What my growing interest in chess tells me about climate communication

There is an app installed on my cell phone—an app for learning chess. Until a few weeks ago, chess has never really interested me. Because, honestly, when I want to show people how bad I am at forward-thinking, I just shove my current account balance in their faces. I’ve come to associate the game with headaches; it’s dull, dispassionate, almost a little pretentious. When others talked about the game, I tended to go into overdrive. Yep, we get it; you are trueeeeee thinkers. Your weapon is your mind. You concentrate for fun. You guys are sooo great. F*cking show-offs.

But now, suddenly, I am too interested in the game. Well, at least I got closer to the game, gained a new perspective. And why?

On October 23, 2020, the series “The Queen’s Gambit” was released on Netflix. The historical drama follows the life of an orphan girl/chess prodigy in the 1960s on her rise to the top of the male-dominated chess world as she struggles with a drug and alcohol addiction. And what can I say? The series is fantastic. At least in my opinion. (And my opinion can be trusted, as I have absolutely no expertise in this area. At all.) Still, I definitely loved it.

The series got me so carried away that I suddenly became interested in chess. Chess was unexpectedly associated with passion for me. Not just with cocky, privileged assholes who want to show how smart they all are. It tells a story of a girl who discovers a passion for chess, struggles with her own ups and downs, struggles with herself, with the world. And you root for her, want to see her win; you identify with her. And this enthusiasm also transfers to playing chess. One’s own interest and passion for the game awake.

The topic of climate protection is judged by many in a similar way as the game of chess was judged by me: A few privileged assholes who suddenly want to tell the rest of the world how to live. Most people know about climate change by now, have reasonably understood that it is a threat to our lives (or our way of life). But it often doesn’t go much further than that. There are other problems in the world, in our own lives, that are (or at least seem to be) much more urgent right now. Climate change has to take a back seat. Thank you very much.

It turns out that just throwing information at the heads of people who have never really been in real contact with the issue before (at least in a positive, informative way) just doesn’t work. We’ve tried often enough; scientists have been trying to beat the issue of climate change into people’s heads for 50 years now, always with the desire to trigger a change in behavior, a change in society, a change in politics. And even if a small group – mainly consisting of inhabitants of rich countries with a high level of education – have accepted the topic for themselves and are actively fighting for it; there is a large part of the world’s population that seems to know hardly anything about the issue, or seems to know the rough topic, but has not yet really realized the drastic nature and the need for action behind it.

Because if there is one thing I have learned in my endless studies of psychology, it is that people are not rational. No, quite the opposite. Our minds are full of psychological mechanisms, cognitive shortcuts, and -as harsh as it may sound- self-lies. Rational deciding is exhausting; that’s why we rarely do it. Accepting unpleasant truths hurts, so we get defensive (consciously or unconsciously). Throwing information at people and then hoping that this tactic will eventually lead to a change in attitude and behavior is – simply put – naive. Even more so when the respective circumstances are so unpleasant that they will negatively affect one’s own life, one’s own future, and additionally, also demand an extreme behavior change (which can be quickly perceived as a restriction).

So simply offering information doesn’t seem to work. What should we do then? Instead, we should try another way: through emotions. Informing in passing, but with the primary goal to arouse passion for an issue, in this case, climate change.

“The Queen’s Gambit” doesn’t want to inform about chess primarily. Sure, you get a few rules about the game now and then, you understand how the world of chess looks like, but not very much more. What you really get to feel instead is the passion for chess. A story is told in which chess plays a significant role—the emotions through the story transfer to the game of chess itself.

And lo and behold, online chess game sites, retailers, and grandmasters report that the series has created a massive boom in people playing the game in the U.S. and around the world. The U.S. Chess Federation recorded its highest membership numbers since the pandemic began in the middle of this month, and hundreds of women have signed up for beginner courses. Online retailer eBay reported that since the release of “The Queen’s Gambit,” sales of chess sets and accessories have skyrocketed nearly 215%. Chess.com has seen a gigantic increase in player numbers since the release of “The Queen’s Gambit on” October 23, breaking records for the site. New members in the U.S. have gone from about 6,000 per day between October 1 and October 22 to more than 30,000 in the month’s final days.

And this is not the only example in which a significant change has been made in a society: Billie Holidays’ 1939 version of “Strange Fruit” has already been called “the starting gun for the Civil Rights Movement.” The song was one of the first songs about racial discrimination and segregation and sold millions of copies. Mainly because of a brutal lynching scene depicted in the lyrics, strong feelings were triggered in the listeners. The feelings led many people to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. a little later.

Or the movie “Philadelphia,” which was released in 1993: The work is about the journey of a young gay lawyer, played by Tom Hanks, who is fired from his law firm after discovering he has AIDS. As one of the first films to address the issue of AIDS and homophobia, the work helped destigmatize the subject, which, until then, few wanted to talk about.

There are also studies on the “Harry Potter” book series, which showed that reading the books positively affected attitudes toward discriminated groups. As readers identified with the tolerant Harry Potter (rather than Voldemort), their bias against minorities shrank.

And all of these examples are just a small part of the vast amounts of influence that art and media have had on society.

And I know individuals who have been dealing with the climate crisis for a long time would undoubtedly have a hard time imagining such a serious issue being mentioned in passing. To put other things in the foreground, when there is almost not a more serious issue than climate change, which threatens all of our lives. But as I said before, this kind of communication simply doesn’t work. We tried this technique for far too long. It only leads to suppression, to defensive annoyance. It is time to sensitize the population to nature in a different way: through emotions.

Streaming sites like Netflix, Disney, or Amazon Prime have already presented their plans to switch to green energy to meet the fight against climate change. It doesn’t matter whether this is a PR campaign or not: the social pressure is high. So why stop there?

Screenwriters, producers, musicians, authors, or influencers, what are you waiting for? It’s not like I’m expecting much. Only that in your brilliant works, dripping with stirring emotions and passion, these stimulations are associated with the fight against climate change. Fuck, after seeing “The Office,” I suddenly felt really up for an absolutely boring office job. If that’s possible, then all the more reason to be passionate about a subject whose basic theme alone is wonderfully dramatic. It’s time to stir the emotions for climate change through classic storytelling.

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