Scientists play Fortnite to teach us about climate change

Oceanographer streams video games on Twitch.

Scientists are playing Fortnite to teach gamers about climate change

Henri Drake answers questions about climate change as he streams his Fortnite gameplay. (Henri Drake)

This story was originally published on October 12, 2018.

Last summer, Canadian climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe uploaded a webinar to YouTube, and it got about 1,000 views. On the same day, her son posted a video of himself playing Fortnite, and it was seen by 10 times as many people. She lamented this fact on Twitter.

That her webinar was not as popular as her son's upload is not surprising: Fortnite is quite possibly the most popular video game ever. It's a so-called "battle royale" game where dozens of players are dropped on a small island with limited resources, and the last player standing wins.

Millions of people watch streams of other people playing video games on a platform called Twitch. It's so popular that it outstrips NFL football games in terms of audience.

That got some people in the science community thinking: what if you could combine teaching about climate change with streaming game play?

So that's exactly what Henri Drake did. He's a graduate student in oceanography at MIT, and he plays Fortnite. So he started inviting people to ask him questions about climate change on his Twitch streaming channel, called Climate Fortnite.
Henri Drake (MIT)

He also invites other climate scientists to play alongside him, and they discuss topics from greenhouse gases to rising ocean temperatures, as other viewers type questions on the screen.

Drake told Spark host Nora Young that it allows him to reach an audience that is otherwise difficult to attract.

"I want to reach an audience that might not have an actual science background and wouldn't have access to these kinds of topics otherwise," he said.

"On Twitch it's just basically anyone who happened to see my stream when they are scrolling through could join, and they can ask questions directly to an expert — which I think is really valuable and sort of unique."

T.L. Taylor, a sociologist and comparative media studies professor, also at MIT, agreed.

She's studied online communities for more than two decades, and her latest book, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the rise of Game Live Streaming is coming out this month.

"It fits in so many ways with what we see happening on Twitch which is people gathering together, around a shared love of gaming, but infusing that playspace with other conversations as well," she said. "And in this case it's serious science issues and questions and answers about climate change."
T.L. Taylor (Bryce Vickmark)

Climate Fortnite is unique because it's trying to engage its audience around a specific issue, she said.

Usually, the conversations on Twitch grow organically, Taylor added, and it's not unusual to see streamers talk about personal issues. "Maybe they've gone through a divorce. Maybe they're having struggles at work. And the folks who are watching them become a part of that conversation and experience."

The fact that it all happens in real time, as opposed to, say, a recorded YouTube video, makes a big difference.

"It's really something different to be watching somebody in real time with all of the spontaneity that can happen in that moment," Taylor said.

Drake said the channel is catching on, and the number of people who join him to play and talk about climate change is increasing. Other scientists are also using the game to talk about their subjects, he noted.

However, he cautioned that care is required when trying to infuse game play with another subject. "You could easily get into some unethical behaviour if you push that too far."

Taylor said the Twitch community is, unfortunately, subject to the same fallibilities as other social media platforms.

"All of these spaces have tremendous, wonderful possibilities. But we also see everything from just misinformation to harassment and trolling. We all have to be pretty aware."