing any relevant research). They’re all concepts we’ve probably seen or heard before but might’ve had a hard time identifying. That makes simple explanations and examples all the more impactful.

“Explaining the techniques is important,” Cook says. “And it’s a lot more powerful if you can have people actively engaging with the explanations.”

Cranky Uncle is a long time coming for Cook, who’s spent years studying disinformation techniques used by major fossil fuel companies, and how to best “inoculate” people against them. His most recent report, America Misled, explains that the fossil fuel industry knew about human-caused climate change as early as the 1950s. In the years since, they’ve poured millions of dollars into downplaying science and denying its existence, mirroring Big Tobacco’s decades-long denial of the danger of cigarettes. He’s created a website, videos and authored studies identifying and explaining denialist techniques. But a mobile game takes things a step further.

“A lot of what I’ve done is what I describe as passive inoculation—I’m explaining the techniques and the person is passively receiving the explanation,” Cook says. “A game is a more active form of inoculation (against disinformation).”

The game is in the final stages of development, but its recently-launched fundraiser hopes to make it a reality. Cranky Uncle wasn’t designed to compete with Fornite or other popular mobile games, but early demo trials showed promising possibilities for its use in classrooms. Students took quizzes on general disinformation techniques both before and after playing Cranky Uncle. Cook found the game helped students break down arguments and techniques into specific categories.

“Playing the game increased their ability to spot all these different fallacies,” he says.

Disconcerting signs of the reality of climate change seem to appear every day. But denial techniques will surely ramp up as climate demonstrations grow larger. The responsibility for tackling climate change has already fallen to young people, who have organized movements and enormous protests to express their frustration. Helping them point out climate denialist B.S. could be a useful next step.