Category Archives: science communication

EGU Games Day 2023

The European Geoscience Union General Assembly, Europe’s largest gathering of geoscience researchers and practitioners, attracts over 16,000 of them to Vienna, Austria, each year. EGU, as both the organisation and the conference are affectionately known, covers a wide and diverse variety of topics within its definition of geoscience – it’s certainly a lot more than rocks and beards, with topics ranging from hydrology, natural hazards, the geomorphology of Mars, ocean science, and education and outreach.

Within EGU is a growing movement. A nascent community of likeminded geoscientists who appreciate the transformative power of games. The know that games are not mere distractions or a means to procrastinate, but are in fact immersive vessels of the most powerful communication tool humankind has ever created – storytelling. Games tap into this in a way no other medium can match, placing you within stories and given you agency to influence and shape it. This is why the games industry is worth a lot more than the music and movie industries combined.

Initially set up by myself, Sam Illingworth, and Rolf Hut in 2017, the Games for Geoscience session has been an international platform for this growing community. Since, we were joined by Liz Lewis and Jaz Scarlett, and now Lisa Gallagher and Maria Elena Orduno Alegria, as a convening group and expanded to include the Geoscience Games Night – with Wednesday’s becoming the unofficial EGU Games Day.

Games for Geoscience. Wed, 26 Apr, 10:45–12:30 CEST, PICO spot 3a

The first ‘bring-and-play’ Geoscience Games Night was held in 2018, featuring games like Flood: Attack and Defend, Downpour!, and a hydrology Snakes and Ladders game. It was well attended and our small space was cramped with people wanting to play the games.

The Games Night returned in 2019 and was a huge success. We had a bigger space but we ran out of tables, so many people took to playing cross-legged on the floor. In 2019, a Games Night led by Rolf Hut was held in San Francisco at EGU’s US cousin, the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting.

In 2020, the face-to-face Games Night could not go ahead, with EGU rapidly needing to adapt to a virtual conference. We didn’t want to do nothing so we live-streamed the convenors playing the geoscience classic, Monster Flux! Ok, it has nothing to do with geoscience but we discussed geoscience as we tried to play the game at the same time.

The conference was virtual again in 2021 and we joined the 8-bit revolution by hosting a Games Night within a GatherTown Games Room. What pandemic would be without a virtual pub quiz, and I took up the mantle of quiz master with my Eurovision, Spurs, and Rolf Hut themed quiz and treasure hunt.

Sadly, the uncertainty in 2022 that forced EGU into an unexpected hybrid delivery meant we had no Games Night, but we are back for 2023!

The ‘bring-and-play’ event is returning for the first time since 2019 – details can be found here on the conference website. We rely on people bringing games along, preferably with some geoscience theme but we won’t be checking, so please do bring something along. Or, just bring yourself and join one of the other games happening. Snacks and refreshments will be available in the nearby poster halls.

Onsite Geoscience Games Night. Weds 26 Apr, 18:00-19:00 CEST, Room -2.31

Sadly, we needed to cancel our hybrid event, the live stream with science-roleplay heroes, the RPGeeks. Instead, we will host a hang-out and play event in the Gaming Hub of the EGU Gather Town Games Room. The Games Room itself it to the left of the central escalators, then go forward and to the left. I (Chris) will be playing TerraNil – come join me to chat games and geoscience as we play our favourite games.

Virtual Geoscience Games Night. Weds 26 Apr, 18:00-19:00 CEST, The Games Hub in the Games Room.

If you have a game you’d like to bring to the Games Night, please get in touch (cloudskinner at gmail do com) as we’d love to promote it. Here’s what we have confirmed:

Dirty Matter: The Soil Game by Christina van Midden, Emma (Bea) Burak, Nicolas Beriot, Michael Löbmann, and Tanvi Taparia

A co-operative board and card game where players work together to prevent famine, water pollution, and climate breakdown by building healthy soil.

Save the Glaciers! An educational escape kit by Anne Chapuis, Clara Burgard, Etienne Ducasse, Samuel Cook, Léna Gauthier, Cruz Garcia Molina, Amélie Bataille, and Gaël Durand

Save the glaciers! is an educational escape kit designed for teenagers (11-18 years old) to learn what glaciers are, how they move, how they react to climate change and what people can do to slow down their melt.

Players have to sequentially solve 4 enigmas to unlock the next enigma until they reach the end of the game. Each enigma is designed to make the player discover and understand the following processes:

Melting of mountains glaciers contributes to sea level rise; Anatomy and mass-balance of a mountain glacier: What is it made of? How does it form? How does it grow and shrink?; Glacier sliding: glaciers are not static, they slowly slide under their own weight; Mountain glaciers are losing mass all around the world due to climate change, which can be observed by looking at their retreating termini.

