What Happens When Gamers Become (Digital) Geoengineers?

Well before pandemics and viral infection were mainstream topics, the infamously outspoken Elon Musk urged his followers to prepare for a different kind of biological transmission: human life on Mars. The idea of terraforming Mars—that is, initiating geochemical shifts to produce an Earth-like, livable atmosphere—has been a prominent component of Musk’s business agenda since at least 2015. In August 2019, he wrote a tweet reiterating an explosively simple plan: “Nuke Mars!” As others have explained, the point of such a plan rests in the hope that detonating nuclear weapons on the frozen poles of Mars could release enough carbon dioxide and water vapor to create an atmosphere capable of heating the planet to livable temperatures. Despite Musk’s enthusiasm, it’s worth noting that scientists have pointed out the difficulty and maybe even sheer impossibility of sustained terraforming efforts—with or without nuclear weapons. But even so, geomorphic solutions to climate change—both on Earth and beyond it—are now becoming an increasingly prominent topic of discussion for academics, fiction writers, and even politicians.

If “planetary engineering” sounds more like something you might expect to encounter in sci-fi movies or video games, then you aren’t alone. In a response to Musk’s “Nuke Mars!” tweet, for example, one user suggests that Musk collaborate with the popular post-apocalyptic video game franchise Bethesda to “make fallout 5 on mars.” Musk responds “I’d play that game,” and even more tellingly, “guess I sort of am already.”

In recent years, though, it’s become possible to gamify the role of planetary engineer even without access to a billionaire’s financial resources. In the last six years alone, a new wave of planetary colonization and environmental management video games has witnessed the birth of Imagine Earth (2014), Planetary Annihilation (2014), Planetbase (2015), Universe Sandbox (2015) Stellaris (2016), Surviving Mars (2018), Eco (2018), RimWorld (2018), The Universim (2018), Planet Zoo (2019) and Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizon (2020). In each of these titles, players enjoy the ability to act as a geomorphic force with the power to explore, control, and alter geological terrain—and, in some cases, even create and destroy entire planets.

But what differentiates these games from the kind of geoengineering and terraforming that proponents of such ideas typically have in mind is that they don’t operate through physical terraforming, but through an emerging fantasy of digital terraforming. In other words, they express the idea that terraforming, like all other digital consumer experiences, is now becoming a “friction-free” process: rather than having to wait tens of thousands of years to terraform Mars, it has become possible to do so in a matter of hours with just a few clicks and keystrokes. But precisely what kind of environmental consciousness does this imaginary of digital terraforming develop? How are these models impacting or influencing popular conceptions of our planetary (or even interplanetary) environmental consciousness?

Visions of both physical and digital planetary management are largely inseparable from broader debates on the designation of “The Anthropocene” as the name of a new geological era in which humans have come to occupy the position of a “geological agent.” In some ways, the idea that humans play a role in shaping and manipulating ecological architectures isn’t a novel development (Oliver Morton, for one, extensively covers this argument in The Planet Remade). But what makes The Anthropocene unique in the eyes of many scientists and social theorists is the idea that rather than specific regions or continents, it’s now all of planet Earth that’s become an object of environmental management. As Dipesh Chakrabarty explains, The Anthropocene is a designation that implicates the work of the entire species over the entire planet. But Chakrabarty expresses skepticism towards the kind of “species thinking” that typically accompanies scientific and cultural debates on The Anthropocene. He questions, for example, whether such a mode of thought is even truly possible: “We humans never experience ourselves as a species. We can only intellectually comprehend or infer the existence of the human species but never experience it as such.”

Digital manipulations of a planet surface
Screenshot of Planetary Annihilation from online review. Photo from PC Gamer, October 3, 2014.

