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Web life: Clim’City

01 Oct 2009

So what is the site about?

Like the popular SimCity computer-game series that inspired its name, Clim’City puts players in charge of a virtual city and allows them to choose how it develops. To win, players must reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 75%, slash energy consumption by 40%, boost the share of renewable energy by 60%, and help citizens and businesses adapt to changing climate conditions – all within 50 years. The game offers a number of different ways to do this (developing wind power, insulating buildings, improving public transport, etc), but it is up to the individual player to decide which changes to implement, and in what order.

Who is behind the site?

It was launched in early 2009 by the Cap Sciences museum in Bordeaux, France. The full site is still only available in French, but the game itself has been translated (imperfectly but adequately) into English.

What is it like to play?

The main screen of Clim’City shows a model city with mountainous outskirts, a populous coastline and various structures in between. Clicking on these structures brings up menus of possible actions, along with information about their consequences. For example, at the city’s power station, you can choose to burn cleaner fuel oil or natural gas instead of coal, or to research (and then implement) carbon capture and storage. Some actions are contingent on others: you can also make the power station run on wood, but only if you have already developed the city’s biomass production facility. Each action consumes political, enterprise or citizen “points”, which represent the cost of getting different parts of the city to adopt your plans. When you run out of points, time moves forward by a year. A series of graphs lets you see your city’s chances of meeting its goals.

This is harder than it looks. Any tips?

The game provides numerical information about how long each action will take to implement, and how much energy consumption and/or emissions will fall as a result. Paying attention to these quantities – rather than simply picking actions that sound nice – will improve your final score. In addition, graphs showing how much energy/ pollution each sector of the economy is using/ producing can help players identify which areas require more action. It is also worth noting that a few actions, like reinforcing sea defences, do not reduce emissions or energy use. However, they can prevent players from losing valuable points if, say, a massive storm strikes the city later in the game.

Who is it aimed at?

With its cartoon interface and easily mastered gameplay, Clim’City looks like a kids’ game. Indeed, the French-language site contains a wealth of educational graphs, maps and interviews that are not yet available in translation; science teachers on good terms with their school’s French department might find some opportunities here for jointly taught lessons. But be warned: this game is far easier to play than it is to win, and adults as well as children will struggle to meet the demanding (some might say impossible) targets for victory.

How realistic is it?

Very – almost to the point of being discouraging. Consider the following. If you do nothing, both emissions and energy use will tick inexorably upwards, in line with current trends. Some of the most effective actions – like closing the city tip or producing hydrogen at the solar power station – are really expensive, and require action on multiple fronts. It is far easier to run out of “enterprise points” than any other type, so even when you have plenty of political will and an enthusiastic citizenry, there is still only so much change that industries can absorb each year. In fact, the game’s only unrealistic aspect may be the relative ease of meeting its target for “adaptation”; if the current furore over energy-saving light bulbs is any indication, people are far less willing to change their habits than this game assumes. Still, as a simple (and addictive) demonstration of the difficult energy choices facing the world, Clim’City is hard to beat – in more ways than one.

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