Outsiders know it for mayhem, misogyny, and murder. They blame it for vices from time-wasting to addiction. But some involved in video gaming, a business bigger than film and television combined, want to clean up its act, using its cultural cachet to cure the world’s ills. Item one on the agenda? Climate change.
“Gaming is a cultural juggernaut,” says Hugo Bille, a game designer and climate advocate who runs the podcast Doing Our Bit. “We have been underestimating our impact on the way that people think about the world.”
Be they simple mobile phone games or elaborate console challenges, cerebral strategy journeys or adrenaline-fueled shoot-’em-ups, video games are now at the fingertips of well over 2 billion players worldwide. And, as states, nations, and organizations around the globe work toward climate targets, the gaming industry is starting to play its part.
Turns out, gaming’s secret weapon against climate change might be the same issue that has long had parents and lawmakers clutching their pearls: the power of video games to influence behavior.
The Power of Play
Since time immemorial, human beings have used play as an educational aid: from sports that build team spirit to kindergarten games that make hand washing fun. Lizzie Magie designed her Landlord’s Game in 1903 to teach the progressive economics of Henry George; it went on to inspire Monopoly. Sadly, toys and board games were among the tools that helped Nazi Germany indoctrinate its population.
While parental fears over violent games dominate column inches and search results, video games can drive positive change too, observes Lindsay Grace, Knight Chair in Interactive Media at the University of Miami and author of Doing Things with Games: Social Impact through Play and Love. “We have solid evidence that elements of persuasive play offer long-term effects,” he notes.
Students who played Spent, a game around homelessness, demonstrated increased empathy for people living with poverty both immediately after playing and some weeks later. The Re-Mission Games transport young cancer patients into the human body where they use an array of therapies to attack their disease. Clinical trials have shown they increase understanding of cancer, boost positive emotions, and help young people stick to tough medical regimens.
“There are some things that are just remarkable about games,” enthuses Dargan Frierson, a climate scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “You become that character. When you move something around the screen, that’s you. The possibility of really immersive storytelling to build empathy, to tell stories, to imagine different and better futures, is pretty remarkable.”
“The best games are the ones that let players understand a small element of climate change.”
A gamer himself, Frierson believes deeply in the persuasive power of games. He created EarthGames, a group dedicated to producing educational climate games rooted in scientific research. The goal is to bring critical climate issues to gamers’ attention in an engaging and accurate way. Their output thus far includes 11 games and six interactive climate science tools. In one game, Climate Quest, players send experts to resolve climate-caused disasters across the US. Along the way, they learn about the causes of the disasters and mitigation strategies.
The Risk: Gamifying a Complex Problem
When it comes to a problem as large and multi-faceted as the climate crisis, selecting where to focus gaming’s persuasive power is one of the primary and hardest challenges. “It’s important to make the problem seem surmountable and to encourage players to understand a complex issue with simplicity,” Grace emphasizes. “The best games are the ones that let players understand a small element of climate change, which then expands out to the more complex integration of climate science to leave the player understanding how their small behavior change can make a meaningful change.”
Frierson cites Thunderbird Strike, an award-winning mobile phone game by the Anishinaabe artist, researcher, and game designer Elizabeth LaPensée, as an example of an effective (and intersectional) climate game. In a world inspired by Native art styles, gamers play as the Thunderbird, an Anishinaabe spiritual being, to learn about the impact of oil pipelines on animals, communities, and the environment—with a website for further information.
Grace recommends Eco, a multi-player strategy game developed for use in schools. Players aim to develop civilization to a level where they can build sophisticated technology in time to save the planet from an imminent meteor strike—without destroying Earth’s fragile ecosystem in the process.
As in the real world, the consequences of individual actions are often small yet sometimes shockingly visible. Cutting down trees might eliminate a local rabbit population; joining other players to mine minerals without managing waste may poison local fish. Players’ simple actions intertwine into a complex whole as they echo across the planet.
“I like Eco for its scale and demonstrative effect,” Grace observes. “It allows people to experiment with playable models of climate.”
Minecraft, the blockbuster building game now owned by Microsoft, showcases environmental elements both in mainstream gameplay and in its school edition. Its Sustainability City world offers wind turbines, hydropower plants, sustainable homes, and more as teaching tools.
And, while strategy games have touched on climate change since players first took control of a planet’s ecosystems in 1990’s SimEarth, a new generation of immersive first-person games, is joining the party. The trailer for the next release of shooter Perfect Dark centers on ecological disaster; We Are the Caretakers will see gamers pulling together a squad to protect endangered animals; while Endling will put players in the place of the last surviving mother fox, striving to protect her cubs in a devastated earthscape.
The Challenge: Is Saving the World Fun?
Yet not all climate games are pristine reflections of the most current climate science, and the results can be a mixed blessing. Gathering Storm, a 2019 expansion to the long-running PC strategy game Civilization, is climate-related and loved by millions of players, but it also includes fictional (and unideal) solutions. While players contend with human-caused climate change and extreme weather events, their tools span the gamut, from the realistic—carbon capture—to the realm of cli-fi with “seasteads,” or floating communities.
