Clean Water Game Board (1972) by Urban Systems, Inc.Science History Institute
Sewage and smog aren't playful topics, but as public concern for the state of the natural world grew in the 1970s, game makers turned to the environment as a subject for play.
Through board games, players learned about the problems around them—and envisioned solutions.
Industrial Smog Blacks Out Homes Adjacent to North Birmingham Pipe Plant, This is the Most Heavily Polluted Area of the City (July 1972) by LeRoy Woodson and Environmental Protection AgencyScience History Institute
In the 1960s and ’70s smog was an everyday reality for many. Smog could engulf entire cities, as seen in this 1972 photograph of Birmingham, Alabama.
Smog occurs when pollutants from industry, car emissions, or fire accumulate in the air and undergo chemical reactions.
Smog: The Air Pollution Game Game Contents (1970) by Urban Systems, Inc.Science History Institute
In 1970 Congress strengthened the Clean Air Act by regulating emissions levels and giving the Environmental Protection Agency authority to enforce the new limitations.
Smog: The Air Pollution Game was released the same year.
Smog: The Air Pollution Game Game Board (1970) by Urban Systems, Inc.Science History Institute
Players were town air quality managers, balancing planning decisions for families and industries with political favorability, the environment, and finances by managing industry, solid waste, and transportation. During a turn, players made choices that affect their town’s growth.
For example, when planning transportation, players could promote electric cars or public transit. Chance caused the wind direction to shift and blow pollutants over town boundaries. Each decision had consequences that impacted the town’s future development and economy.
Foam, a Sign of Pollution, Floats on the St. Croix River at Calais, Down River from the Georgia Pacific Paper Mill (May 1973) by Lee Rockwood and Environmental Protection AgencyScience History Institute
Water pollution was also a concern for many in the 1970s. Pesticides, fertilizer runoff, industrial pollutants, and trash polluted waterways across the country.
This image shows the St. Croix River in Maine. The foam is a sign of contamination from upstream paper mills.
Clean Water Game Box, angled view (1972) by Urban Systems, Inc.Science History Institute
In 1972 the United States Congress passed the Clean Water Act to protect waterways by setting water quality standards, limiting the pollutant levels and funding new sewage treatment plants.
That same year, Urban Systems Inc. released Clean Water.
Clean Water Bottom of Box (1972) by Urban Systems, Inc.Science History Institute
In Clean Water, players began by choosing a lake to manage. The player to their right was “upstream” of them; the player to their left was “downstream.”
Clean Water Game Board (1972) by Urban Systems, Inc.Science History Institute
Each player tried to stock their lake with a healthy and sustainable number of organisms including sunfish, worms, weeds, and algae.
Polluting industries and activities constantly threatened the ecological balance.
Players grappled with pollutants from residents, farms, nuclear power plants, the steel industry, and paper and food factories.
As a player moved around the board, they could stock their lake with the species corresponding to the space they landed on, keeping in mind the need to maintain a delicate ecosystem balance.
If they landed on a pollution triangle, they threw the die to find out how pollution affected their ecosystem.
Players could choose to pay to abate the effects of pollution, negating the consequences of pollution for their lake.
Clean Water Pollution Sources and Results Charts (1972) by Urban Systems, Inc.Science History Institute
But the next player was downstream: they were powerless to stop upstream polluters and suffered the consequences of pollution even if the previous player had chosen pollution abatement. This game mechanism highlighted the interconnectedness of resource usage.
Gomston, A Polluted City: Classroom Simulation in Ecology Game Box (1973) by Norman S. Warns, Jr.Science History Institute
Game designers of the 1970s also targeted younger audiences.
Gomston was a 1973 roleplaying game for middle and high school students. Acting as members of city interest groups, players addressed water and air pollution, the two main forms of pollution in the city of Gomston.
Gomston, A Polluted City: Classroom Simulation in Ecology "Before" Poster (1973) by Norman S. Warns, Jr.Science History Institute
The fictional city of Gomston faced many challenges. The sewage department, chemical plant, steel mills, corn processing plant, and oil refinery all dumped waste into the river. Pesticides and fertilizer runoff from farms also polluted the river.
