Amid the 125 million Fortnite players, you’ll find rich and famous folks like Lil Yachty, Drake, and David Price (just not at Fenway). But there’s a new squad in town that’s about more than talking shit and selling albums. Scientists are braving the dangerously popular game to talk about climate change.
It’s a seemingly unlikely avenue for climate communication, but by taking the science out of lecture halls and into the most popular game on the planet and Twitch, the researchers hope to make climate change more accessible.
The seed for this idea was planted on Twitter in mid-July, when climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe mused that traffic for her son’s Fortnite videos on YouTube crushed her climate talk videos’ traffic. This is impressive (or depressing, depending on how view it) when you consider Hayhoe is a leading climate science communicator with a devoted following.
But it got MIT graduate student Henri Drake thinking: Why not gather a group of climate scientists to play Fortnite and talk climate shop? He pitched the idea on Twitter and told Earther he got about 20 climate scientists and science communicators interested. And thus a squad was born.
If you live under a rock (as I did until recently) Fortnite is a multiplayer game where 100 players are dumped on a virtual island to battle. The goal is simple: to be the last four-person squad standing. Along the way, you gather weapons and building material for forts, ramps, and other structures that can help evade fellow players. To increase the speed of play, there’s a toxic storm that will kill you if you get caught in it, shrinking the battlefield and forcing squads into fiercer combat. The typical game clocks in at under 20 minutes.
Drake and a rotating cast of climate experts have been playing twice a week for the past month or so and chatting about topics ranging from climate politics to the state of the cryosphere. In addition to Drake setting the parameters, they also take questions from viewers on Twitch. Drake said he’s been playing Fortnite for a few months, but a few players are very new to the game.
“I had played a few times but my kids would describe my play as trash,” Andrew Dessler, a climate researcher at Texas A&M, told Earther.
Dessler and his two sons joined Drake for the squad’s inaugural win a few weeks back. In the video of their victory, Dessler and Drake talk about the midterm elections and what they could mean for climate policy while collecting guns and building supplies. The conversation quickly turns to Fortnite as the storm shrinks the field of play with Dessler’s sons sussing out threats and the squad responding to them until they’re victorious. The stoke is real and the conversation interesting, which is why Dessler said he plays.
“A lot of stuff you do in climate communication is not fun,” Dessler said. “It’s not fun to write op-eds. But this is fun, and you can do it even if it has marginal impact.”
“Surprisingly, all of the scientists have been pretty solid players,” Drake said, giving Dessler a shoutout as the “#1 dad fortnite player.” He said the journalists and communicators who’ve joined the squad could use some help.
I am one of those journalists. My first time playing Fortnite was last week, and I quickly discovered that I am sub-garbage. My ability to get caught in the storm and die was matched only my ability to get immediately knocked off the one time I survived long enough to run into other players. Talking about ice ages—our topic for the night—was out of the question as I fumbled between weapons and labored to change directions while running. The biggest success was our squad coming in third one round, something for which I can take zero credit.
While we didn’t fire up Twitch for much of our session, Drake says the squad has in the past gotten questions from viewers that show a pretty deep understanding of science.
“I’m hoping we’ll get people who don’t know much about climate yet but are eager to learn,” he added.
Playing with Drake’s squad also spotlighted some of the real challenges that still exist in climate communication. There were three of us, and we picked up a random player as our fourth one round. After seeing Drake’s handle and hearing that we were talking about climate change, the player brought up that there was a warm period in the 1930s and used that to question what was happening with the climate today.
Drake—who studies climate modeling and ocean circulation—and Riley Brady, our third player and a PhD student from the University of Colorado who studies ocean biogeochemistry, weren’t really prepared for how to answer him. That said, convincing skeptics to accept mainstream climate science in game isn’t really the end goal.
“Those people aren’t convincible,” Dessler said. “You want to talk to people without an opinion.”
I’d go even further to say Fortnite is one avenue to reach people who do have an opinion on climate change, but who don’t express it aloud. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has found that two-thirds of Americans are interested in climate change but nearly 70 percent of Americans rarely if ever discuss it with friends and family. And most Americans rarely get the chance to talk to scientists.
Fortnite and streaming are huge potential venues to start to close that gap. With a little polish, Drake could be the climate version of Ninja, the king of Fortnite streaming. He probably also needs to get some better compatriots than yours truly so that his games are actually fun to watch.
And hey, that could be you. If you’re interested, there’s a form to signup. You can also drop the Climate Fortnite Squad a line on Twitter, catch them on Twitch, or add Drake on Fortnite. He’s ClimateScientist, a handle that should be easy enough to remember.
Update: This article has been updated to better reflect Drake’s area of research.