Bille says Gathering Storm exemplifies one of the central challenges for games as a climate communication tool: the need for playability.
“There’s always a tension between truthfulness and playfulness, and these bigger games like Civilization tend to err on the side of playability,” he says. “Climate change is presented as quite manageable. You’re going to get some disasters, and you’re going to get some sea-level rise, but the criticism is that it does not portray climate change as a serious enough problem. And that’s bound to happen when your core goal is playability”
“Shooting zombies at high speed delivers a dopamine hit that slowly rebuilding soils through permaculture just can’t match.”
Bille sees this dynamic as part of a deeper problem within the industry: the player’s general relationship to the on-screen universe. Winning in video games is often very different from winning in life—and lightyears from the cooperative strategies required to solve the climate crisis.
“Most mainstream games are about killing stuff,” Frierson says.
In an industry still dominated by patriarchal ways of thinking and seeing, video gaming can take competitive play to its limits. The more dramatic and taboo the scenario, the more exciting it can feel. Shooting zombies at high speed delivers a dopamine hit that slowly rebuilding soils through permaculture to draw down carbon just can’t match.
“Video gaming tends to portray a pretty destructive relationship between the player and the environment—a very colonial, extractive relationship where everything in the game world is all laid out there for the players’ benefit,” Bille says.
Even gentle, open-ended simulation games such as the popular Animal Crossing often subscribe to this ethos. Animal Crossing players deforest, commodify, and reshape their landscapes, fishing for creatures that include endangered species such as whale sharks. Games like this exist, however cutely, to dominate and exploit the world around them.
And the desire for dominance extends to planet-wide strategy games. “Even the good strategy ones are basically about colonialism. How many cultures can you wipe out?” says Frierson. “I think we need new metrics.”
Could saving earth, rather than dominating it, become the key goal of strategy games? And then what would winning look like? The questions are far from simple.
“The more important part of the creative work ahead of us is not to make people make climate games, because I think that’s about to happen anyway,” Bille says. “We need to ensure that the climate games they make are good.”
One example of a game underpinned by a rigorous vision of the future is the PC diving game Beyond Blue, a spectacular journey through the oceans that ties into the BBC’s Blue Planet series. Creators E-Line Media worked with scientists to help imagine a future humans could hope for—without ignoring the toxic realities of waste, warming, noise pollution, and acidification. But not every studio will be equipped for that level of endeavor, and nuanced, narrative adventures do not appeal to every player.
The Industry’s Quest Toward Climate Action
In 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme launched the Playing for the Planet Alliance, a partnership between industry leaders and environmental experts whose members include Sony, Microsoft, and Angry Birds maker Rovio—although titans including Nintendo and Electronic Arts have yet to sign up. Besides encouraging members to cut their carbon footprints, its annual Green Game Jam, now entering its second iteration, aims to incorporate green “nudges,” from calls for donations to adjusted storylines, into existing titles.
Last year’s Green Games Jam test run produced edits that over 100 million players experienced. Racing game Hill Climb Racing 2 introduced electric and hybrid car parts and solar recharge stations, the WordBrain puzzle game allowed players to donate to plant real-world trees in-game, while Angry Birds 2 ran an in-game event around deforestation promoting the UN’s Trillion Tree Campaign.
This year, the target is to reach a billion people, with messaging and calls to action about the conservation and restoration of forests and oceans. “It’s about empowering players through the games they already know and love,” says Deborah Mensah-Bonsu, founder of social impact games initiative Games for Good, who is consulting on Playing for the Planet.
Some of these green nudges are appearing on their own, making some headway on Frierson’s idea of finding new metrics for gaming—rewards for real-world climate action or rewards in the form of such action. Before the pandemic, augmented reality favorite Pokémon Go rewarded participants in Earth Day cleanups with in-game gifts. London indie studio Ustwo Games is planting a new tree for every download of its climate-centric game, Alba: a Wildlife Adventure.
Beyond the studios, activists and researchers have used game spaces to deliver on their environmental action goals. Greenpeace Poland utilized Minecraft to build a detailed map of the Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s one of Europe’s last remaining old-growth forests, and cut down every single tree but one, as part of a campaign against logging in the forest. The UN and Oxford University used pop-up questionnaires in games to deliver the world’s largest climate change opinion survey, reaching audiences that are hard to find by traditional tools such as phone calls.
But for all the passion and commitment that individuals within and around the gaming industry demonstrate, much work remains to be done. One study showed that, in the US alone, energy-hungry gaming devices suck up 34 terawatt-hours of electricity per year—more than the entire country of Hungary. And, while Microsoft vaunts its ambitions to become carbon negative by 2030, its 2020 Xbox console ships in “instant-on” mode—a decision that saves users 5–10 seconds and could use as much electricity as a large coal power plant generates each year.
While the industry marches onwards toward its 2030 climate goals, there remains one large elephant in the room: the energy and resource costs of gaming itself. “One thing I would absolutely love to see is if gamers would actively talk about the carbon footprint of the gaming industry, and put that pressure on the Twitter accounts of gaming companies,” Bille says. “I think it would be a great exercise in civic action.”