[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER: The game is focusing on the human dimension of the climate crisis, like, in terms of our relationships with each other and how that will help us deal with it.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Hi. This is Universe of Art, a podcast from Science Friday and WNYC Studios about artists who use science to take their creations to the next level. I'm Science Friday producer D. Peterschmidt.
So it's Climate Week, at least here in New York. There's a bunch of events happening all over the city, and they're all aimed at encouraging conversation and participation and action around our climate crisis. And I'll just say off the bat, it's tough listening to reporting around this topic. Same goes for me. It can be really heavy and discouraging. So when the team here at Science Friday-- when we think about how to communicate information around this topic, we try to do it in a way that focuses on solutions or just allows for an opportunity to process our feelings around it. And art can be a cathartic vehicle to do exactly that.
So I've got two stories for you all today. The first is a segment from last year about this really cool indie video game collective I found out about. They're called Indiecade. And among other things, they host a game-making competition every year called the Climate Jam where participants make games about climate change solutions in under a week.
And I spoke to the organizer and the winning team, made up entirely of college students, about their game and what they wanted to accomplish with it. And me and Ira even played through a little bit of it too. And after that, I have an interview I did a few months back with acclaimed folk musician and independent scholar Daniel Bachman. His latest album is this reflection on the extreme weather events that have happened over the last few years in his home state of Virginia, and it's somehow an oddly calming listening experience. And I also just loved hearing how he incorporated his own field recordings into the music and learning about his research into Appalachian oral history and how he connected it to the current climate moment we're living in.
All that said, I appreciate you all listening. So first, here's me and Science Friday host Ira Flatow talking about Indiecade's Climate Game Jam. Before we start, I asked Ira if he'd heard about game jams before.
IRA FLATOW: A game jam? I don't think so.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: OK, have you heard of something called a hackathon?
IRA FLATOW: That I have heard about.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: OK, so yeah, you're working on a team to make something, in this case, like a video game in a very short amount of time. And there's this one that I found out about called the Climate Jam. It's put on by this organization called Indiecade. And the goal of this jam is to make games about climate change.
STEPHANIE BARISH: Our goal of having a Climate Jam has always been to have climate solutions and to be positive. Like, we're not looking for some kind of death and destruction jam.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: So that was Stephanie Barish. She's the CEO of Indiecade. And she and some other partners started the Climate Jam five years ago.
STEPHANIE BARISH: We're really interested in challenging our community to create something that could potentially make a positive difference. Most people, at that time, were just so negative about climate. Like, it was doom and destruction. And I thought, wow, to make positive change, you have to really look at this from a solutions perspective.
IRA FLATOW: All right. She says you have to look at it from a solutions perspective. So you make a game. Have we got a game that won? Yeah, I want to know how that turned out.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, so the game that one is called Row. And we're actually going to play together.
IRA FLATOW: Ooh. All right, let's do that. But before we go, since this is brand new to me, you got to give me a hint of what the game is all about.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: OK, all right. So basically, Row's set in a future where the effects of climate change are a lot more exaggerated. Drought is a much bigger problem. There are these two neighboring cities, and when it stops raining, one city builds a dam to hoard all the water and it leaves the other one in a pretty tough spot. So there's drought. People are getting sick because of dehydration, including your character's grandmother. And the other city is unwilling to share the water.
So your character takes a rowboat to get some fresh water from the other city to get your grandma healthy again. But the rains suddenly start again, with a vengeance, and a huge flood ends up submerging and destroying both cities in the middle of your journey. So through all of this, you have to become rowing partners with someone from the other city who's basically your enemy, and you have to work together to survive. So yeah, let's get started.
IRA FLATOW: Should I-- should I hit the Play button on there or--
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, let's go ahead and hit Play.
IRA FLATOW: OK. I see it says, "Welcome to your rowboat." OK, now I'm rowing. Oh, that was a good stroke. I see how to do this.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: You take shorter strokes.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, that's what I'm thinking too.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, really? Whoa. I'm going zipping across-- wait, there's another item. It's a fun game. This is a fun game.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: All right, so we're going to put down our oars for a second. We'll come back to the game later. But I just wanted to tell you about some of the other games that were made for the Climate Jam this year.
