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'Candyland meets Terraforming Mars;' Students develop climate-based board game

Emma Brown moves a game piece while playing Climatopia during BeAM's MakerFest at The Great Hall on Dec. 4, 2023.

Instead of readings and essays, students taking American Studies 398: Service Learning in America spend their time developing “Climatopia,” a board game that educates players about climate-enhanced natural disasters.

The service learning class was started by UNC professor Rachel Willis over four years ago. In the six terms the class has been offered, Climatopia has won “Be a Maker” awards for its interdisciplinary nature and creative implementation.

Rachel Kneubuehl, a member of the Climatopia communications liaisons committee said the purpose of the class and game is to educate people of all ages on how to be more resilient towards climate change. 

“It's really just to help people feel more prepared in the future if they do find themselves in a natural disaster,” Kneubuehl said.

Emma Brown, another member of the committee described the game as “Candyland meets Terraforming Mars.” She said Climatopia seeks to bring light to the issue of climate change and its impact on all communities. Due to its goal of appealing to players of all ages, the rules of Climatopia are fairly simple.

Climatopia game at BeAM's MakerFest at The Great Hall on Dec. 4, 2023.

“There's hurricanes, wildfires, some things like that. And as you hit those, you will either have to move back a few spaces, or you will have superpowers that allow you to survive the game,” Brown said.

Though Brown joined the project this semester, she said she has found Climatopia to be extremely engaging.

“It's very different, it's very unique and it's unlike anything else I've taken at Carolina,” she said.

Climatopia’s Chief Operating Officer Sydney Van Buren expressed how the course’s unconventional structure has allowed her to learn not just about climate change, but project development in general.

"We actually get to see the fruits of our labor and produce something that is not just a letter grade. For me, that’s very fulfilling and I feel like it has prepared me for when I leave university and enter into the professional workspace," Van Buren said.

In an effort to promote sustainability, the game’s board is made of recycled canvas, and the bag the game pieces are carried in can be used as an emergency natural disaster supply kit. If players can’t buy the game, there are instructions on the Climatopia website detailing how to make a homemade version.

Kneubuehl said while it has evolved over the past four years, one of the main changes has been targeting Climatopia towards a younger audience. To test its appeal, the class tested the game with elementary students during the last semester.

Discussions have to happen with younger generations, Brown said, because climate change will become more of a pressing issue over time. 

“Older people are not the ones affected by climate change, because it's not going to be a pressing issue in their generation,” she said. “The likelihood is that as things continue to get worse, they're going to affect us when we're older and when we have kids.”

Although created with a younger audience in mind, Kneubuehl said the students working to create Climatopia have also learned a lot about climate change while working on the project. 

“I’m an environmental studies major, so it's definitely something I feel passionately about. In general, nothing's going to change if we don't start taking action now,” Kneubuehl said.

Van Buren also said while the climate conversation can be scary and intimidating, Climatopia can help boil it down into simple language to continue the discussion.

“It further incentivizes people to actually take interest and listen and look out for a solution,” she said.

Climatopia game at BeAM's MakerFest at The Great Hall on Dec. 4, 2023.


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