Playing with Videogame Culture: Executive Summary

Ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year, UKRI commissioned OKRE to research and scope the potential for videogames to be the anchor of a national public engagement initiative focused on climate change.

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered enormous change, with our lives increasingly moving into online and digital spaces. Ever more organisations seek to provide content and engage audiences in these spaces, harnessing varied ways of interacting across different media and platforms including social media, streaming content, podcasts and videogames.

UKRI is committed to exploring creative and innovative ways of engaging with the public, reaching more diverse communities, particularly those currently underrepresented in their engagement with research and innovation.

UKRI commissioned OKRE to explore the opportunities afforded by videogames for engaging the public with issues around climate change with the objective of offering hope and supporting positive action.

We conducted a review of past and present projects in games and climate, based on desk research, and consulted with professionals across the video games, research, heritage and local charity sector.

This report collates and synthesises that work.

Videogames, Culture and Videogame Culture

The evolution and growth of digital technologies has seen videogames play an ever greater role as a global cultural force. They are now recognised as the most important aspect of youth culture[1].

Their value, both culturally and economically, came into sharp relief during the pandemic in 2020[2], with sales in the UK rising by 29%[3] on the previous year to £7bn with 62% of all UK adults playing videogames during the period[4].

People no longer just play videogames; they also play with videogames. Alongside streaming of gameplay, live performance, content creation, modding[5] and cosplay[6], games have become social destinations in their own right – including to access other cultural experiences such as music concerts and film screenings.

This presents a significant and mostly untapped opportunity for public engagement. To date most engagement activities have focused on gamification. However, the number of videogames now available for young people to choose from has risen vastly over the last decade[7]. As a result, investing in the creation of a single videogame as an engagement strategy can be both expensive and high risk – with any output competing with industry giants such as Fortnite.

Videogames and Climate Change

Historically mainstream video games have had limited engagement with climate change, appearing occasionally as a thematic challenge within the genre of simulation games. SimCity, SimEarth and more recently the Civilization series have featured rising sea-levels, pollution and global warming amongst the problems for the player to control and manage, albeit at a broad municipal or global level.

Since the wider availability of accessible game creation tools, smaller studios have begun to produce more personal, political work. As a result more environmentally engaged games have begun to appear. These games are often more explicitly marketed as being about the climate or having an environmental message.

Alongside these individual products, the videogame industry as a whole is beginning to acknowledge and address its own long-term sustainability. The Playing for the Planet Alliance facilitated by the UN Environment Programme brings together pan-industry pledges to reduce carbon and drive corporate responsibility. It includes a Green Game Jam initiative, which invites studios to implement ‘green activations’ in their work, adding new levels themed around global challenges restoring forests and oceans.

Whilst these developments are a positive shift for the industry, there is the inevitable challenge that such overt climate-themed games and initiatives struggle to appeal to those who are either not interested or disengaged from climate and sustainability issues.  It is the potential for games to appeal to this broader audience that is of particular interest to the Public Engagement sector.

Games and Engagement with Underrepresented Audiences

UKRI’s Vision for Public Engagement includes a commitment to improve the opportunities to participate in activities related to research and innovation for communities currently underrepresented in existing work. With that in mind, there is interest to understand what games could uniquely offer to support this goal.

From the data currently available it is unsurprising to see that game genre and platform influence player demographics. Audiences build also around games, characters and stories more reflective of and relevant to their particular communities and interests[8].

This suggests the potential is certainly there for games to engage those traditionally underrepresented in existing engagement work. However, as with all engagement activities, to stand the greatest chance of success those experiences should be designed with the specific audience in mind from the start and an understanding of the community embedded in the creative team and process.

This applies also to mitigating the impacts of digital exclusion. Access to equipment, skill and interest are among the potential barriers to participation. Ensuring non-digital alternatives are not just available but core to engagement initiatives around games (rather than a peripheral add-on) is crucial to avoid widening the gap of opportunities available to different communities.

Innovations in Engagement

Given this background, there was interest in exploring an approach that could appeal to diverse communities regardless of digital access and existing engagement with environmental issues. UKRI have keen interest in helping young people, especially those from traditionally marginalised communities, not just be aware of climate change but feel empowered to make a positive response to it.