So there's one called Denial Network. And in that one, you play as a group of activists fighting against climate change misinformation. There's another called Change Waker where you play as a cute, little sentient blob sailing around an archipelago helping other cute, little sentient blobs solve environmental problems impacting their islands. And sometimes, Stephanie says, these games actually break outside the boundaries of the jam.
STEPHANIE BARISH: Last year, a group did a game about garbage collection and recycling, and they ended up going to their city government and creating a game for the city based on the prototype they had created.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: And having social impact isn't the only unique thing about the Climate Jam.
STEPHANIE BARISH: When you join this game jam, you don't just have access to people who can help you make the game. We have people who are content experts.
DARGAN FRIERSON: I'm Dargan Frierson. I'm a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at University of Washington.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: So Dargan was actually one of these content experts, and he was also a mentor AND a judge for the jam.
DARGAN FRIERSON: We always look for scientific accuracy. I think it's very important to keep things within the realm of possibility, even when you're looking at fiction.
STEPHANIE BARISH: Having science mentors as part of our jams is completely unique. Most jams, honestly, aren't about serious topics. When you have a serious topic, you try and bring in experts. In this case, when people are making games, they really need to understand the information. They need to understand how wind turbines work or what the real situation is for sea creatures.
DARGAN FRIERSON: You get a lot of pretty off-the-wall questions. There are questions like, what would climate change be like on a different planet? We're just trying to make sure that the games are as accurate as possible.
Probably most folks who are listening were like me and thought that most games were sort of violent oriented. But there is this growing movement of folks making games for social change.
JAY MCGREGOR: We're trying to acknowledge that we humans, as a species, play one of the biggest roles in causing the climate crisis. And at the same time, we also hold the key to solving it.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: So I also talked to Jay McGregor. He's a film production student at USC and part of a team of seven who worked on the game. And he was one of its narrative designers.
JAY MCGREGOR: The game is focusing on the human dimension of the climate crisis, like, in terms of our relationships with each other and how that will help us deal with it.
DARGAN FRIERSON: I loved that immediately with Row you're thrust into this very cinematic situation with a lot of drama, and you're clearly a very impoverished community that, as it turns out, has been dealing with environmental justice threats. And that, on top of just gameplay that's pretty fun rowing-- you know, it's really fun just to move your boat, slowly and steadily. It gives you time to ponder the deepness of the narrative.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: OK, so there's this feature in the game, Ira, called the Trust Meter. So I think that's on your screen right now. Can you read those instructions?
IRA FLATOW: The Trust Meter measures the level of trust between you and Nico. The value affects how easily you are able to row with him. Oh, so we have to row together.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Mm-hm. Right, so there's going to be these moments where you have to make a decision through different dialogue options you get or actions you take that'll affect your trust level with your enemy, Nico. So what's your level of trust with him right now?
IRA FLATOW: 82%.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Oh, nice. I have been choosing some other dialogue options. I'm at, like, 45% right now.
JAY MCGREGOR: Ultimately, the idea of that was the way you interact with each other either increases your ability to cooperate or can entrench the level of animosity between you two. And if you guys don't trust each other as much, you guys are going to go slower because you're going to be in sync and you have to try harder to work together. And so if you make a choice that increases the trust between you and Nico, you can build human capital, which is an important resource to escape the crisis you guys are in.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: So I've known about the Climate Jam for a couple of years. And before I fully played through it, I was kind of surprised a game like Row that, on its face, really leans into these classic climate dystopian themes won the grand prize for a competition that's focused on climate optimism and solutions. So I asked Jay why his team wanted to focus on dystopia so much.
JAY MCGREGOR: Yeah. It's kind of doom and gloom with the whole dystopia world. But at the same time, I think if you just stay in that place of just feeling hopeless, it can often translate into apathy, which I can see a lot among people who are my age because it's such a daunting thing.
And so we wanted to go through that emotion of feeling hopeless but then having a conflict occur that would make people have to change in some way. We can't really solve this issue of the climate crisis without some form of collective action. And then in order to have collective action, that requires us to work with each other, including those that we might not necessarily agree with.
And so hopefully-- I think that's the power of video games. They have a very sort of interactive, participatory element to them that can not only change people at an intellectual level in terms of making them aware of these issues but also can touch people at an emotional level. And I think that's a powerful thing.
