Plastic Fantastic: Is there an eco-friendly solution to gaming's fatal attraction?
You watch albatrosses unwittingly feed plastic to their starving chicks. A hawksbill turtle struggles tangled in a plastic sack. Most distressingly of all, you are stunned by footage of a pilot whale clinging to her dead calf as you learn the gentle giant may have been poisoned by its own mother’s contaminated milk.
This vision of our oceans comes not from some apocalyptic board game but rather reality, as seen on our television screens. The BBC’s Blue Planet II, narrated by David Attenborough, was a wake-up call to a nation captivated by the beauty and fragility of our waters.
The series was the most watched on British television in 2017 and prompted a rapid shift in consumer attitudes towards plastic and its environmental impact. Elsewhere, the government has banned microbeads from soaps and cleansers and is targeting single-use plastics with new legislation. The 5p plastic bag tax has changed the way many people transport their groceries.
But while Attenborough warns that humanity holds the “fate of the planet in its hands”, is the tabletop industry – which relies so heavily on plastic – doing its part?
"Plastic production is set to quadruple by 2050. There is an urgent need to do something."
Unlike many retail products, board games and their plastic pieces are rarely single-use. In fact, many people keep their copies for a lifetime. But tabletop games are not immune to the excessive packaging that plagues other industries; boxes are wrapped in cellophane, individual components packed into one-use polythene bags.
Every gamer knows the joy of unboxing a new title comes with a hefty amount of waste. The fashion for legacy games that evolve as they are played brings with it extra rubbish, and as plastic miniatures become increasingly intricate so does the plastic trimming used to create and package them.
Fiona Nicholls, Greenpeace UK’s ocean plastics campaigner, reveals that a “truck-worth of plastic” enters the ocean every 60 seconds.
“There isn’t time to waste,” she urges. “We’ve produced a whopping 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic since the 1950s and plastic production is set to quadruple by 2050. There is an urgent need to do something about it.”
Greenpeace UK is campaigning for a reduction in unnecessary plastics, such as the wrapping given to fruit and vegetables. The average plastic bag, for instance, has a useable life of just 12 minutes.
“Last year Sir David Attenborough came into our living rooms and shone a huge, great, unmissable spotlight on the issue,” Nicholls continues. “Scenes of animals feeling the impact of plastic pollution made this something government and business couldn’t ignore.”
New research has revealed microplastic pollution on beaches could be affecting the sex of baby turtles while they develop in their eggs. A recent study found microplastics present in 100% of wild mussels from locations around the UK coast.
“Plastic is everywhere,” Nicholls says. “Whilst it’s almost impossible to avoid there is loads you can do to be a champion for reusable alternatives and reduce throwaway plastic. But we also need businesses and retailers to cut down on the plastic they’re producing.”
Photosynthesis’ box and components – including its 3D trees – are manufactured from recycled cardboard
More than a decade ago Californian accountant Beth Terry set out to ditch plastic from her life altogether. The My Plastic-Free Life blog which grew out of the project and subsequent smash-hit book Plastic-Free were some of the first outlets for people to reconsider their shopping habits.
Terry still offers advice on her blog to others looking to make a change. Her tip? If you cannot find the eco-friendly games you want, “buy secondhand”. You avoid plastic pollution but publishers avoid profit.
Last year, Blue Orange Games released the beautifully abstract environmental strategy title Photosynthesis. Shortlisted for a host of industry awards, the game was praised for its deceptively simple mechanics and elegant three-dimensional forest pieces.
The arboreal theme that met with such acclaim reflected another design decision – the board, pieces and box inserts were made using recycled cardboard.
“Blue Orange’s baseline is ‘hot games, cool planet’,” says the publisher’s Céline Casel. “We include in that social and environment issues. All through the year we do our best to reduce our environmental impact. Obviously Photosynthesis’ theme naturally led us to have environmentally-friendly components.
“It would have been contradictory to have plastic in the boxes. Nature is the mechanic of the game, so we decided to use recycled cardboard.”
