Gaming for the Planet: 17 Video Games with the Environment at Their Heart
BY Theodora Sutcliffe
May 7th 2021
The climate crisis is the defining issue of our era. And, like war in the Jazz Age or the bomb in the 1960s, it has permeated all forms of media. Today that means not just film, TV, and cli-fi books, but that most 21st-century of art forms, video games.
As an industry more often associated with big guns, bright lights, and high adrenaline begins to turn its sights to biofuels, solar panels, and upcycled clothing, there are more climate-aware gaming choices out there than ever. On your next break from Animal Crossing, here are a few video games to try that educate, inspire, and even take action on climate change.
Take a trip back to childhood vacations as you join Alba and her friend Ines to explore a magical Spanish island. You'll catalog birds and wildlife and collect signatures to stop a fancy hotel from being built atop a nature reserve.
In this 2012 classic, styled as a graphic novel, travel back through time from a world decimated by uncontrolled global heating. Playing as either time traveler Fay or biofuel inventor Bent, help stop the climate catastrophe in its tracks by developing an alternative fuel. (This game has outlived its official website, but is available here.)
Step into the shoes of scientist Mirai as you explore the ocean on eight gorgeous and enthralling dives. Discover volcanic vents, coral reefs, the deep abyss, and more, and learn about issues from acidification to plastic pollution.
An endling is the last of a species that's becoming extinct. Play as the last mother fox on Earth, struggling to reach a place of safety with your pups, in this eco-conscious adventure, scheduled for release later this year.
This educational game with retro 8-bit graphics comes from University of Washington-based studio Earth Games. Learners need to choose which expert to direct to solve an apparently never-ending series of environmental disasters in the continental United States.
Also from Earth Games, this educational game has learners role-play as a politician, hoping to get elected and put in place a workable green new deal. Handle voters, media, and big oil lobbyists by swiping right or left to pick an option.
Playing as the Thunderbird, a flying creature from North American mythology, gamers destroy oil machinery or raise extinct species from the dead. The game, with its distinctive Native art style, originated as a protest against pipeline construction on Indigenous land.
Created by the UN to draw Gen Z's attention to the hole in the ozone layer, and accompanied by an animated series, this beautifully drawn piece lets tweens and teens learn about ozone and the environment as they navigate an often apocalyptic world.
Makers describe the upcoming reboot of a series last seen back in 2005 as “eco sci-fi." According to the trailer, female hero Joanna Dark will immerse in a world of evil corporations and climate change.
In this educational game, players work alongside each other to build a civilization advanced enough to save the planet from an imminent meteor strike—without destroying its fragile ecosystems.
Long before The Sims, Will Wright created this earth simulation game, infused with the Gaia theory of James Lovelock, who consulted on it. Set inputs from temperature to atmosphere, create life, and watch it evolve—with global warming if civilization goes too far. (This game is so old school that you can literally find it in a museum. To give it a spin, try hunting for a used copy on resale sites like eBay.)
Designed for use in schools, Sustainability City forms part of the Education Edition of sandbox building game Minecraft. Students can learn about alternative energy, sustainable forestry, and more through the lens of a virtual city.
An expansion pack to the current incarnation of Sid Meier's long-running strategy game, Gathering Storm introduces climate change elements to gameplay, including floods, droughts, and sci-fi solutions such as seasteading.
This 2011 strategy game focuses on climate change, with players balancing the need to protect the planet from the climate crisis with the need to feed an ever-growing population. Ten "masterplans" let you play for goals from Apocalypse to Utopia—or opt for the Lifeboat strategy, where you only save yourself.
Can Video Games Make a Difference?
Clearly—and thankfully—there’s more to video games than mayhem. Video games are one of this century’s biggest broadcast media, and it turns out they can influence behavior. Read our in-depth story of what it takes for games to drive change, and the steps that innovative game designers are taking to be a part of the solution.
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