Climate Fresk Workshop by Eliot Jager.

Want to help tackle climate change but don’t have time to become a climate scientist? In the collaborative Climate Fresk workshop you will learn the fundamental science behind climate change and empower you to take action.

Today, more than 1 million people have played this game!

France, Paris, 2022-12-14. Illustration of the Climate fresk workshops to raise awareness of climate change. Photograph by Mary-Lou Mauricio / Hans Lucas. France, Paris, 2022-12-14. Illustration de l’atelier de la Fresque du Climat pour sensibiliser au dereglement climatique. Photographie par Mary-Lou Mauricio / Hans Lucas.

Frenk Out will be bringing the games Star Realms and Welcome to the Moon.

Rolf Hut will be bringing a selection of print and play games and there may even be a Chat GPT created eco-RPG game on offer.

Grow me a River

I need a river. Not a real one but a model one. As I develop my YouTube channel, Model Life, I want to be able to demonstrate the playability of numerical models by doing experiments and letting viewers decide what to do next. Think of the EmRiver mini-flumes but in a computer and made of numbers instead.

People playing with an EmRiver mini-flume - a shallow metal tank filled with shredded plastic sand. Water is pumped into it to simulate the development of rivers.

An EmRiver mini-flume demonstrated by the Earth Arcade for the British Science Festival in Hull, 2018.

The easiest thing to do would be to use data from a real river. However, whenever you do anything with real world data you risk playing games in a way that affects real people and their property. No, I needed something made from scratch. I need to grow a river from nothing.

Rivers are complex things and growing one takes a while. I’m not really sure how long it takes for a river to ‘mature’ but I decided 500 years would be a good start. Obviously, I’m not growing a real river, I’m growing one in a numerical model called CAESAR-Lisflood – it won’t take 500 years as models tend to be quicker than real life but still a long time, 100 days to be exact.

What are numerical models, on Model Life

Starting on January 1st with a featureless plain and shallow straight channel to get it going, I will be flowing virtual water through the model. Each day, the model will process 5 years’ worth of data, simulating the flow of water and the processes of geomorphology – the erosion, transport, and deposition of mud and rocks.

You can follow along on my FloodSkinner YouTube channel, a support channel for Model Life – there will be a new video every day for 100 days. You can join the conversation on YouTube or via the Fediverse or Twitter – I’d love to see your predictions of how you think the river will change next.

Cut it out: How behavioural psychology can help us improve environmental modelling

I am speaking to the environmental modellers now. Imagine, you have been asked to make your model better, to improve its performance, and generally make it a more useful tool for decision makers. You have got a generous budget and free reign to do whatever you want. Just take a short moment to think about what you would do.

When you read the paragraph above, what did you think about? I am going to guess it was something along the lines of “Amazing, I’m going to add in representation of that process the model currently doesn’t have”. Maybe it was how you would increase the resolution of the model or how you would collect more data to add into it.  I am also going to guess that you did not think about what you would take away from your model.

A recent study by Adams et al (2021), published in Nature, found that we are hard wired to solve solutions by adding things in rather than looking at taking things away, despite the fact that taking something away would have been the better and more efficient way. I really encourage you to watch the video below that nicely summarises this work.

I know when I have approached modelling problems, my go to has been to add something in, rather than to consider what could be taken away. Yet, often when we add in new processes or increase the resolutions we may improve our outputs but we also increase the complexity, resulting in slower processing speeds and increased uncertainties. When assessing the models on how useful they are to decision makers, we may have actually made them worse.

The European Centre for Medium Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) have recently upgraded their Integrated Forecast System. One of the improvements they made is a great example of taking something away to solve a problem. Previously, they had stored numbers using 64-bits of memory within their computers. Using 64-bit over 32-bit allows you to store bigger numbers, i.e., use more decimal places and increase the precision of the output. This sounds like it is better, it sounds like if you had the option to go to 128-bit you ought to as you could have even bigger numbers and even greater precision still. The flipside is that storing and computing with bigger numbers takes a tiny bit longer to do each time and when multiplied over the vast number of sums the supercomputers at ECMWF do, this adds up. They realised that they did not need that level of precision and, for many processes, using 32-bit instead of 64-bit made little different to the output. Making the switch reduced the computational load by 40%, meaning swifter, and therefore more useful, results.

Photo by Gabriela Palai on

This is not anything new in numerical modelling and reduced-complexity approaches are popular and long established. However, these were designed with a conscious effort to take things away and it is when we stop making this conscious effort that we default back to adding things in as a first option. This is especially true, as the video tells us, when our cognitive load is high. Next time you sit down to solve a modelling problem make sure to remind yourself to stop and think – what can I take away to make this better?


