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Not Playing Around: Why Board Games Focus On Climate Change

By Paul Booth, Professor, DePaul University By rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and creating the new position of Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, President Joe Biden has committed to making climate change a major focus of his administration. At the same time, millions of Americans are looking for ways to help mitigate the climate crisis. One solution could be on the […]

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By Paul Booth, Professor, DePaul University

By rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and creating the new position of Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, President Joe Biden has committed to making climate change a major focus of his administration.

At the same time, millions of Americans are looking for ways to help mitigate the climate crisis. One solution could be on the table right now: board games. But like the larger proposed solutions, there are benefits and drawbacks to the trend.

As a professor of communication, I’ve published 14 books about the impact of popular culture such as games on the way people experience the world around them. For my most recent book, Board Games as Media, I examined the cultural impact of this thriving board game resurgence. One of the most surprising things I learned was the way board games have intersected with studies of climate change.

Although a board game renaissance has been growing for years, board games have truly thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people are locked down in their homes and trying to find new (and classic) ways of interacting with their friends and families. Board game sales increased 228% in March last year as many people turned to games for comfort.

First, the bad news: the rising popularity of board games may be having a negative effect on the environment. New hobby board games can be massive, with pounds of plastic, cardboard, metal, and wood components that are rarely recyclable.

For example, the best-selling game “Gloomhaven,”the number one game on website boardgamegeek, weighs over 22 pounds and comes with more 30 game boards, 155+ cardboard tiles, 6 wood pieces, 18 plastic miniatures, over 1000 cards and scores of plastic standees and other bits. It’s sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Smaller games can have an even more negative effect. The “Exit”series of escape room games have 90 cards (plastic coated), plus paper and cardboard components, and the packaging. Almost none of it is recyclable, and players destroy it as they play it.

But by far the most environmentally unfriendly element of board games is the manufacturing and shipping. Board games are often made in China due to cheaper costs, but China has a terrible environmental record. These games are then shipped around the world. All that shipping, not to mention the plastic packaging and materials used, is not environmentally friendly.

To be sure, the level of pollution created by board games is miniscule compared to other industries. And for most people, playing a board game actually saves energy (think of all the electronics you’re not using when you’re sitting around a board).

But as the popularity of board games grows, it is important to keep environmental factors in mind. And even the smallest ways to reduce our carbon footprint can help.

So what’s the good news? Most board games are reusable, so the ecological impact is lessened over time. Gloomhaven can be played for over 100 hours – so one copy can last for years. And many games can be donated or traded, reducing the number that need to be manufactured.

But perhaps most importantly, board games themselves can help players learn more about environmentalism. All board games communicate about the culture that makes them. In a 2020 gaming journal article, Norwegian researchers found that board games are “highly innovative communication tools” for opening up conversations about climate change.

Today, some games have made climate change a theme. In North Star Games’ “Evolution: Climate”, players are animals trying to survive a changing ecosystem. In the game “Carbon City Zero”, players are city planners trying to reduce the carbon footprint of their city.

Board game companies are also making climate change an important part of their mission. Hasbro, the largest manufacturer of board games, has made environmental sustainability a key part of their philosophy. Blue Orange Games has also made environmentalism a focus of their corporate philosophy, emphasizing green initiatives like using (and promoting) recycled products, planting trees, and charitable donations.

This is a step in the right direction, but there are other solutions that can make a difference too. More games need to be made of recyclable materials, and manufacturers need to introduce “lite” versions of games where players can supply their own pieces if they choose. More board game companies can use American manufacturers committed to sustainable production. And manufacturers need to reduce the amount of games’ packaging.

Finding solutions to make board games sustainable and at the same time reduce impacts on climate change is a win-win.

Paul Booth is Professor of Communication at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Fandom Studies and his newest book is Board Games as Media.

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