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Video games—even those without explicit educational goals—can offer insights into ecology

Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games

Alenda Y. Chang
University of Minnesota Press
320 pp.
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When a designer decides to turn his billion-dollar video game into an exercise in sustainable downsizing in Richard Power’s novel The Overstory, another character asks. “How are limits and shortages and permadeath going to be fun?” People playing video games want to level up and accumulate, to monetize social status and trade it. Such hypercapitalist tendencies do not exactly encourage behaviors that will lead to the mitigation of climate change and other environmental crises.

But video games might not be enemies to planetary redemption. In Playing Nature, Alenda Chang, a media scholar and game designer, begins with the provocative claim that game worlds are kin to natural systems. She calls them “mesocosms”—experiments that incorporate or replicate aspects of the natural world—and cites games such as Colossal Cave Adventure, which deftly maps portions of the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, and Firewatch, which accurately replicates the Ute Mountain lookout tower and various U.S. National Forest sites, as examples of games at the intersection of play and real life.

Chang argues that video games can teach players the gist of key ecological concepts: scale, entropy, collapse. “Gist” is important here; she doesn’t claim that games always get the science right, just that they give players an abiding interest in, and feel for, complex processes and nonhuman viewpoints.

Games, she writes, are “evocative spaces” that can stimulate emotional intelligence and respectful curiosity about the world. Thatgamecompany’s Flower, for example, creates a mood of reverence for plant life by placing the player in the role of a pollinating wind that travels among unopened buds. Might and Delight’s Shelter, about a mother badger trying to protect her young, conveys some of the emotional experience associated with habitat loss. E-Line Media’s Never Alone, which features an Arctic fox and was cocreated with the Cook Inlet Iñupiaq, conveys a sense of indigenous knowledge systems in which humans consider nonhuman animals kin.

Games also teach. Chang touches on several games intended to contribute to environmental education. Ken Eklund’s World Without Oil, for example, challenges players to vividly imagine and document how they might adapt to an oil shock, while AirQuest, designed by University of California educators (including Chang), is framed around a “health mystery” and seeks to inform at-risk communities about asthma and air-pollution management while training individuals to help their communities.

Chang does not limit her study to games that have an explicit educational purpose. She considers the realistic locations of Grand Theft Auto and the blending of outdoor play with augmented reality in the mobile game Pokémon Go as evidence that the edges between natural and man-made places are porous. Her decision to treat all video games with seriousness implies that games of all stripes can foster knowledge and should be seen as important forms of art and cultural expression.

Chang ends Playing Nature with a discussion about how much video games cost the world in terms of energy and pollution. They cost a lot, it turns out, even if digital entertainment weighs much lighter in a typical household’s carbon budget than heating and air conditioning.

As fellow media scholars, including Jennifer Gabrys, Toby Miller, and Nicole Starosielski, have similarly documented, here Chang dives into the material impacts of the internet, e-waste, and online data storage. She refers to the ongoing health crises at toxic digital waste dumps in places such as Guiyu, China, and Agbogbloshie, Ghana, and considers potential future harms, such as those that may accompany the placement of data centers—always in need of cooling—in the sensitive ecosystems of coastal waters. (This begs the question of why waste disposal almost never appears as a playable problem in video games, which tend to favor apocalypse scenarios over stories of structural innovation that leads to enhanced survival.)

In the end, Playing Nature asks more questions than it answers about what video games do to Earth and to us. But by daring to ask how video games might make the world lively and sound, Chang sparks a necessary conversation.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of English, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403, USA.