Suppose the political debate about climate change disappeared. Suppose the entrenched business interests succumbed.
Now suppose that governments vowed to beat climate change in the next 100 years and gave a global organization complete power to do it.
Sound like fantasy? It is. In February, it can be yours.
A British game designer is launching "Fate of the World," a climate change video game giving the gamer total control of the world's energy economy -- and a bird's-eye view of what happens if he or she flips the wrong switches.
In a way, a computer game is the perfect medium for the topic. Part of the reason U.S. action is so lukewarm, environmentalists have complained, is that climate's too big to grasp. Carbon dioxide is invisible, and its consequences are too far away. The likely consequences -- future floods, drought, famine -- lack a personal touch.
Now give someone a view of a gently rotating planet and a grab bag of actions, and the problem's been boiled down to its essentials. Problem, goal, choices. Ready, set, go.
"Fate of the World" divides the planet into 12 regions, each with its own energy profile, economy and popular mindset. You are the head of the Global Environmental Organization, or GEO; these regions pay you tribute, and they expect you to act.
What can you do? All the things today's leaders find difficult: You can set cap-and-trade policies for a region or boost nuclear power or renewable energy. You can promote biofuels or energy efficiency. You can goose research and development budgets to discover new technologies that would ease the pain of transition.
Worried about the planet? You can run it
There's an academic satisfaction to setting these policies in motion with a click. In just 15 years -- 15 minutes on my clock -- I converted China's and America's auto fleets to electric cars, slicing the world's oil use. With aggressive moves on carbon capture and sequestration technology, and plans to launch global cap and trade in 2040, I figured I had a climate victory in my sights.
The planet disagreed. It lashed humanity with floods, droughts and epidemics, early symptoms of an already-warming planet. Whole regions descended into conflict. The turmoil gave dictators and militias a stronger voice in world politics.
The natural environment suffered, too. In one of the more startling moments, I learned my policies had driven Australia's koalas to extinction -- from chlamydia.
When in doubt, people throw the bums out. In "Fate of the World," if a region gets fed up, it can withdraw from the world's climate effort, perhaps a resigned nod to the discord of last year's U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. By the time I limped to 2100, 20 years short of the finish, nearly every poor region had left the GEO. A billion people were dying each decade.
All I had to show for it were a few well-off regions that had graduated to a low-carbon economy -- and a world 3 degrees Celsius hotter than when I started, which meant I had lost the game.
There's comfort in blowing off this result. This is a computer game, the refuge of adolescents and man-boys. Programmers designed it to include the grown-up work of saving the world from climate change as well as another game setting -- "Dr. Apocalypse" -- where the only goal is to choke the climate as quickly as possible and watch the world smolder.
And so one dismisses "Fate of the World" for its unrealism. The very idea of a GEO, with a puppeteer's control of national economies and funded by member states, is patently unrealistic. A billion people couldn't die in a decade ... could they?
Frighteningly, this is where the game has its surest footing. Red Redemption, which programmed the game, based its models on official data from the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations, and even the CIA. Klaude Thomas, the company's CEO, said it had a full-time team of researchers. They consulted professors and other peer reviewers.
Thomas' own background is in developing video games about war and racing -- classic arcade fare. He said those types of games set out to maximize enjoyment, not imitate the world. In a game about the Battle of Midway, for example, it's not compulsory to let players see the Japanese side of things.
And you can see your mistakes
In "Fate of the World," Thomas took a different approach: genuinely trying to replicate how the world works. "We're trying to give the player a really deep and balanced appreciation," he said. "Mess around with this, play with it, and then draw your own conclusions."
Deep and balanced? What about Dr. Apocalypse?
Consider the racing game, Thomas said, where causing massive crashes isn't the goal, but it makes an awfully fun diversion. The same goes for climate: "One of the most fun things you can do with that ... is to let the player put their foot on the accelerator, and see how bad they can make things."
Some environmental groups have bristled at that option, but Thomas defends it. "Being allowed to see the worst case helps one understand why they may want to avoid that case," he said. If one were to disallow it, "are you saying it's nothing to worry about? 'Don't worry, we'll never get to that case'?"
"Fate of the World" marks an important effort to take the complexity of climate change and render it in a medium that people understand. Henry Jenkins, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, said it fits into a larger world of "serious games" that now have a "solid track record" of raising awareness around important issues.
Video games "are very strong at exploring choices and consequences, which makes them an effective tool for exploring contemporary policy debates," he said. "And they are especially strong at motivating people to pass their messages along to their friends and family."
The question is whether this complexity can ever become sufficiently fun to get average people interested. Why would a gamer labor to save the koala when he could mow down invading armies or deliver hurricane kicks to attacking ninjas?
These types of games will always deliver an instant buzz, and that's a tough comparison to the stressful life of a world environment minister coping with mass deaths and the acid bite of public opinion.
"Fate of the World" can be a fun game if you've ever thought you had a great idea and just wanted to be in charge to see if it would work. But it can also be a harrowing experience if it makes you question whether humanity, even if it got all its ducks in a row, has the resources to face the challenge. Facing that question, I'm just glad I don't have to answer it.
Click here to watch a trailer for "Fate of the World" on YouTube.