I Learned About Climate Change By Watching Fortnite on Twitch
I know very little about climate change. I know even less about Fortnite. And Twitch. (Yes, I know; I should be fired.) I'm aware that they’re all real things that exist, but videogames and global warming aren't my beat. Yet, I've been staring at this one Fortnite Twitch video for a good hour. No idea what's going on; still enthralled. Amid the shoot-outs and loot-grabs, the streamer in the headset is also very patiently explaining methane emissions to a user named Xoiiku. Usually when someone brings up burping and farting during gameplay, it’s a prank at best. This time it’s definitely not.
That’s how science goes on ClimateFortnite, a channel full of climate scientists who discuss issues of global warming while playing Fortnite on Twitch, hoping the platform’s massive reach will get their message in front of more eyeballs. And according to Henri Drake, the graduate student in climate science at MIT who was talking about methane in the video I watched, it specifically gets climate change in front of the young audience who will have to deal with its effects of the actions (or inaction) humans take right now.
"It builds a community where people can ask the hard questions directly to an expert," Drake says. "For a topic like climate change that is steeped in misinformation, direct access to experts is crucial."
Drake is the host of ClimateFortnite, but the idea for it isn’t entirely his. Credit there goes to Katharine Hayhoe, a scientist at Texas Tech University, who posted a tweet back in July bemoaning the fact that her recent webinar on climate science only had 1,000 views on YouTube, while her 11-year-old's Fortnite clip had some 10,000 views in less than 48 hours. Following that tweet, several folks suggested combining the two formats. When no one else offered to do it, Drake—who'd started playing Fortnite about a month or so prior—decided to try.
"I had never streamed myself," he says. "But I'd been watching League of Legends on Twitch since about 2013 and had always thought about doing some kind of educational stream about climate science."
Drake sent up a flare on Twitter looking for scientists to contribute, and ultimately got quite a few to contribute. The videos can be anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours and while ClimateFortnite doesn’t have a huge number of followers (97, as of this writing), the potential is massive. Twitch boasts some 15 million daily active users, and scads of those are Fortnite fans. Not to mention, Drake’s stream could also attract more n00bs like me who just really want to know basic facts about global warming and are afraid to ask, even when those people might work in their office. (Hi, y’all.) It can also serve as good PR for Fortnite itself, which has lately hit that level of popularity that comes with panic about whether or not the game is affecting athletic performance or breaking up marriages.
Texas A&M atmospheric sciences professor Andrew Dessler
And so here I am, learning about cattle farts. It took about an hour or so for Drake to get into a good dialogue with Xoiiku, but once they did, there were all kinds of valuable facts. I knew that livestock produced large amounts of emissions, but had no idea it was close to 15 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. I also welcomed the news that all climate scientists aren’t just doomsayers here to remind me my love of cheese and rare steaks is slowly killing the planet. Toward the end of the session, Drake gives Xoiiku a bit of hope. "I think technological [advances] leap-frogging with renewable [energy sources] is the number one thing," he says. "It doesn’t really matter what your politics are if the cheapest and most obvious option is renewables."
There's also a bit of joy to be found in the fact that even people with PhDs, or those who are working on them, are also confounded by Fortnite and the logistics of setting up a decent Twitch stream. On one video I hear a scientist struggling to figure out the best way to sign on—"why is it not…? let me try connecting with Facebook…"—and he works for NASA. It was charming, in addition to clearly breaking down the effects of ever-thawing permafrost. (Global warming causes increased thawing during the Arctic summer, which leads to more methane emissions from the breakdown of previously frozen matter. The thaw means more plants are around to process the CO2, but perhaps not as fast as it’s being produced. It’s a vicious cycle.)
Being able to relate is key. "Scientists do a good job of communicating via traditional routes—talking to journalists and policymakers and writing op-eds," says Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M who has been featured on Drake’s channel. "But not everyone listens to policymakers or reads op-eds or follows scientists on Twitter. ClimateFortnite is a great way to reach people who don’t get news from traditional sources."
So far, the public service these scientists are doing isn't getting a ton of traction. Journalists (hi again!) and people on Science Twitter think it's great, but Drake reports there are only about three to five "regulars" who tune in to every stream and ask questions. Drake hopes that number will increase and notes his sessions get a few dozen more viewers once they go up on YouTube; he’s also expanding his efforts to a game called Eco that is entirely focused on mitigating climate change.
Considering climate change denial, or at least skepticism, seems to be on the rise, I ask Drake if people ever come to him looking for a debate. He says it’s happened before, but the questioner was harmless. He does, however, get people who seem to be out to stump him.
"It's occasionally been challenging because it is clear that the viewer knows more than me about a specific topic," Drake says. "But that usually just means I get to learn something new."
And now I do too.
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