A Word of Advice to Environmental Advocates: Stop Saying “Game Over”

It’s not helping…

The phrase “Game Over” has recurred several times over the last few months when scientists talk about the environment: Most famously, James Hansen of NASA said it about the potential impact of the Keystone pipeline; recently, Jane C.S. Long told The New Yorker that it would be “game over” if Arctic permafrost started to melt; the phrase has appeared in headlines and op-eds about seemingly every environmental issue.

I’m not sure if one scientist said it first, and everyone else thought it sounded cool, or if some liberal Frank Luntz-type sent some memo about the phrase to environmental advocates everywhere, or if it’s just a coincidence. Either why, though, they should really stop, for at least six reasons:


1) Saying “Game Over” makes you sound like you are talking about a video game

The phrase “Game Over” is primarily associated with video games. Arcade games initially invented the phrase as a way to tell players that they needed to put more money in the machine, and it became a staple of video games for years. This dramatically lowers the stakes when advocates are trying to raise them. Scientists are trying to communicate the potential end of the world, but they are actually evoking a fun memory of a childhood game. If anything, the phrase “Game Over” will make most adults wistful not scared.



2) Saying “Game Over” does not actually indicate finality

People currently using the phrase are trying to evoke a sense of doom and destruction that could accompany certain policy decisions. And yet the whole point of the “Game Over” screen was to get people to put more money in and keep playing. In other words, “Game Over” DID NOT ACTUALLY MEAN THE END OF THE GAME. Perhaps the defining feature of video games is that you can keep playing even after you “die.” This is not a helpful connotation in talking about the potential destruction of the Earth.

Speaking of which…


3) Saying “Game Over” is vague and imprecise

What exactly does “Game Over” even mean w/r/t the environment anyway? Those using the phrase seem to be aiming for some sense of abstract terror, but their ambiguity negates this message. It might work if they were talking about something like a nuclear strike, or a terrorist attack—something where disaster is hard to anticipate and death is usually instant. I’m no scientist (obvs), but I’m pretty sure changes to the environment tend to be extremely gradual, so it’s hard to see a moment that would constitute “Game Over.” It’s not like the environment can “end,” can it?

Presumably, when people say “Game Over” they mean that some policy or action could make the trends of global warming irreversible, or impossible to adapt to. These ideas are not as simple as “Game Over,” but their specificity actually makes them far scarier.

On that note…


4) Saying “Game Over” sounds like you are just fear-mongering

As noted above, I’m not a scientist. But I tend to take scientists’ claims at face value. Nevertheless, the phrase “Game Over” is so vague and so clearly meant to evoke fear that it’s hard to take seriously. It sounds, in fact, exactly like the baseless and absurd claims that same-sex marriage will “destroy traditional marriage”—an empty threat used to scare people to your side.

Of course, I’m not saying that scientific claims about the environment are baseless and absurd—I’m not some global-warming denier. But to people who remain unconvinced or skeptical, the phrase sounds hollow. If the potential consequences of certain policies are truly devastating, then describe them and how they will be devastating! It’s much more effective to explain how a policy will, say, dramatically increase the cost of food by destroying farmland, than it is to try to scare people with some vague phrase.

Not to mention…


5) Saying “Game Over” sounds like you are exaggerating

For a group that’s so often accused of misleading, embellishing, or outright lying to the public, you’d think scientists and environmental advocates would be wary of such accusations. And yet implying that one specific law or action will result in the end of Earth as we know it is inevitably going to sound extreme. It may well be true (have I mentioned that I’m not a scientist?), but it still sounds like a lie. It’s better to be more modest in your predictions—and be taken seriously—than to be extreme and ignored.

And finally…


6) Saying “Game Over” only works once

You can only threaten the end of the world once; after that, you have a Chicken Little problem. And using the phrase “Game Over” encourages defeatism on the part of those who believe you. Take, for instance, Dr. Hansen’s insistence that the Keystone pipeline will be “Game Over” for the environment: It may have disastrous consequences, but that pipeline is probably going to get built one way or another. President Obama has said as much.

And yet, I doubt this will be the last environmental issue of all-time. Presumably, there will be something else Hansen et al. need to convince the public of, and those who listened to his claim now will be hopelessly discouraged: “Why bother? The world’s going to end anyway…”

As I think I mentioned, I am not a scientist. But I like to think I know something about language, and some scientists have been using it all wrong.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Alaric Nilyew on May 16, 2012 at 1:55 PM

    John, you’re a scientist in my book.


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