Meeting Climate Change with Art: Video Games

It’s been a long time coming, but video games are finally reaching popular recognition as an art form with unique possibilities to positively influence the larger cultural landscape. To be sure, there will always be a market for mindless video games just as much as there is a market for mindless tv and film, but gone are the days when people can dismiss video games as only mindless entertainment.

As I said, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Candy Crush has the power to change our world, but no one can deny that there is a well-established place for thought-provoking video games coming from an ever-expanding community of both independent and mainstream developers. This space, filled with unmistakably artistic video games, gives us a unique opportunity to take on climate change in ways that traditionally recognized art forms cannot.

(Warning: There will be a few game spoilers throughout this post.)


Proving It’s an Art Form

There are plenty of truly wonderful people arguing for the status of video games as an art form, but for this post, I hope we can mostly skip that debate and move forward with the assumption that video games are in fact an art form.

However, if you’re still hesitant about granting video games “Art Form” status, I’ve decided to include 2 quick examples representing the medium at its most overtly “artistic”. Each of these games could warrant its own 2,000-word blog posts, but I’ll try to keep this quick. So, if you want to dive further into the plot and meaning of these two games, I’ve included additional resources to point you in the right direction.


Spec Ops: The Line (2012)

Amid modern military shooters like the Call of Duty franchise, Spec Ops: The Line stands wildly apart. At first glance, Spec Ops: The Line packaged itself as just another one of the cookie-cutter, testosterone-fueled, military games that saturate the market.

However, this is NOT that kind of game. Instead, the developers gave us a challenging narrative so thought-provoking that people like me are STILL talking about it 8 years after the original release.

In the vein of Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the message of Spec Ops: The Line is as old as time: Despite what we may believe about ourselves, each of us is capable of tremendous evil.

To top it all off, this game gets very surreal very fast. By its final chapters, hallucinations become a rule of thumb, 4th wall breaking load screens taunt you, and conflicting scenarios will have you wondering whether your character had been dead the whole time.

Further Explanation and Analysis:

NieR: Automata (2017)

The ending of Spec Ops: The Line can be a mind trip, but NieR Automata takes it to a whole other level. The game starts on a futuristic Earth where we find androids and robots fighting on the front lines of an endless proxy war – each faithfully serving their creators. Androids fight on behalf of humans and robots on behalf of a group of aliens who invaded Earth, starting the war with humans a long time ago.

Yet, despite their religious fervor in support of these creators, we later find out that humans and aliens both died a long time ago. As a result, our characters often find themselves in positions of existential dread and desperate attempts to create meaning in a world that just pulled the rug out from under them.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the “Death of God” theme saturating NeiR: Automata, and if that wasn’t explicit enough, the resulting challenges of this game take the player on a wild ride filled with extremely clear references to foundational European philosophers.

NieR: Automata is so full of thought-provoking scenarios that video essays have been made exclusively about its “END CREDITS“. Yet, these deep questions never come off like a dry intro-to-philosophy textbook. Instead, every existential insight and plea for resilience fits seamlessly into the grand sci-fi narrative.

Further Explanation and Analysis:


Connecting It to Climate Change

Finally. If video games can provoke deep philosophical questions, it stands to reason that we can use that same medium to provoke exploration into climate change. I’m not saying that climate change narratives have to be simple, but they can definitely get away with less intensity than a hallucinating military game or a saga of robots searching for meaning after the death of their gods.

Some games have already begun introducing climate change in important ways.


Earth Games

Earth Games (a University of Washington lab) was created in 2015 and has developed several educationally focused video games incorporating ideas relating to climate change and environmental stewardship.

Of their wide catalog, my favorite is Infrared Escape.

The premise is simple: you are a ray of infrared light and your goal is the escape into space. However, you must do this by avoiding particles of CO2 that crowd the atmosphere. If you hit too many, you lose.

