Storytelling and play for climate futures

By Jo Lindsay Walton

One of the most interesting projects I’ve been part of this year is the climate futures roleplaying game Kampala Yénkya. With the support of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme, I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside Dilman Dila and Maurice Ssebisubi (Uganda), Polina Levontin and Jana Kleineberg (UK), Bright Nkrumah (Germany / South Africa), and assorted playtesters and reviewers, to create innovative educational materials around climate adaptation, localised for Uganda.

UNESCO highlight the importance of futures literacy to a just climate transition:

Democratizing the origins of people’s images of the future opens up new horizons in much the same way that establishing universal reading and writing changes human societies. This is an example of what can be called a ‘change in the conditions of change.’

In the Global North, games and science fiction have longstanding links with futures research, and more recently have developed a strong connection with climate futures specifically (something we’ll be exploring in a special issue of Vector in spring 2023). By contrast, African speculative cultures are underutilised and under-theorised in the context of adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. 

The project’s key deliverable was a tabletop roleplaying game, Kampala Yénkya (the title roughly translates to ‘Kampala of Tomorrow’). The game involves mapmaking and collaborative storytelling, and seeks to empower players to imagine the future of Kampala in many different ways. It is available to download here, under a Creative Commons license.

This is the first edition (‘Oracle’ edition), designed to be played with fairly minimal materials: a copy of the rules, an ordinary deck of playing cards (or two), some tokens (e.g. matchsticks), and blank paper and pen for drawing a map.

Science fiction writer Dilman Dila provided the initial inspiration and wrote a substantial portion of the game materials, as well as a supplementary collection of short stories. The game design was informed by the Applied Hope: Utopias & Solarpunk games jam which I co-organised last year, supported by SHL. Kampala Yénkya evolved through several rounds of playtesting in four of Kampala’s secondary schools. Maurice Ssebisubi, an environmental scientist and an educator, coordinated the games that involved nearly two hundred students, ensuring that the game is responsive to local climate information needs while also being fun and inspiring to play.

The bulk of the funding was made available from the SSRP’s Fund #6 to support the work of a team of Ugandan and UK academics, educators, and artists, to develop and test innovative climate action education materials for use in Uganda. SHL provided support in-kind in the form of me, and also a little extra funding for translation. All the core team members also volunteered additional time on the project. Special thanks also to Peter Newell and Michael Jonik for their help early on.

Outputs

Kampala Yénkya: Oracle Edition is now available as an open beta. This version of the game can be played with easily sourced materials (matchsticks, playing cards, pen and paper). The oracle edition is published in English and Luganda. bit.ly/ImagineAlternatives

Kampala Yénkya: Deluxe Edition is currently is in its playtesting / graphic design phase (design by Jana Kleineberg). Game packs will be delivered to 20 further Ugandan schools in late 2022 / early 2023. Each game pack contains:

  • Game materials and instructions — custom designed cards and ‘story stones’ for playing Kampala Yénkya. With the help of narrative prompts, players imagine Kampala in 2060, while also getting quizzed on their climate knowledge. 
  • Inspiration deck — extra storytelling and worldbuilding ideas written by Dilman Dila, with contributions by Polina Levontin.
  • Further information — for players who want a more in-depth exploration of themes raised within the game.

Ugandan SF writer Dilman Dila has written a collection of short stories (working title Kampala Yénkya: Stories) set in a future Uganda, which will be published by Ping Press in 2023, with an introduction by Wole Talabi. Dila’s five interlinked tales were developed in dialogue with climate experts across Uganda and the UK. The collection also includes Q&A to enrich its value in educational settings.

Activities

Uganda: Seventeen groups across four secondary schools participated in a climate quiz, raising awareness of climate issues and collecting baseline data to inform our project
Uganda: Students from four secondary schools participated in a series of Kampala Yénkya workshops, led by Maurice Ssebisubi. Students responded positively to the game, and many of their suggested improvements have been incorporated.
United Kingdom: Kampala Yénkya was featured along other arts-led climate communication projects at The Carbon Deli, a two-day installation at The 2022 Great Exhibition Road Festival in London.

Next Steps

The project wrapped up officially at the end of July, but the momentum has continued. Maurice Ssebisubi is leading on the creation of a network of environmental clubs across schools in Uganda. This work has been supported through our project, with the climate quiz and game playtesting used as activities to pilot the clubs.

We are exploring a potential workshop around the game at African Futures 2023 (Cologne).

The project will also be the central case study in a chapter on climate risk education for Communicating Climate Risk: 3rd Edition (SHL, 2023), from the Sussex Humanities Lab and the Institute of Development Studies PASTRES project.

All game materials are made available under a permissive Creative Commons licence, to encourage sharing and adaptation. We have received expressions of interest in localising the game for other countries (South Africa, Nigeria), and will be exploring ways to support this work in the future.

Tabletop roleplaying (TTRPG) is popular all over the world, including many countries in the Global South, for both entertainment and education. But as far as we’ve been able to discover, it doesn’t yet appear very prevalent in Africa. We would be interested in hearing from TTRPG players, designers, writers, or societies / groups from the continent.

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