In the upcoming decades, the U.S. needs to dramatically grow the capacity of our electric grid while simultaneously transitioning it to carbon-free energy such as solar and wind. I created an interactive board game where you as the player are in charge of the grid: installing electricity to meet demand while keeping carbon emissions and energy prices down.
The electric grid is an under-recognized component of both our present world and our path to decarbonization. The grid is the foundation on which modern society is built; an ongoing blackout would lead to the deaths of the majority of the U.S. population within weeks if not days. Electrical distribution underlays the foundation of physical infrastructure like water treatment, fossil fuel distribution, internet, healthcare, banking, security, and more. Even short-term grid instability causes deaths of the most vulnerable populations, such as in hospitals and nursing homes; stability is critical. As we seek to convert fossil fuel-based infrastructure to carbon-free, making it run on electricity is the first step, but the switch to carbon-free electricity generation is the crucial second step. As we transition HVAC with heatpumps, kitchens with induction stovetops, transportation with electric cars, trucks, and short-range planes, and more to electricity, demand will skyrocket. In New York City, demand may increase nearly 50% by 2050, without the population boom immigration and new housing could bring. Meanwhile, the price of electricity, increasingly important as it replaces oil in sectors such as transportation, forms an undercurrent of the economy. We need to simultaneously increase generation, decarbonize existing energy sources, while keeping the grid stable, and preventing energy prices from soaring. If we solve this issue, we have abundant, cheap, carbon-free electricity for everyone. We can increase human capability, health, and efficiency while devoting more power to energy-intensive climate solutions like carbon removal and desalination, all without compromising quality of life. If we fail, decarbonization fails, and the stakes are dire.
Every solution to this problem has trade-offs; none are value-neutral. Investing in sprawling solar and wind farms will reshape the built landscape across the country, devoting orders of magnitude more land area to the energy sector than previously. Many impacts would be more unexpected: it would reshape norms for farmers, with agrivoltaics and require a massive building of lithium-ion batteries, mining rare minerals in a supply shortage (prices rose this year for the first time ever), to name two. Leaving “transition fuels” like natural gas in the grid longer, which could be cheaper upfront, increases the need for carbon removal in the future. Spending money on R&D for more experimental energy generation could pay dividends or prove better spent on installation of current technologies.
Choices abound, yet the majority of Americans, and even my classmates, have never considered where their electricity comes from, much less how we should reshape that market. My own hope over upcoming decades is the average citizen becomes more informed about energy, less in the individual responsibility form of scolding extraneous usage and more in the broad decisions we make societally about how we generate, store, distribute, and use our energy. For this project, I wanted the audience to feel those paths, exploring for themselves the benefits and consequences of their choices.
I created Decarbonize: The Game, an original, interactive board game composed of web software and physical game pieces, to be played on a flat surface. The game pieces represent four energy sources, two carbon-free and two fossil fuels, with my own iconography. The icons are laser-engraved into 2”-wide rounded square and rectangular sheets of cardboard, with barcodes attached to the back of each piece. The software, developed with Next.js 13 and deployed on Vercel, runs on a mounted iPad. The iPad front camera scans the barcodes of game pieces as the player holds them up, calculating carbon emissions from the grid and a consumer-facing price of electricity, with charts of both statistics spanning the 40 years over which the game takes place. The game pieces are tallied onto a virtual representation of the board, which shows extra capacity as it’s needed, playing sounds to point the player’s attention as in-game text notifications describe what’s happening (e.g. “more energy needed”). Time ticks by regardless of player activity, one game year every 1.25 seconds.