Infrared Escape uniquely and effectively communicates one of climate change’s central concepts – atmospheric CO2 and the Greenhouse effect. Of all its features, the difficulty selection process may be my favorite. Instead of your standard ‘Easy, Medium, Hard”, Infrared Escape has you to choose a year and corresponding CO2 PPM. Then, you can unlock an “international agreement”, reducing each year’s CO2 PPM and making levels like “2100” actually beatable.

But… the appeal of educational video games can only go so far. Beyond Infrared Escape, I’ve never felt a desire to play any of Earth Games’ titles more than once or twice. I love them, but educational games just aren’t quite as engaging as other video games.

I commend the pioneering work of Earth Games, but there’s just so much more we can do here to address climate change.


Civilization VI: Gathering Storm (2019)

One game that takes a step beyond the “educational” genre, is Sid Meyer’s Civilization VI and its downloadable expansion, Gathering Storm.

The Civilization games have had a long and interesting history of including (or not including) climate change, but Gathering Storm goes farther than any of Sid Meyer’s previous titles. It may have its drawbacks, but no other popular strategy game includes climate change with the kind of nuance and precision as Gathering Storm.


Eco (2018)

Still, as far as Civ VI goes, Eco takes things a bit farther by incorporating a first-person experience and commitment to detail like nothing I’ve ever seen. This Minecraft styled survival sandbox game creates an incredibly detailed world that will force you to carefully weigh the balance of industrialization and ecological preservation.

Furthermore, Eco promises to be “a forever-game, growing in depth and breadth… a system of unlimited possibilities that goes beyond entertainment”. One look at their interactive “Eco Tree” will show you Eco’s incredibly complex features that “exist, are being worked on, and are yet to come”.

The object is simple: there’s a floating meteor slowly approaching earth and you must develop the tools and technology to launch the meteor off its path and save the planet.

However: this goal is only achievable through the development of an industrialized society, and if this push for rapid industrialization isn’t handled properly your planet will be destroyed by its own ecological collapse.


Pushing the Boundaries

Games like Infrared Escape, Civ VI, and Eco are only the beginning. Now that we comprehend video games as an art form and we know they can address climate change, the next step is understanding the unique abilities of this medium so that we can best apply it toward climate change.


What Makes a Video Game Unique?

Time. Some games, like Fire Watch, are closer to the standard length of a feature film, but most popular games give developers far more time to build an expansive story or LARGE open world.

Even when games pull from movies stylistically, they just have much more time to play around with the story. The newest God of War uses cut scene graphics that simulate the “one-shot” editing style in award-winning films like Bird Man and 1917, and Ghost of Tsushima is filled with clear visual nods to classic samurai movies (including its black and white “Kurosawa mode”), but neither of these games is limited by a 2 1/3 hour run time.

Because of this, Ghost of Tsushima delivers a robust main storyline with a character arc of growth and redemption AND several side missions with noteworthy character arcs of their own.


Shared Experience. Going to see a play and inviting friends to your apartment to binge a TV series are both significant communal experiences, but nothing comes close to the shared experiences and virtual communities that are created in video games.

The huge online servers of World of Warcraft are a classic example of this ability at its most extreme, but the aforementioned Eco or even a simple split-screen game can get people together in unique ways.


Exploration. No medium provides the ability to explore at your own pace and strategy as video games. Popular titles like the Fallout or Elder Scrolls series are prominent examples of exploration in massive open worlds, but smaller games like Gone Home push boundaries by allowing us to piece together the game’s story ourselves through the exploration of our main character’s childhood home.


Adjustable Storylines. Choose Your Own Adventure books and digital equivalents like You vs. Wild or Black Mirror: Bandersnatch replicate this experience to varying degrees of success, but no medium masters the adjustable storyline approach like video games. This agency to affect the outcome of your game increases the immersive experience and can force players to think through decisions on multiple levels.

My favorite example of this is Paper’s Please. On the surface, the game looks like a rather boring simulator for a customs and border agent trying to support his family by quickly sorting through paperwork, earning money, and paying for food and other essentials. Yet, despite its simple premise, Paper’s Please proves itself to be a challenging game with a lot to offer. The game has received so much popular praise that it even inspired a short film based on a few of its most iconic moments.

