Climate Stress Was Getting Me Down, So I Made a Clicker Game

In the game, you start as a lowly atmospheric scientist and you have to click “write grant” and wait.

On cue, a flood came. We had prepared with long plastic gutter extenders that snaked away from the house, but water seeped into the basement anyway. I have a small piece of Wi-Fi-connected wall art that shows in colored LEDs where all the trains are in New York City. We watched as line after line went dark. Then we spent a long night rescuing storage boxes and bailing puddles with a takeout container. When the water wasn’t burbling in, we checked Twitter, where you could see the storm in parallel—subway waterfalls, sink geysers, hallway creeks. There was a picture of someone trying to deliver food on a bike in waist-deep water. It all felt very cyberpunk: plastic tendrils coming off the house, social media threading the crisis in real time, gig workers directed into peril by the apps that control their lives, streets turned to liquid. But of course the sun came up.

We wandered around, groggy. Our next-door neighbor said he’d been here 20 years and had never seen this before, which made it a once-in-two-decades kind of event. No one had a sump pump. My shrink, who used to own a house a block away, said he could remember a big flood in the neighborhood maybe 30 or 35 years ago. Could have been longer. So: a three-times-a-century event. (Of course probability doesn’t work like that; I was just trying to figure out how weird things might be getting.)

My shrink makes me repeat, many times a day: I will remain calm no matter what. And No matter what happens, I can handle it. And I will broaden my expectations. That’s his whole thing. Stuff happens, remain calm, handle it. I started seeing him because I was yelling at my kids about stupid stuff (I’ve stopped, mostly), but it’s not a bad approach for floods, either. We did stay calm under (hydrostatic) pressure. Another flood will surely come, though, which means it’s time to broaden our expectations.

My wife and I accomplish this through shared spreadsheets. There’s a lot to do—for example, I threw away the basement couch when it sprouted mushrooms—but most of the work reduces to the universal unit of home care: the Guy. Gutter guy, floor guy, roof guy, and plumber (there the “guy” is silent). They assume I’m also a guy, but it’s my wife who works in construction, so I hide upstairs when they arrive. Later she comes up and draws diagrams on an epaper tablet to explain what’s going to happen. I nod and say simple words as questions, like “Pipes?” or “Sewer?” That is our love language.

The spreadsheets are fine for dealing with our basement, but I don’t think they’ll scale to every basement on Earth. And because, like so many people, I’m obsessing over climate change, I’ve been looking for software tools that will help all of us plan. A friend recommended Temperate, which seems fine—let’s call it a “climate mitigation wizard” for communities, to make sure you’ve thought about flooding, hurricanes, heat waves, and wildfires. I messed around with the free trial, but I’m not a community. Then I read through toolkit.climate.gov. The problem there is that the government offers around 500 “tools”—some websites, some PDFs—ranging from shareable sunscreen memes to calculators that tell you the pathogen risk at your local beach. It’s like browsing the pamphlets in a health clinic. I did find some helpful checklists, but I am not a coastal wetland (yet), so they weren’t as useful as they could have been.

Then I decided to make a Gantt chart in Google Docs. Named for its inventor, Henry Gantt, an early-20th-century mechanical engineer, this is a method of scheduling that turns projects into an orderly cascade of dependent tasks. Each task is represented by a bar on the chart, and when you finish one bar you step down to the next one: Dig the basement, then pour the concrete. It’s the go-to tool for what people call the “waterfall approach.”

This strategy is not fashionable in software development. A different methodology, Agile, is in vogue. Agile is a kind of witchcraft wherein a coven of developers form frequent “standups” to commit themselves to evil acts upon a code base, until finally Satan heeds their call and manifests working software. But I figured the waterfall approach is more appropriate for climate. I started to fill in my Gantt chart with big important things, like “incentivize nuclear power” and “educate all the girls.” Beneath those, I added substeps—a whole cascade of solutions!

I would not recommend doing what I did, because you’ll quickly see that if we’re going to get our act together by, say, 2030, that’s a little under 100 months. So every month we need to be 1 percent down the waterfall. If we make 0 percent progress this month, the month we’re in right now, then we have to make at least 1.01 percent progress the next month and every month after that. I don’t know what you call this. Compound disinterest?

So in mild horror I trashed yet another Google Doc, never to be found again (have you ever tried to find a Google Doc?), and did something I’ve never done before. I made a game. Specifically, a clicker game. Clicker games started as parodies of MMO in-game grinding; i.e., you click and click to get increasingly ridiculous intermittent rewards. In Cookie Clicker, you “bake” cookies; in Universal Paperclips, you make more and more paper clips, until the entire universe is made of paper clips. Imagine a spreadsheet where every cell makes you click your mouse 20 times to do the calculation. Sound fun? It’s not, really, but it’s satisfying to watch a big number get bigger.

In the Gantt chart turned game, your number actually goes down, as carbon leaves the atmosphere. It took me a few weeks and some detours to make that happen, though. I couldn’t find a good clicker game library, so I wrote my own. Then I needed to craft Clicker Game Markup Language. Then I didn’t know TypeScript, which is the new, more uptight version of JavaScript, so I had to learn that. It’s probably easier to take carbon out of the atmosphere than it is to keep a programmer on task (which is why you need Agile to hypnotize us into monstrous compliance).

In my game, as yet untitled, you start as a lowly atmospheric scientist and you have to click “write grant” and wait until you get enough money to earn grad students. Eventually the grad students measure enough temperatures that you get climate models. Finally you make trillions of dollars and use that to de-fossilize the global grid.

I know this game doesn’t actually pull any carbon out of the atmosphere. In fact, in real life it adds carbon with every click, although less when I play it on my phone. But it’s very calming to see all the enormous tasks in a stack, and it lets me simulate doing something. You have to imagine success before you can succeed. And the giant game-configuration file has become a kind of notebook as I learn about the world. When you click to “measure” the atmosphere, the game pulls real variables from climate models, like air_pressure_at_sea_level and moisture_content_of_soil_layer. It’s fun to learn things when you’re making something. Excruciating if not.

This is not to say it’s a good game, or a fun one, or that it will have any impact in the world. I don’t know if I’ll release it. It’s just a tool for planning, for broadening my expectations. Making things is how I understand the world, which is why I love technology. At a certain point we will have to accept that a very long crisis is just normal life, and if we are here we should keep moving forward, 1 percent this month, and another the next. We can remain calm no matter what. No matter what happens, we can handle it. I guess I should start going to protests.


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