STEPHANIE BARISH: Row is kind of dystopian in certain ways. But the fact that they ultimately create a situation where opposing characters can connect and have to work together is an incredible statement. And they bury you deeply into that antagonism that's going on.
So I think it's really effective. And I think those are the tools that narrative games really give you to work with. I think it's so important, because, gosh, don't we live in a world where it's very hard to cross the aisle and work together? We all do kind of have a common cause. And if there's ways, even in our differences, that we can work together towards it, that's how we'll have a bright and beautiful future.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I think this is an interesting game to play with kids, right? So then you can have a discussion about hopefulness and making decisions about your future, and who do you trust, and how to trust people, because, yeah, a lot of things we see are dystopian. And a lot of things that are happening now make you think that the future is going to be dystopic.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Maybe this is a kind of game that you can have as a teaching opportunity to play with kids. And maybe they can talk out their fears by playing this game. What did you feel about being on the raft or surviving or making a choice of who to save?
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. And I know not everyone plays video games. Not everyone's going to get a chance to play these. But there is something Dargan said about why he thinks this matters, and I thought it was a great point.
DARGAN FRIERSON: As a climate scientist, I spend a lot of time just looking at data, computer model simulations, and you see a lot of red dots, meaning drought or really strong rainfall events. But I think, to see that through artistic eyes, you realize how much story there is behind any of those data points. Behind any kind of extended drought, there's always going to be winners and losers and those fighting over scarce resources. And then the approaching flood in this game, also, is just really dramatic. It makes you think that all data should be analyzed with an artistic eye in that way.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: And that kind of reminded me of what you just said about kids talking about their fears, playing through them. It's like basically the appeal of a horror movie, to me at least. You're able to experience these kind of intense emotions in a controlled, safe environment and have a little remove from it and maybe process them in a way you wouldn't be able to if you were too close to it.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, thank you. I enjoyed it. I loved it. You know, I'm going to play it again. Can I play it again?
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: OK. I'm going to try the other options and see what happens.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: OK, great. Well, other people can play Row and the other games from this year's Climate Jam. And you can even listen to a song that Dargan wrote and sang about his love of science, which is amazing. That's all at our website at sciencefriday.com/games. Yeah, thanks again, Ira.
Up next, folk musician Daniel Bachman tells us about his recent climate-influenced album called Almanac Behind. We'll be right back.
Hey, this is Universe of Art. I'm D. Peterschmidt. I'm back with a conversation with musician Daniel Bachman about his latest album, Almanac Behind, and the extreme weather events that inspired it. And I'm going to start things off with the first track on the album, "540 Supercell."
[DANIEL BACHMAN, "540 SUPERCELL"]
Daniel Bachman is an acclaimed folk musician and independent scholar. We're here to talk about his new album, Almanac Behind, a blend of Appalachian folk music and audio collages documenting the effects of extreme weather and climate change that's affected his home region of Central Virginia. Daniel Bachman, welcome to Science Friday.
DANIEL BACHMAN: Hey. Thanks so much for having me.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Can you tell me about what happened in your personal life that made you want to make an album like this?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Yeah, sure. So some people out there might remember last January-- Virginia, Washington, DC, Maryland-- this region got a really heavy wet snow that was really uncharacteristic for our region. It was destroying power infrastructure and closing roads. And it shut down Interstate 95. People were trapped in their cars. It was really bad.
So the very first field recordings and ideas for this kind came from that first storm, a lot of the wind sounds and hail and sleet, and then kind of had the idea, you know, OK, I'm going to document everything that we experience through the end of this record process.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Why do you think it was necessary to have field recordings to communicate the message of the album?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Well, you know, it's tough working in the confines of traditional Western instruments, whether it be banjo or guitar or even piano and stuff. You're kind of bound to a certain harmonic range that only expresses so much emotion.
