The Rise of Green Games

A screenshot of Walden, a Game shows a man standing by a boat on the shore of the pond.

What are video games good for? Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the question was steeped in moral panic. Do video games make players more violent? Do they desensitize players to the “real” world and “real” consequences? Although these debates still rage in some circles, developers and video game scholars have also begun exploring the role that video games can play in promoting social change. They are even exploring the potential of “green” video games to intervene creatively in the discourse of climate change and help raise environmental awareness.

Serious Games Go Green

Like novels and films, video games are sometimes framed as edutainment: media that combines educational and entertainment values. Some educational games (notably those which are not targeted at children) are released under a different label: serious games. Clark C. Abt coined the term in 1970 to describe games that are explicitly designed to playfully teach problem-solving skills related to concrete issues. The contemporary understanding of the term, however, emphasizes that serious games are engaged with non-trivial topics like mental health, war, social development, and climate change.

One of the most important festivals to showcase serious games is the Games for Change Festival. In 2017, Walden, a Game, won both Game of the Year and Most Significant Impact Winner. Although its designer, director, and writer, Tracy Fullerton, argues that it’s not “strictly” educational, there is a curriculum guide for educators who wish to incorporate Walden, a Game into their lesson plans, free of charge.

One of the efforts of the curriculum guide is to teach educators and students basic video game literacy. The guide includes a glossary of essential terms and explains briefly that—like novels and films—video games can be analyzed as vehicles of meaning in the sense that they make claims about the world, pose important questions, or dramatize moral dilemmas. Some video games use narrative techniques (plot and character, for example) to stage these claims, but video game scholars argue that treating games merely as narratives means overlooking the unique and medium-specific ways in which they present arguments by simulating interactive, rule-based systems. Many such insights gleaned from video game scholarship are present in the curriculum guide, which suggests players play critically, thinking about the game rules as they go.

Simulating Thoreau

Walden, a Game casts the player as Henry David Thoreau during his two-year stay in a cabin at Walden Pond. The surrounding woods, as well as some of neighboring Concord, can be explored in a leisurely manner. The simulated environment is rendered in high quality, 3-D images inspired by the Hudson River School, an art movement led by 19th century American landscape painters.

During the player’s stay at Walden Pond, there are several resources she needs to manage, like food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. Thoreau identifies the same “necessaries” in Walden. In this way both the book and the game make claims about what is essential in life, and what may be considered a luxury.

The strength of the video game is that it visually reminds players to replenish their stores through icons on the screen. Players are prompted to go fishing, gather wood, mend their clothes, or fix the cabin—all actions which involve mini-games. Failure to replenish one’s stores is penalized; fatigue hampers the player’s movement and can cause fainting, which eats up precious game-time. Mechanics like these are the backbone of the survival game genre that, through repetition and procedural feedback, hammers home quite forcefully the necessity of these “necessaries.”

A split log on a tree stump

In Walden, a Game, chopping wood, working on the shelter, mending clothes and other chores involve minigames. Image courtesy of USC Game Innovation Lab.

While gathering resources and tramping through the woods, the astute player will spot arrowheads that, when picked, trigger voice-over clips read by Into the Wild actor Emile Hirsch. The passages read are all gleaned from Thoreau’s work and serve to frame the player’s own wanderings along the lines of Thoreau’s Transcendentalist philosophy. The game features over three hundred of such voiceover instances, which means the experience of playing Walden, a Game is very much like having bits of Walden the book read to you.

Another, very different, resource that the game incorporates into its economy is inspiration. While failure to restore inspiration will not lead to anything as drastic as losing game-time, it will drain the brightness, color, and sound from the game-world, turning it drab and grey. Doing things like inspecting fauna and flora, reading books, and resting by cairns of solitude (elements inspired by the Walden chapters “Reading,” “Sounds,” “Solitude,” and “Visions”) will restore inspiration.

Seeking inspiration has consequences for gameplay. Players will spend at least some of their day restoring basic needs, but more if they want to be well prepared for winter. Unlike the active accumulation of necessaries, however, the option of restoring inspiration involves a more passive approach such as exploring the environment, locating cairns of solitude, and simply allowing for moments of peace and quiet to unfold. It is at these moments that the game comes closest to simulating Walden’s instances of high spirituality, in which the environment serves as a catalyst for a philosophy of connectedness and compassion. Seeking out moments such as these is what “playing deliberately,” the game’s slogan, is all about.

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Walking Sim / Reading Sim

The incorporation of passivity or inaction in gameplay is characteristic of contemplative, ambient games, such as so-called walking simulators, which require little or no action or strategy on the part of the player. This gameplay is revolutionary because it undermines the instrumental attitude that people often bring to bear on a video game’s virtual environment when they view it as a mere resource to be mined for its use-value. Walking simulators set up their players more humbly, as observers and explorers, whose gaming experience directly correlates to their emotional and imaginative response to the environment.

Not only is Walden, a Game something of a walking simulator, it is also a reading simulator, given its heavy reliance on text. Video games are multimodal; they combine visual, textual, audial, and procedural elements. However, Walden, a Game relies quite heavily on textual modes of storytelling. Quests are picked up through letters that a player receives at the cabin, and they are read for instruction. The actual correspondents are never seen—with the exception of Ralph Waldo Emerson—which gives the game an almost eerie feeling. Where are all these people leaving letters on your doorstep? And why do they only come around when you’re sleeping?