The firm – which also published last year’s Spiel des Jahres winner Kingdomino – recently signed a commitment to plant two trees in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest for every one tree used in production. The result? Blue Orange will plant almost 2,400 trees this year.
Casel tells me: “We really often see plastic trays in board games and one easy possibility is to change it for cardboard. Using less plastic pushes us to find solutions, to choose materials carefully and think about other ways to complete a project.
“Besides being bad for the environment, plastic doesn’t have the same quality as other materials. Open a box and see how it feels to discover wooden pieces, cardboard tokens or even metal.”
"If there’s a trade-off of doing the right thing or making a profit, guess which one is chosen."
Tabletop games attract innovation from all corners. The majority of new publishers are spearheaded not by business-minded entrepreneurs but passionate game designers. Monetary gain is rarely a driving factor behind launching the latest title.
As a result, costly ethical design decisions can be make-or-break for first-timers. Often it is a choice between the cheapest materials available or not going to market at all. Unfortunately, many publishers – big and small – have found that plastic remains the cheapest option.
Mark Pearson runs the London Board Games Company, the studio behind The Football Game. A small family team, the Pearsons turned – as so many new designers do – to crowdfunding to back their game.
Pearson says: “There are things in the manufacturing process that we don’t have control of – for instance, the plastic gloss that’s added to our boxes. It’s up to the manufacturers to find cost-effective solutions rather than something we have direct control of.
“In The Football Game, it was more of a practical decision. We didn’t use one-use bags; we chose cardboard boxes for pieces and cards. That is a cost-effective alternative we chose which also reduces plastic.”
Pearson predicts that as consumers generally become more aware of the environmental impact of games, designers and manufacturers will cotton on and improve their process.
“I think it could help a crowdfunded campaign stand out,” he says. “If we launched a new game I would certainly look at it. On Kickstarter you get trendy badges for things like ‘Ships to Australia’. These affect people’s decision to back and play games. Perhaps not ‘plastic-free’ but ‘plastic-conscious’ could be a badge that would prove popular.”
The Football Game is advertised as colourblind-friendly. It’s an increasingly common example of a small decision that makes a product more accessible and therefore more marketable. Pearson views ‘plastic-conscious’ in the same mould.
“It would be a selling point; it could get a game recognised on BoardGameGeek’s lists of environmentally-friendly games, for instance. But it’s a barrier for small publishers – as a first-time publisher we were far more financially restricted about who and where the manufacturers were.
“That’s not to say that a small publisher can’t advertise that they’ve been as environmentally-conscious as they could have been, though.”
Like many wargames, Twilight Struggle uses cardboard counters (Image: Scott Mansfield)
One of the biggest challenges facing gamers that want to reduce their environmental impact is the seemingly unstoppable popularity of plastic miniatures. As games grow in scope and scale, designers are increasingly including a greater number of intricate plastic figures. Entire production companies for minis accompanying RPG systems have emerged and the inclusion of miniatures is a popular crowdfunding stretch goal
While few gamers are tossing their minis out in the same manner as the cellophane that protects the boxes, the production of plastic in the first place has a terrible environmental cost.
To put it in context, plastics amount to 8% of the world’s oil production. That’s the same as the entire aviation industry. And plastic production is set to explode exponentially over the next 30 years. The extraction of oil from the ground and seabed has been linked to air pollution, acid rain and human cancer, as well as disrupting animal migratory patterns.
That says nothing of the most visually immediate of all the dangers: oil spills. When the Exxon Valdez tanker collided with Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef in 1989 it poured nearly 11 million US gallons of oil into the Pacific, killing between 100,000 and 250,000 seabirds. The Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 leaked a staggering 210 million US gallons into the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental impact has been described as immeasurable.
Those who defend the use of plastic in games have highlighted that the production of cardboard uses significantly more energy than the production of plastic. Whilst true, this ignores the broader dangers, as well as the fact that the environmental impact of cardboard ceases as soon as it hits the shelves; it is recyclable, biodegradable and does not trap and kill marine life.
If the solution to weaning the tabletop industry off plastic is finding a suitable alternative then perhaps we need not look any further than cardboard – a material already at the heart of the hobby. Photosynthesis utilises cardboard inserts rather than plastic. The Football Game did away with baggies it replaced with small boxes.