And so when you get into these deep problems that we face. I feel, sometimes, that you lose the weight of these events if you're just simply trying to play a minor or major scale or things like that. But in order to really convey the power of these events, when you hear rushing water or hard driving rain, I really thought that using the field recordings intentionally-- this is something that people can-- from all over the world, hopefully-- could relate to. These sounds are inherent to our experience living on Earth. And it just happens that I'm just interested in folk cultures and history, and that's my vehicle for it.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Appalachia has this incredibly rich history of not just storytelling but passing those stories down. And as you've mentioned, you've done quite a bit of your own historical research on the cultures and folklore of Virginia and its music. Can you talk a bit about that work and if you wanted an Almanac Behind to be in conversation with that history and tradition?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Yeah, there's a tradition of documenting events and especially natural disasters in folk music. Charley Patton has "High Water Everywhere." There's "Dry Well Blues." Uncle Dave Macon has "Tennessee Tornado." So yeah, I was definitely aiming for that energy creating this piece. I kind of wanted it to be a contemporary document of these events. It's definitely abstract. But I do like to think that it does kind of fall in line in that history and music.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, I mean, it's abstract. But even though the subject matter is pretty dark, to me at least, it was very calming to listen to. I've listened to the album a few times, and you weave emergency radio broadcast transmissions into the album, and then you follow them up with solo meditative banjo.
How did you think about balancing really intense and kind of maybe diametrically opposed emotions on this?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Yeah. Well, there's a lot of waiting in these events. The time between when you learn over the radio broadcast or whatever, how you hear about these things-- there's a calmness that you almost feel. Even if they do hit a train, you can see them coming. And I was hyper aware of whether-- while I was documenting it, I had my field recorder by the front door. And at any time that we were going to have weather that was going to produce a good audio sample, I was ready to go out there and stuff. It was pretty wild to put this thing together.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. I read that you involved your friends and family to help you gather the sounds on this album.
DANIEL BACHMAN: It felt good to bring family and friends in it. I did ask my friend, Will Thornton, who's a sound artist from Fredericksburg, if he could contribute some of his flood recordings. So in the section where you hear the waters rising and electrical lines snapping and stuff, that's actually the sound of five major rivers in Virginia at flood stage all at once.
A friend of mine, Zeph Mann, actually made a computer program that renders photographs into WAV files. And forest fires are becoming increasingly common in the Middle Appalachians here. So I took photographs of different weather events of Old Rag Mountain here in Madison County with a red sun setting behind it from wildfire smoke and then completely rearranged the pixels, and you get a new thing out of it.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Can you tell me about the sort of cyclical nature of this album?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Yeah, the album actually plays on a loop. If you listen to it through and you have it on repeat, it starts with wind blowing through chimes on our front porch.
And as the cleanup efforts are happening, towards the end of the record, you can hear the chimes and the wind picking up again, kind of hinting at that this is a repeating cycle that we're entering.
[MUSIC PLAYING, WIND BLOWING, CHIMES RINGING]
And if I can quote Professor Bill McGuire's new book Hothouse Earth, he suggests that we might not be experiencing extreme weather anymore but simply just weather. These events are increasingly the norm. So that's kind of what I was getting at with the looping nature of the record.
One of the things, without getting too far out, that I actually really liked about working on this record is that it did feel like I was working collaboratively with non-human partners. Just being with these weather events, working with them to create a piece of art, that's the energy that I like. That is making me feel better in these times, a little bit, working with these forces in the Earth instead of constantly trying to push them away or whatever.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Totally. I love that idea. What do you hope people take away after listening to Almanac Behind?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Well, currently, how we talk about climate change, I think there's a real tendency in the US right now to put it off. But we really are seeing these drastic Earth changes happen constantly all over the globe. And so I made this album as a way for me to participate in the climate activism that I see other people doing that I'm really inspired about and just hope that it serves as a document. But, yeah, this is the way that I feel that I can best participate in raising awareness what's happening to our Earth.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Well, thank you. I really recommend people check out the album. If you go to our site, you can watch the film that accompanies Almanac Behind. That's at sciencefriday.com/climatesongs. Daniel, thank you so much for your time, and thank you for the album. It's really special.
DANIEL BACHMAN: Well, thank you so much, too. This is such a pleasure.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: That was Daniel Bachman, musician and independent scholar.
Universe of Art is hosted and produced by me, D. Peterschmidt, and I also wrote the music. Our show art is illustrated by Abelle Hayford. And support for Science Friday's science and arts coverage comes from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation. Also, if you have an idea for a future episode of Universe of Art, you can send us an email or a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be back in two weeks. See you.