Yet in games like Surviving Mars (which lets players control the parodic “SpaceY”), “species thinking” becomes no less commonplace than desktop solitaire. Every day, players from around the world engage in the exercise of terraforming Mars in anticipation of hosting eventual human settlers, and even learn to manage extensive population growth once they arrive. Training players to manage game worlds that operate on planetary (and sometimes even interplanetary) scales, digital terraforming comes to represent a mass distribution of Anthropocenic “species thinking” as a form of leisure, play, and recreation.

Such planetary scales naturally obscure the complexity that would otherwise characterize the task of managing planetary ecosystems. In Playing Nature, perhaps the most thorough attempt to grapple with the broad intersections of video games and environmental thinking currently available, media studies professor Alenda Y. Chang considers this point through a case study of the game Spore. In this game, players oversee the evolutionary development of the game’s fictional species from micro-organism to interstellar spacefarers, and in this capacity, Spore offers players a wide range of options for colonizing planets and addressing various environmental ills that might present themselves.

Digital terraforming represents Anthropocenic “species thinking” as a form of leisure, play, and recreation.

The game’s environmental management mechanics, however, present something of a mixed message. “On the one hand,” Chang describes, “these tasks entreat the player to take on the mantle of environmental steward for colonized worlds; on the other, the espoused version of ecological care drastically oversimplifies life’s complexity and threatens to perpetuate the myth that humans can exercise surgical precision in diagnosing and addressing environmental ills.” Ultimately, while the game does “pose ecological lessons,” the operations of its digital terraforming mechanics relegate Spore, at least for Chang, to “environmental slapstick.” Perhaps the problem with “species thinking” isn’t that it’s impossible, but that it tends to produce a distorted image of what it looks like to act on the scale of an entire planet.

But ecological simplicity isn’t the only reason why digital terraforming might train a questionable form of environmental consciousness. The broader environmental stakes of planetary management fantasies—whether they appear in the form of video games, science fiction novels, movies, or even real-world political proposals—converge around the idea that entire planets can be re-imagined as a kind of amorphous medium subject to the will of an external architect. For many, the historical emergence of this kind of thinking is largely coterminous with images of planet Earth shot from space, especially Apollo 17’s famous Blue Marble image from 1972.

The Earth from space; a ball of blue and white swirls.
Earth as a “Blue Marble,” as seen from space aboard Apollo 17. Photo by NASA, November 30, 2007.

Though Blue Marble quickly became an icon of the 1970’s environmental movement and notions of ecological interconnection, others have seen the ability to capture all of planet Earth in a single frame as a precursor to fantasies of complete planetary and environmental control. Images like Blue Marble, as philosopher Frédéric Neyrat explains, signaled the construction of an “off-planet position for humanity” from which it became possible to look back at Earth from space and imagine the conditions under which the species might “rebuild the planet according to its own desires.”

Yet it’s from exactly this kind of “off-planet position” that digital terraforming games tend to orient their primary interface. Perhaps partially inspired by images like Blue Marble or other examples of Apollo-era “whole-Earth” photography, games like Planetary Annihilation, Stellaris, and the aforementioned Surviving Mars often leave players to occupy vaguely extra-planetary and ambiguously disembodied vantage points from which they can efficiently oversee the scope of their unfolding civilization’s economic or military progress. In contrast to the photographic rigidity of Blue Marble, such vantage points facilitate a fluid, mobilized, and scalable experience in which players are free to swivel planets like mounted globes and zoom in to regions that require particular industrial or military micromanagement. The planetary surface, rather than a “lived and living whole” (as Nicholas Mirzoeff describes Blue Marble), becomes an inert site of military and economic inspection.   

This “off-planet position” not only foregrounds the planetary scales of the Anthropocene, it also simultaneously limits our planetary imagination to scenarios of resource extraction or destruction. The geomorphic malleability of digital terraforming becomes especially apparent in games that provide players with the ability to explode or disintegrate entire planets. Planetary Annihilation, perhaps most notably, allows players to dramatically defeat enemies by strapping rocket propulsion systems onto celestial bodies in order to smash entire asteroids, moons, and planets into each other. In contrast to the environmental legacy of images like Blue Marble, the astronaut’s-eye-view of digital terraforming games tends to imagine planets that are either surrounded by interplanetary shipping lanes or actively exploding. Such in-game perspectives notably amplify Anthropocenic techno-fantasies of an interplanetary humanity that remolds planetary surfaces with the ease of sculpting (or destroying) a ball of clay.