Fridays are my non-work day so I try to write a short blog post on my thoughts about environmental modelling, games, or really anything else that is on my mind. The purpose is for nothing more than the love of writing and for practice but I do hope you enjoy them. For the avoidance of any doubt, all of the views and opinions I express in these blogs are very much my own and not those of my employer.

On the useful-ness of models

One thing I’d really like to do in 2021 is get back into writing just for fun. Although I have written a lot academically in the last few years, my space and time to just write my thoughts had become really squeezed. I hope to use some spare time on Friday mornings to quickly put a few words together about what’s on my mind at the time and re-engage with the craft. These are my own personal views and opinions.

On the useful-ness of models

Most numerical modellers will be familiar with mathematician George Box’s quote “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. I love this quote, as even though I don’t think it was intended for numerical simulations, it strikes right at the heart of many of the issues our research community are trying to address.

Photo by Genaro Servu00edn on

Too often though, we don’t consider how ‘useful’ our models are. How wrong they are? Yes, we look at that all the time. We develop new ways to calculate, express, and communicate how wrong they are. We work hard on new methods and at collecting new, more, and better data so we can make the models less wrong. When we’ve done this, we have models that are either less wrong, which is good as they will be right more often, or are able to show us how wrong they might be, which is also good as it allows people to make better informed choices about risks.

When we do consider how useful a model is, it’s often in the ways discussed above. Providing decision makers with the information about how wrong a model is lets them make a better informed decision. It is more useful to them. Great, box ticked. But, in my opinion, the model does not stop there.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on

In a recent post for CIWEM, Phiala Mehring, a floodie, research director, and PhD researcher, discussed how we communicate with communities affected, or at risk of being affected, by flooding. It’s a really important post so please go read it here. There was one paragraph that really stood out for me:

“Imagine having lived in your home for three decades, to have a complete stranger knock on your door to say you are at risk of flooding “because the flood model says so”. What do you believe; a model that simulates the area – or your lived experience of more than 30 years?”

In this situation, to this audience, it does not matter how precise and accurate that model had been made. All the effort and hours put in developing methods to communicate how wrong the model might be do not matter either. It also does not matter how useful decision makers found it. Here, in this situation, the model is useless.

How we utilise model results when working out in the real-world communicating flood risk is a crucial facet of the model’s development and its use. It’s just as important as finding reliable and accurate rainfall information to input into it right at the start of the chain. And it’s the reason we should always measure our models by that one criteria George Box proposed to us – how useful they are.

Games for Geoscience #EGU18 @EuroGeosciences

I am super-excited to be Convening a session on Games for Geoscience at the 2018 General Assembly of the European Geoscience Union (EGU). In fact, I am so super-excited, I am prepared to use the phrase ‘super-excited’. I am also super-excited to be co-convening alongside two of my favourite people, Sam Illingworth and Rolf Hut.

I like playing games. Personally, I’m not a fan of board games, I prefer games with a narrative – I like tabletop strategy games, having been addicted to Games Workshop games since the age of 10. I like computer games, but having slow reactions and no hand-to-eye co-ordination, I have to stick to games like Football Manager (which my wife describes as ‘just answering emails’).

It’s probably not surprising then my research revolves around numerical modelling. There is great potential for game-like application for numerical modelling – I once got a group of 40+ 9-year olds running CAESAR-Lisflood by describing it as ‘Minecraft with worse graphics’ – and those who work with them often have a playful curiosity. We like to ask questions like ‘I wonder what happens if I do this?’, and this playful curiosity can lead to the discovery of some of the most fundamental knowledge about how our planet works.

From the original hacked version of CAESAR-Lisflood, through to TideBox and the Defend the City workshop, I’ve found that the numerical model has lent itself to a gaming environment extraordinary well for the use in teaching and public engagement.

Games are pervasive throughout Geosciences, finding use in research, in teaching, and in wider communication. They are powerful training tools. I bet you have used or played games in your work, maybe without even realising it. If you have, then this is the session for you! We are not going to be strict about definitions for what is considered a game or not, just as long as it is playful, interesting, and most importantly, fun.

Abstract submission is open from 13th October 2017, and closes 10th January 2018.

If you’ve never submitted to an Educational and Outreach Symposia (EOS) session before, I would encourage you to do so – they are very enjoyable, and as they don’t prohibit you submitting another Oral abstract for another session they are great way to maximise the exposure of your research.

You find more details here.

Alongside the session we are hoping to host a related gaming session, giving us all the opportunity to try each other’s games – have something you want to bring along? Let us know.

EGU Blood Bowl Cup – I’m also interested in running the first ever EGU Blood Bowl Cup. I only need at least one opponent to make this happen, so let me know if you want in. I might even make a special pitch for the occasion.