The urgency of the climate crisis is clear. Action is imperative. But how should we act, when the long-term impacts of our actions are difficult to grasp and the future is so uncertain?

Imagine you are the mayor of a coastal city. How high would you build a sea wall, for example, to offer protection from future flooding? The decision involves balancing the risks of breaches against the cost of construction, without knowing how fast seas might rise or what the wider consequences of building it might be.

It is hard to anticipate the complexity of the decisions that we will all face as the world warms. But, as a game designer and education researcher, I know that games — and, in particular, role-playing games — can be an invaluable tool for helping us think through scenarios. By getting players to deal with situations in a simulated environment, games can help us to explore options in a risk-free way.

For example, I’ve used the board game Terraforming Mars to introduce young adults to the ethics of space colonization. Players control corporations competing to transform Mars into a habitable planet by extracting resources, building cities and creating green spaces. Nearly every session evolves into a heated debate about diverting resources to make a new ‘Earth’ instead of fixing the one we have.

I’ve also been involved in creating games that promote teamwork. For example, I co-designed the deck-building card game Carbon City Zero with Paul Wake, a games researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, and the London-based climate charity Possible. Initially, players competed individually to build the first zero-carbon city. But after they fed back that the competitive aspect sent the wrong message, we made Carbon City Zero: World Edition, in which players must cooperate to fight the climate crisis.

The concept of the ‘magic circle’ is central to game design. This refers to the space in which the rules of a game apply. In the board game Daybreak, for instance, players act as world leaders working together to mitigate climate change by implementing clean energy and increasing resilience. The game’s rules enforce targets and penalties, for example through consequences of rising global temperatures and community crises if emissions are not reduced.

Board games’ rigid mechanics and limited set of scenarios can restrict creative problem-solving, however. Tabletop role-playing games offer a more personalized and narrative-driven experience. Players often craft their characters’ storylines themselves, guided by frameworks set by game designers. For example, in the game Dungeons & Dragons, players create their characters’ back stories, which evolve through scenarios set up by a Dungeon Master.

Studies highlight the benefits of taking part in role-playing games1. Regular players exhibit higher levels of empathy than non-players do, and tend to engage more often in pro-social behaviours2. Those showing greater empathy also tend to pay greater attention to pro-environmental decisions, such as using sustainable products3. A deficit in empathy is often found among climate-change deniers4. Although as yet there is no direct evidence linking playing such games to specific environmental actions, their potential to enhance empathy suggests that they could effectively encourage players to take climate action.

It was this potential that led me to co-create the game Rooted in Crisis, alongside a global team of researchers, educators and game designers over the past three years. This collaborative tabletop role-playing game blends climate knowledge — fact-checked by the researchers — with narrative-driven gameplay. For instance, players might find themselves in a magical city, negotiating disaster relief after a catastrophic flood, or exploring outer space in a darkly comedic scenario that highlights recklessness amid an impending catastrophe.

There are barriers to the widespread adoption of games, however. They are often perceived as frivolous or juvenile, even if they are backed by scientists. Critics worry that games might also oversimplify complex scientific data and policy discussions. To counter this, we’ve included scenarios that mirror real-world climate challenges, such as managing a city’s response to rising sea levels, countering lobbyists, negotiating with rival factions to secure water in a drought-stricken world or deciding how to save a flood-threatened town and its heritage.

My faith in the power of games to address complex societal issues such as climate change is rooted in my own experiences as a player. Games have given me the opportunity to inhabit vastly different personas, from a barbarian orc in a fantasy land to a citizen of a flooded continent. Each session is an escape into another world, and, with it, an exercise in empathy and problem-solving.

Dungeons & Dragons this is not. The horrors we are facing because of the climate crisis are much more frightening than any imaginary monster would be. This is not just a game; it is an invitation to step up and become the protagonists in the most crucial story of our time.