A planet explodes
Screenshot of Planetary Annihilation from online review. Photo from PC Gamer, October 3, 2014.

But even in the case of digital terraforming, there’s reason to think that geomorphic video games might actually facilitate a renewed sense of environmental responsibility. The immediate visual feedback of watching planetary systems respond to the effects of human decision-making provides players with a cognitive reference point for reflecting on the ways that individual and collective actions might impact the planetary scale of Earth’s own environment. The 2018 game Eco, for example, attempts to facilitate precisely this kind of reflective experience. In the cheekily titled “How to Save the Environment By Letting Kids Destroy It,” game developer John Krajewski explains that video games provide an ideal medium to render (literal) climate change into an immediate and interactive problem. As Krajewski writes, Eco provides a game environment in which “the oceans can be polluted, forests cut down, the atmosphere wrecked with CO2, species rendered extinct, and food supplies destroyed. Players are equally capable of saving or destroying this world.” Even if players end up choosing the path of environmental destruction, as Chang writes in her own commentary on the game, then they are still “taught that every action has lasting ramifications.”

If we are to continue fantasizing about “shaping” other worlds to resemble Earth—whether physically or digitally—then it’s at least worth considering the social, environmental, and political stakes imbricated in the process of determining what elements of Earthly life are worth replicating.

Rob Nixon has argued that it is often difficult to represent the environmental effects of climate change because such effects tend to manifest in the form of a “slow violence” that unfolds over time rather than the kinds of spectacularly explosive, visually punctuated violence that we typically find in big-budget movies. But in the contracted time and space of computer-generated settings, digital terraforming might provide one way to overcome the hurdles of representing “slow violence.” While players try to strike a balance of planetary equilibrium in Eco or even Surviving Mars, environmental feedback becomes an immediate, pressing, and, perhaps most importantly, responsive force that demands the player’s attention.

In a 2019 article published only a couple months after Musk’s “Nuke Mars!” tweet, Chakrabarty poses the question “Are humans now a ‘God Species’?” He isn’t the first to liken The Anthropocene to a moment of supposed human deification. An emerging pop-culture imagination of planetary management and control has made at least one thing certain: from business to politics to video games, “Playing God” has never been more mainstream. So much so, in fact, that the category of “God Games” is itself developing into a rapidly proliferating genre that tends to make heavy use of digital terraforming and related mechanics.

Terraforming, originally coined by sci-fi writer Jack Williamson in 1942, literally translates to “Earth-shaping.” But just as biblical scholars have for centuries debated exactly what it means for God to have created humans in his “image,” perhaps planetary engineers will always remain similarly divided on the question of what it means for humans to shape other planets in the image of Earth. However, if we are to continue fantasizing about “shaping” other worlds to resemble Earth—whether physically or digitally—then it’s at least worth considering the social, environmental, and political stakes imbricated in the process of determining what elements of Earthly life are worth replicating. Musk has by now made it clear that his goal is to make Mars habitable so that humanity can become a “multi-planet species” as quickly as possible. But in a historical moment confronting environmental peril, growing economic and political inequality, and an ongoing movement to dismantle systematic racism, the dangers of disregarding these intersecting challenges and simply moving on to another planet—presumably only to export the same ill-fated social structures—has never been more obvious.

Featured image: Screenshot of Surviving Mars from online review. Photo from Game Skinny.

Doron Darnov is a graduate student in the Literary Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In Fall 2020 he will join the university’s Constellations program as a Mellon-Morgridge Graduate Fellow in Planetary Humanities. His research interests include space travel, environmental humanities, and digital media.” Contact.