We spoke to over thirty different organisations from across the videogame sector, social media, museums, festivals, research and local charities. These ranged from local community bodies to national and international organisations, with differing levels of familiarity with games and cross-sector collaboration. We explored the interest, opportunities and the practicalities of a public engagement gaming initiative focused on climate change.

All the respondents were interested in and saw much potential in the use of videogames and videogame culture. From these consultations and the research, seven strategic opportunities for public engagement with climate science through videogames were identified:

Embracing the Breadth of Videogame Culture

which thrives in both digital and non-digital spaces including streaming, fan communities, fan-fiction and cosplay. This culture is a rich and collaborative space that can reach diverse audiences.

Harnessing Interest in Videogames to Inspire Engagement with STEAM Skills and Careers

including coding, animation, music, science, engineering and This includes understanding their potential applications for future innovation around climate change.

Utilising No-Code Game Design Tools to Open up Participation and Creative Expression

removing a requirement for technical skills to widen accessibility and enable a more diverse range of communities to creatively explore opportunities for climate action.

Prioritising Local and Hyper-Local Engagement

focusing on social and environmental concerns of more direct relevance and interest to specific communities, especially those who may be traditionally marginalised and underrepresented in public engagement work.

Incorporating Digital and Non-Digital Access Points

embracing board games, card games and other physical games alongside videogames to maximise engagement and access.

Deploying Site and Time-Specific Games

creating projects that are uniquely relevant to different communities and calendar events. This can enable people to interact with their area in new and exciting ways and support engagement with specific communtiies rather than mass audiences.

Improving Understanding of the Potential of Videogame Culture to Engage Underrepresented Audiences

a national initiative presents an opportunity to gather data to expand understanding of how well videogames might improve participation of communities traditionally underrepresented in public engagement activities and what approaches might work best. Such new knowledge has the potential to create a lasting impact in public engagement practice and support future innovations in the use of digital technologies and play.

Practical Considerations

Alongside the opportunities respondents highlighted a range of practical needs and barriers to organisations being able to collaborate on games initiatives. These focused around integration with existing workflows, resource support and leadership.

Organisations in every sector appreciated programmes that could be integrated in their existing workflows, making it easier to be involved. Many working in videogame development highlighted the highly structured development pipelines they work to; those in Heritage & Arts emphasised their planning schedules with programmes typically defined 12-18 months in advance.

In terms of resource support, needs varied between organisations. Financial support was stressed especially by smaller organisations and those at research institutions with less developed commitments to public engagement. The need for non-financial support was often also highlighted by heritage organisations, charities and community groups interested in being involved with videogames. This reflected challenges both in terms of staff capacity and lack of practical know-how.


Many respondents identified a vacuum in engagement leadership across the heritage and arts with respect to climate. Many were excited by the potential role of the UKRI in the development of a programme.

UKRI is uniquely placed to be able to initiate such a flagship national initiative: its networks and strength as a commercially agnostic cross-sector convener enable it to catalyse collaboration between organisations from across a diversity of sectors.

Organisations spoken to during the scoping described not having the networks, skills, funding or capacity to lead or deliver such an initiative. However, they expressed enthusiasm in finding ways they could support and contribute to it.

A public engagement initiative anchored in gaming would multiply opportunities for learning for both UKRI and any participating organisations as well as pioneering new forms of engagement through novel industry and community partnerships.


As videogames have evolved, so too have the ways people interact with them. This is relevant not just to the importance of considering videogames as a media for public engagement but also to opportunities for innovation in the delivery of an initiative focused on climate change.

Technical skills and digital access need not be barriers to working in this space. And there are now multiple avenues for successful engagement beyond the need to produce a single breakout videogame; many of these have the potential to support greater engagement with traditionally marginalised communities.

A national initiative focused on climate change using videogame culture could enable multiple opportunities for learning. It offers an approach for pioneering new forms of engagement. Importantly, and especially following recent global events, it can also help organisations create and explore new links between innovative digital projects, their local spaces and diverse audiences across the UK and beyond.