13 January 2020

Board game educates Japan about new energy source

Posted by Lauren Lipuma

Scientists in a natural resource-deprived country engage with citizens to promote awareness

By Ashleigh Papp

Chiharu leading a “fiery ice” experiment with young students at the Tokyo Museum of Maritime Science.
Credit: Daiki Aoyama and Chiharu Aoyama

A three-dimensional box that mimics an underwater ocean scene teaches players about an underwater fossil fuel resource in a new Japanese board game.

Methane hydrate is a natural energy resource buried deep below the ocean floor surrounding Japan. This mixture of methane and ice, once extracted, can be converted into methane gas, a viable energy source.

When Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant was shut down in 2011, following the Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and the disastrous nuclear accident that resulted, the country’s energy production almost entirely halted and Japan became a top importer of liquified natural gas. The Japanese government is now pursuing an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of methane hydrate believed to be below Japan’s coastal waters, with the goal of making the nation energetically self-sufficient.

Chiharu Aoyama, an ocean resources professor at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, suspects Japan’s citizens do not know about this natural resource. In 2016, Aoyama worked with Daiki Aoyama, a family member and game hobbyist, to design a board game to raise awareness about methane hydrate among Japanese people of all ages.

They presented their game last month at the 2019 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Experiencing the ocean in 3D

“A lot of board games are flat,” Daiki Aoyama said. He wanted the users of the game to experience the depths of the ocean, so he built a game with four sides to create a three-dimensional experience. Small, magnetic boats are placed on top of the ocean box while a string, connected to the magnetic ship above, dangles into the oceanic depths below. A 5-inch by 6-inch grid is drawn on the ocean surface, or top of the box, and the sea floor, or bottom of the box, so that the ship and its dangling string correspond with the same gridded location. 

Board game “Search for the Burning Ice” instructions showing new users how to play.
Credit: Daiki Aoyama and Chiharu Aoyama.

Three different types of cards are randomly placed in the squares on the gridded ocean floor: Sakanacchi, or “fishy,” Sekyusan, an oil blob, and Methane Boy, the sought-after resource. Methane Boy cards must be touching at least one other methane, because in real life, this resource is found in large deposits.

Players take turns choosing between three types of action: Seismic Survey, a cross-shaped scan of the opponents grid that gives away the location of any Methane Boy and Sekyusan cards, Quantitative Echosounder, a 3-inch by 3-inch grid surrounding the opponent’s ship that reveals any Methane Boy or Sakanacchi cards, or Drilling, a single grid guess that yields whatever card is below it. The first player to collect six methane hydrate cards, wins.

Chiharu Aoyama brings the board game, along with children-friendly methane hydrate experiments, to a summertime children’s camp at the Tokyo Museum of Maritime Science. Along with the game, she reveals to students the confusing and mysterious properties of methane hydrate — first as chilling white pellets then fiery ice that leaves behind cold water. This experiment gave rise to the board game’s name, “Search for the Burning Ice.” The game is also available to buy.

Using the game to explain methane hydrate and educating citizens on its presence in surrounding oceans, Daiki Aoyama and his team hope to inform audiences of all ages. During the summer camp, parents often attend as well.

“Sometimes the parents are more interested than the kids,” said Mina Haworth who works with Daiki Aoyama at Japan’s Independent Institute.

“Education takes different paths,” said Maggie Lau, a scientist at the Chinese Academy of Science who is interested in using games to help teach science. “Gaming is an easy way to get kids and adults involved,” she said.

—Ashleigh Papp (@heysmartash) is a current student in the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program.