I embedded a number of complex/technical energy concepts into the design of the game itself. For example, the renewable energy game pieces take up twice the board space as the nonrenewable sources, while each piece provides the same energy capacity, representing the concept of energy density without any jargon. Energy capacity itself is not measured in megawatts, but represented by the number of pieces on the board. The game starts with more supply than demand, since the U.S. over-generates electricity, but demand increases steadily. The relative carbon emissions for the same electrical output of coal and gas are to scale. A simple algorithm to calculate energy prices takes into account energy capacity (supply), ever-increasing demand, and the market feedback loops (learning curves in production) of various energy sources. While players won’t immediately take away understandings of these concepts, the hope is they make the game more representative, and players detect underlying relationships through more extended play. Time ticks by outside the game regardless of human hopes or intentions for it. And while if the player fails to meet growing demand promptly, the game ends early, surviving the time isn’t the hard part. Players choose their own carbon trajectory, exploring the benefits and consequences of different paths, potentially playing several times simulating those strategies: after all, we societally choose how to shape our energy infrastructure.
The most obvious piece that failed during the demo was my camera-based checkout mechanism. This surprised me as the scanning proved reliable during testing, but the game pieces I used for demo were a new batch, fabricated that afternoon since the paper backings needed laser-cutting and gluing. The room lighting, size of bar codes, and focus distance of the iPad camera compared to the MacBook I tested on could all have been factors in the failure during the demo.
The part of the project I most disappointed myself with was the pricing algorithm, which remained basic. I spent the week building the game around the concept of the “self check-out” interaction of buying energy sources, giving them dynamic purchase prices against a total budget. The pivot to calculating a dynamic electricity price happened the day before demo, since I didn’t find the prices sufficiently compelling or realistic, while commanding intense concentration to track across the energy sources. I researched how electricity grid pricing works—the short answer is it’s complicated, tied to the generation costs, and correlated to the price of the prevalent fuel, oftentimes natural gas—but translating that into a performant TypeScript algorithm is well outside my area of expertise, leading to corners cut in the calculations. This is first on my list for improvement.
The most pressing need is to sum up the context of the game without a 10-minute presentation to a crowd familiar with climate. Presenting in public, groups will congregate, and not everyone will hear my spiel before being interested in playing. The units and feedback loops need to be grasped intuitively. Approaching the project cold, the complexity is overwhelming, and the feedback classmates gave about units not being clear enough or the need for a tutorial communicated the audience felt it complex. While I made design decisions throughout to simplify the far-more-complex grid/economy, more simplification would help. For example, previously each piece provided a different amount of energy & there were explicit energy capacity goals you needed to hit. Equalizing the pieces’ energy output clarified the energy density concept and removed the four capacity numbers to keep track of. Replacing the energy capacity progress meter with animated shading on the board improved the focus of the interface. Nonetheless, one too many concepts remain; the trick is identifying which one without compromising the structure.
Physical game pieces are an aspect of the project I love. They make it more tangible, have clearer interaction affordances, and the physical constraints on the size of the board and the number of pieces set scale expectations and limits on the experience. I’m glad I extended the project outside the web browser with the pieces.
One component I’m excited about improving is bringing the game pieces from flat cardboard into 3D, material-realistic constructions. I’ve acquired coal mined not far from my hometown in Pennsylvania to stand for the coal pieces, prototyped laser-cut solar panels, and begun thinking of construction techniques for spinnable-blade 3D wind turbines. I love the idea that the player assembles a model of the built environment of the future, seeing the altered landscapes throughout the course of the game. There’s a metaphorical resonance of the coal making the player’s fingers dirty as they install it, reminding us of the physical and air pollution coal profusely produces; I acquired hand wipes for players to clean up with. (Like carbon capture, but with better results.)
While I see a heap of shortcomings in this project, I’m proud of the result for one week of work. I only built my first game this fall, have no training in game design, I’ve never used these interaction mechanisms, I learned to laser cut two weeks prior, had little knowledge of electric grids and pricing, challenged myself to learn new software technologies at the same time, and was working on other projects while recovering from COVID while building this. The game tackles a complex environmental issue, comments on it through the structure, but leaves the audience to try out their own preconceptions and explore the non-value-neutral future their choices lead them toward. Interactive art enabling an audience to explore a technical concept without feeling daunted is a powerful, underutilized mode of education and discovery. Optimistic and pessimistic art both have their places, but art doubling as such a tool remains rare.