Q&A

Designing Australian Games in an Ecological Crisis

SEI Collaborative Fellow James Dunk speaks to Meredith and Phil Walker-Harding, the founders of Joey Games, a new Australian board game company that celebrates local plant and animal life, about the role of play in building empathy and shared experiences in the face of heightened global crises.  

Illustration by Sarah Allen from her book Busy Beaks, published by Affirm.

James Dunk: What’s at the heart of Joey Games? 

Phil Walker-Harding: Our hope as we design and release new games is that we create meaningful moments of intergenerational play and will in some way foster a love for the people, plants and animals of Australia. These goals are quite specific to who we are as founders and the positive influence we’d like to have as a business. We also want to be a company that doesn’t have a solely profit-based bottom line. Our impact on the environment and our communities is something we take seriously and factor into all our decision making.   

Given the fragility of earth systems and many ecosystems, how are you approaching the costs and benefits of the venture? 

Meredith Walker-Harding: Well, the first question we felt the weight of was should we even start a business and bring more product into the world? We had to come to a place of believing our games would actually do more good than harm. We worked with a sustainability consultant who was so helpful in leading us through this questioning, and helping us quantify all the costs and benefits of what we wanted to do. Two of the best things about board games are that they are not disposable (in the sense that they are meant to be kept for a long time, even handed down) and that they are community building (they foster interpersonal connections and can build shared culture). These two values went much of the way in offsetting our angst about manufacturing anything new at this point in the climate crisis.  

PWH: How we approach the game and product design itself is also impacted. From the beginning we consider materials, production efficiencies, and ways we can design out waste. This means certain types of games, or certain game components won’t really be seen in our catalogue. Our consultant also helped us lessen the environmental impact at each stage in the manufacturing process – which factory we chose, the energy that was being used, the content and provenance of the raw materials and the recyclability of the finished product. 

Two of the best things about board games are that they are not disposable (in the sense that they are meant to be kept for a long time, even handed down) and that they are community building (they foster interpersonal connections and can build shared culture).”

I wonder how you’re thinking about the role of play in the face of the crises you’ve just mentioned. Is it hard to think about gaming in a world of climate change and rampant extinctions?  

MWH: Well, if there is a total climate apocalypse, games are one of the few forms of entertainment that will survive – you can always play Mancala with rocks in the sand! But whatever our future is, it will need to be more local, more simple and less wasteful. In their own humble way, board games point in this direction. We hope Joey as a company can be a conscious part of this, in the experiences we provide players but also in the way we try to do business. 

PWH: Play has important family and community dimensions. Our games are aimed at 6-10 year olds, but we’re very committed to intergenerational play. We want our games to create spaces for kids and adults to play together in a really meaningful way. This means that ideally the adult will be having as much fun as the child, rather than only overseeing or facilitating the game. Playing a board game seems to us to be one of the rare times when kids and adults of all generations can interact with more or less equal power, and that’s really special. For example, a child can teach their grandparent the rules of a game and even guide the whole experience. This kind of time together also seems to us like a good response to global crises that are deeply human – psychological and emotional and social – as well as structural and economic and political. 

How important is co-operative play in your game design?  

PWH: One of our three launch games is co-operative, and we feel this is an important mode of play for kids’ games. Some children really aren’t into tense competition (plenty of adults too!) and co-operative play allows for all sorts of other interpersonal dynamics to come into the play space. Of course, competition in a game doesn’t have to be modelled in terms of aggression or stealing. There’s certainly a place to use it in game design to spur the players on to something a little more positive. 

Joey Games is about celebrating Australian people, plants and animals and fostering care, and two of your first three games take up these themes directly. But is it hard to replicate life on a piece of cardboard, or with a deck of cards?  

PWH: There’s lots of interesting ways to represent life in a board game because a game is at its heart a system. So, in different ways this system can be built to reflect aspects of a plant or animal’s behaviour. Of course, in quite simple games like ours this will often be very abstracted, but I think there are opportunities to represent lots of interesting truths about our flora and fauna. We feel that the way games can best promote an idea, however, is through experience and empathy rather than overt conceptual teaching. For example, if you play our game Scribbly Gum, we hope you come away feeling a real fondness for the tree and for the moth larvae that make its beautiful scribbles. This to us is a more effective way to promote conservation work than, for example, a trivia game of tree facts. 

MWH: There have actually been a lot of really popular games with nature themes recently. Elizabeth Hargrave’s Wingspan is a huge hit and it’s literally about birds in their habitats. Other titles like Parks, Cascadia and Meadow really celebrate particular environments and ecosystems.  

We feel that the way games can best promote an idea, however, is through experience and empathy rather than overt conceptual teaching. For example, if you play our game Scribbly Gum, we hope you come away feeling a real fondness for the tree and for the moth larvae that make its beautiful scribbles.”

How has thinking about celebrating Australian plants and animals in play come up against the reality of the settler colonial project? 

MWH: We are at the very beginning of our journey with this, but we do hope Joey as a company can meaningfully celebrate Aboriginal peoples and cultures, as well as partner with and promote Aboriginal artists. As a starting point, we have committed to paying the rent, and we are looking to build partnerships with Aboriginal creatives. We hope these collaborations will produce games that can open eyes and hearts, and tell a different story about who we are than Squatter, Monopoly or Risk. 

To learn more and to support the launch of Joey Games, check out its Kickstarter campaign.


Meredith and Phil Walker-Harding are the founders of Joey Games. 

Dr James Dunk is a Research Fellow in the Department of History. Trained as a historian, his current research focus is the way the physical environment has figured in mental health and psychology. He works with scholars in psychology, medicine and public health to understand how ideas of health are becoming more ecological. His book, Bedlam at Botany Bay, won the Australian History Prize at the New South Wales Premier’s History Awards in 2020. His articles have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine and a range of historical journals. He writes essays and reviews for Griffith Review and Australian Book Review.