One of the most acclaimed studios in the world has never given in to the allure of petroleum products. GMT Games, the publisher behind Dominant Species, Labyrinth: War on Terror and critical juggernaut Twilight Struggle, revels in the use of hundreds of cardboard counters.
Co-founder and game designer Gene Billingsley says: “I wish I could say that we are particularly groundbreaking or forward-thinking in our approach to counters. I think the truth is that we just grew up in a corner of the gaming industry – wargaming – that pretty much used cardboard counters and hex grids from the beginning.
“So, at first, we didn’t really know any other way.”
As GMT’s game line has broadened, Billingsley and his team have added new components. “We’ve found that larger, thicker, well-illustrated cardboard playing pieces are well accepted by gamers in lieu of plastic pieces.
“When a stand-up piece is required, we tend to use wooden blocks with stickers rather than plastic.”
GMT’s success with cardboard is a ray of hope for the industry – particularly for the wargaming genre in which plastic minis are so popular.
"If a way can be found to use greener materials and create less waste without raising prices too much then I think gamers should start to push the game companies to comply."
Perhaps the biggest drive in shifting attitudes must come from gamers. With designers, publishers and manufacturers operating on such fine profit margins, a change in demand can prompt a change in production.
James Davis and his wife Sheila hold an astounding 14,000 games in their collection – one of the largest in the world. The Colorado couple’s storeroom charts the history of modern tabletop gaming.
“We are both environmentally conscious,” James says. “So it is strange that I’ve never thought about this subject before. That leads me to believe that it isn’t on the mind of most other gamers – I definitely welcome the debate.
“In general most games over the years have not gotten worse with creating waste. The packaging has been fairly standard: shrink-wrapped cards, cellophane over the boxes. In fact, recently I’ve seen publishers include ziplock bags for the components. That eliminates a good portion of waste because they can be reused.”
James suggests even publishers who focus on cardboard tokens can do more to reduce the excess waste that is thrown out once chits are punched through the sheets.
“I do think companies should do more, but I also realise they are running a business,” he adds. “And if there’s a trade-off of doing the right thing or making a profit, guess which one is chosen.
“But if a way can be found to use greener materials and create less waste without raising prices too much then I think gamers should start to push the game companies to comply.”
Sadly the Davis’ attitude is not universal among the tabletop community. For a group that generally prides itself on forward-thinking attitudes I was astounded by the negative reaction I received during my research into eco-friendly options.
At the beginning of this journey I asked a simple question online: are there any eco-friendly publishers? I expected a conversation – not a backlash.
I was variously accused of “virtue signalling” – seemingly showing off my high morals – as well as asking a “silly” or “counterproductive” question and wasting everyone’s time when there are bigger problems in the world. Moderators actually had to step in to quell the row.
By 2050 it is estimated that the total weight of plastic in our oceans will overtake the weight of all fish. There are already 500 times more pieces of microplastic in the sea than stars in our galaxy. We are faced with a crisis – whether the entire tabletop community is ready to accept it or not.
Producers like Blue Orange are making a change and putting the environment higher up their list of priorities. Smaller studios like the London Board Games Company hope to seize the initiative and use the appeal of plastic-conscious products to win the backing of gamers. Others, like GMT, have shown that plastic alternatives do not just work but excel.
A failure to adapt to changing consumer demands is not just a threat to the environment but to the tabletop industry itself. The mantra ‘reuse, repurpose, recycle’ encourages people to eliminate waste from their lives. If gamers move away from buying new plastic-heavy games in a bid to be eco-friendly the alternatives are to buy secondhand, swap or pay to play at club nights and board game cafés.
The ultimate result is that small publishers will fold and big companies may be faced with thinning their product lines to only the most popular titles.
If the tabletop industry wants to win this particular game it will require a sea change in behaviour from all gamers. For once, the attitudes of a community which claims to represent progressive thinking is being left behind by society as a whole, floundering in an ocean of plastic.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming as part of a celebration of Magic: The Gathering's 25th anniversary. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.