Steel mills and the power company spewed particles into Gomston’s air. Cars, stockyards, and a garbage dump burning trash also released particles.
These Gomston sites and activities reflected real-world sources of air and water pollution.
Gomston, A Polluted City: Classroom Simulation in Ecology Game Contents (1973) by Norman S. Warns, Jr.Science History Institute
Players needed to cooperate to solve Gomston’s pollution problems.
During the game, students were divided into interest groups. As they played, they advanced their own group’s interests with solutions they devised themselves.
Gomston, A Polluted City: Classroom Simulation in Ecology Close-Up of Role Designation Signs (1973) by Norman S. Warns, Jr.Science History Institute
Forestry and wildlife teams advocated for nature.
Members of the media reported on the daily developments of other groups.
Strategy was also part of the game. Steel and chemical teams might attack other groups to deflect attention from the damage caused by economic interests.
Gomston, A Polluted City: Classroom Simulation in Ecology "After" Poster (1973) by Norman S. Warns, Jr.Science History Institute
As a class, the groups came together as the Gomston City Council to discuss their proposed solutions and forge a path forward. If they found a workable resolution for all the interest groups, the whole class passed. Without a consensus, the entire class failed.
Environmental disasters inspired game developers in the 1980s and ’90s too. One of the most dramatic was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In March 1989 the tanker inundated Alaska’s Prince William Sound with 10.8 million gallons of oil, killing birds, fish, otters, and whales.
Oil Spill Game Box, direct view (1990) by NewHagy, Inc.Science History Institute
In 1990, Oil Spill helped players understand the complexities of shipping oil in sensitive environments.
Players learned how environmental ethics, legislation, industrial design, and technology could make transporting harmful materials through sensitive environments safer.
Oil Spill Game Board Detail (1990) by NewHagy, Inc.Science History Institute
In the game, players were oil tanker captains who picked up oil barrels while avoiding collisions with obstacles.
The die roll determined the number of spaces a player can move. During a turn players needed to move in straight lines. They could change direction once per turn.
Oil Spill Game Board (1990) by NewHagy, Inc.Science History Institute
Challenges such as reefs and ice made the game a navigational challenge. Players needed to get to the barrels of oil without hitting those obstacles. If their path went through these objects, it resulted in an oil spill.
Oil Spill Game Card (1990) by NewHagy, Inc.Science History Institute
As players navigated the sea, they received chance cards if they landed on a Coast Guard square. These cards promoted safer practices for transportation, technological development, and regulation.
The first player to reach the refinery with at least three barrels of oil won.
Pollution Solution: The Game of Environmental Impact Game Box, direct view (1989) by Lauren Isenberg ZinnScience History Institute
Not all environmental games of the period focused on disasters. During the 1980s and ’90s, children encountered the “3 Rs” at an early age. They learned to reduce, reuse, and recycle alongside reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Pollution Solution tapped into such values.
Pollution Solution: The Game of Environmental Impact Game Board (1989) by Lauren Isenberg ZinnScience History Institute
Players began by distributing numbered land section cards.
Each card had a source of pollution on one side and a potential solution on the other.
Players laid down a solution card with an even roll and a pollution card with an odd.
The game ended when cards covered the board.
Pollution Solution: The Game of Environmental Impact Problems and Solutions Cards (1989) by Lauren Isenberg ZinnScience History Institute
A player who rolled an even number could clean up a polluted square by giving a solution to the problem.
Some of the problems could be solved on the household level, such as switching detergents. Other problems required large-scale solutions, such as changing energy sources.
Pollution Solution: The Game of Environmental Impact Create Your Own Solution! (1989) by Lauren Isenberg ZinnScience History Institute
Pollution Solution also allowed players to create their own solutions, which could be accepted if other players agreed that the idea would solve the problem. As in Gomston, this open-ended format encouraged creative thinking.
Clean Water Overpopulation Chart (1972) by Urban Systems, Inc.Science History Institute
Games about pollution revealed a surprising history about how this medium created an interactive way for Americans of all ages to think meaningfully about threats to their environments and potential solutions. They provided spaces to think, act, play, and reimagine.