A book open to work by Plato

Walden, a Game relies heavily on the player’s engagement with the various texts, creating the impression that the game is not only a walking but also a reading simulator. Image courtesy of USC Game Innovation Lab.

Moreover, a player can inspect almost everything in the game by right-clicking. Doing so calls up an information box with a relevant quote from Thoreau’s work. If the information is new, it will be added to a journal that is called up at the end of every day for the player to browse their own unique compilation of quotes. This happens automatically, indicating the intended importance of the journal mechanic.

Personally, I find this intention a little misguided. In general, people don’t play video games to read lengthy texts on screens. They play video games because interactive environments are fun to explore and because the swiftness of the feedback loop between player input and game output, in which actions trigger real-time reactions, is immensely gratifying. Walden, a Game, therefore might not appeal to a group of gamers whose expectations have been formed by playing less text-heavy, more action-packed games: gamers who enjoy playing video games precisely because they aren’t books.

Gaming for the Fate of the World

Video games also helpfully allow us to tinker with time. Because they simulate systems functioning over time, they can demonstrate causal links that would otherwise be lost on us. This is very helpful as a means of grasping the complex and multidimensional issue of climate change.

Take for example the serious game Fate of the World (2011), another Games for Change winner. Fate of the World is a turn-based strategy game that asks you to act in the name of GEO (the Global Environmental Organization), a supranational organization charged with saving the world from ecological disaster by managing the global reduction of CO2 emissions.

In fifty turns spanning almost two decades, the simulation demonstrates the global effect of a large number of climate change policies and technologies including cap and trade, population restriction, renewable energies, and smart grids to name a few. This incredibly challenging game encourages a trial and error approach, allowing players to experiment with a range of different strategies, only some of which will prove effective in the long run.

The problem with games like Fate of the World, however, is that they tend to represent climate change as a managerial issue, which, given the right leadership and technology, can be prevented. But Fate of the World struggles to communicate at what cost the problem may be solved. Statistically, Fate of the World demonstrates that cutting down on oil and gas means sacrificing your Human Development Index, but it has no way of showing what that means on the ground, on a human scale. This is a common problem in strategy games, which favor a distant, more impersonal viewpoint.

The Intimate Terms of Green Games

In her article “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” Zadie Smith argues that “what’s missing from the account [of global warming] is how much of our reaction is emotional.” We have the scientific jargon to describe what is happening around us; we can politicize those terms and use them to summon scapegoats and list worst offenders, but “there are hardly any intimate terms.” One interactive simulation that seeks to redress this is Precipice (2009), designed by Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy.

In Precipice the player can shuttle back and forth at a coffee shop between two different times, the present day, and after two decades of global environmental destruction. What stands out most in the game are the intimate details, like the skyrocketing price of a glass of water and the unexplained absences of people who once frequented the coffee shop. Playing a kind of modern-day prophet, the player can try to alter the course of events by convincing three people in the present day to change their ways. Players engage non-player characters in conversation, using a menu to choose the most effective responses depending on the character’s values and priorities. This requires some social skills, as it means picking up on subtle conversational cues. For example, an old man whose mobility and independence relies on driving will need a different approach than a younger urbanite.

While suggesting that individual action is the way to solve climate change is pretty naïve given the exorbitant amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by industrial and corporate actors, Precipice’s message is still an important one. It teaches players that a single style of proselytizing will not work for everybody, and it encourages the cultivation of many different kinds of sustainability rhetoric which can be tailored to suit many different individuals.

A screenshot of Walden, a Game depicts a cairn beside a path through a meadow.

Green games often promote passive gameplay which can undermine instrumentalist views of nature. Walden, a Game encourages its players to regain inspiration by wandering the environment and locating cairns of solitude. Image courtesy of USC Game Innovation Lab.

The three examples discussed here demonstrate that green games don’t have to look alike, and that different designs can achieve very different rhetorical effects. As interactive objects, video games incorporate player agency, which some green games like Walden, a Game undermine to upset the instrumentalism inherent in the way we often think about nature.  As procedural or rule-based media, video games can simulate ecosystemic change over time. And as interactive spaces, they are able to let virtual environments speak for themselves. In short, video games can address environmental concerns by exploiting the unique affordances of the medium, which include interactivity, duration, and spatial storytelling. What is more, their potential for environmental art and rhetoric has only been explored marginally by a handful of scholars, which means the most exciting discoveries still lie ahead.

Featured image: A simulated depiction of Thoreau reading while standing next to a boat on the shore of the famous Walden Pond. Image courtesy of USC Game Innovation Lab.

Laura op de Beke is a prospective Ph.D. candidate at Oslo University where she will begin working on the Lifetimes project later this year. She has M.A. degrees in Literary Studies and North American studies from Leiden University. In November 2018, she defended her M.A. thesis titled The Environmental Orientation of Videogames, which analyzes how video games are able to inspire empathy for virtual ecosystems. Twitter. Contact.