Paper’s Please is about fast-paced decision making, balancing responsibilities, and the moral dilemma’s that arise. Despite operating within a system of strict rules and conflicting social pressures, you are the one that ultimately has to balance potential outcomes and make your player’s decisions.


Mechanics. In every video game, there’s a way in which the player influences their actions in the games. We pull the right trigger to shoot, use the left joystick to move, and depending on your controller setting you might hit “B” to crouch. It’s all often rather basic stuff, but the true artistry happens when developers intentionally design their mechanics to contribute to the game’s emotional arc.

In the game Celeste, your mechanics adjust as the story develops. During the lowest part of your character’s story arc, you fall to the bottom of the mountain and are forced to face an evil version of yourself that you had previously been running away from. However, once you do confront this so-called “part of you”, you join forces with her.

In a very tangible sense, joining forces with this “evil” version of yourself gives you the ability to double jump, and because this feature finally allows you to beat the game, it also contributes to our character’s emotional arc of self-acceptance.

In a completely different direction, That Dragon Cancer utilizes its mechanics to subvert the video game experience in an interesting way. Where other games bring you in by giving you agency over the narrative that unfolds, That Dragon Cancer communicates the emotional challenge of two parents living through the cancer treatment of their infant son by making a game where we often don’t have much control at all.


Finally. Video games are masters of empathy. If there is only one thing that you remember from this post, I hope it will be this final section dedicated to empathy.

Empathy!

More than any other medium, video games have an uncanny ability to strategically elicit empathy. In books and movies, the idea is to build empathy by having you understand a character, but in video games, the strongest form of empathy is built by having us become the character or work intimately with them to achieve our goals

Papa y Yo (2013)

Papa y Yo is not a game you use to unwind and escape from the stress and anxiety of life. Instead, the developer decided to give us a game symbolically expressing his experience growing up with an alcoholic and abusive father.

In the game, his father is replicated through the main character’s best friend, “Monster”. However, Monster has one big problem. Whenever he sees a poisonous frog, he cannot resist eating it, and when he does, Monster is set on fire with rage and becomes dangerous.

With this big problem in mind, we set out searching for a shaman with the power to heal Monster’s problem. We are always reminded of how dangerous Monster can be, but we also must work with Monster to solve puzzles and move the plot forward. During this time, we almost have no choice but to become closer and closer to Monster, seeing him through the same empathetic eyes as our main character.

In the absolute tear-jerker ending, however, we find out that there is no shaman and there is no cure for Monster. After spending the entire game building an empathetic relationship with Monster – reflective of the developer’s own relationship with his father – we have to let him go.

The Last of Us (2013)

In The Last of Us, we begin our gameplay several years before the main storyline in a mission culminating in the death of our main character’s daughter. Fast forward a few years, and we begin the game’s primary mission, escorting another young girl (Ellie) across the country in a long-shot bid to save humanity from the fungal zombies that have taken over.

In a story that is old as time, we see our main character (Joel) struggling about whether to let Ellie into his life and risk losing his “daughter” a second time. However, this dilemma is felt with far more weight as we the player began the game briefly playing as Joel’s daughter and experiencing her death through Joel’s POV.

The Last of Us Part II (2020)

In Part II, we return to the main characters of 2013’s The Last of Us. However, the developers make a concerted effort to push the boundaries of how empathy is utilized in video game storytelling.

The Last of Us Part II challenges us to empathize with both sides of a destructive revenge cycle, but rather than simply tell us about each character, it has us play as them, slowly building up our emotional connection to each side.

Despite winning the Game Award’s 2020 Game of the Year, The Last of Us: Part II is an INCREDIBLY divisive game. However, one thing is abundantly clear. This game pushed several boundaries within the medium and has a lot to offer us when thinking of how video games can strategically elicit empathy. Some even go so far as to say that the game’s strategic use of empathy is what made it so divisive in the first place.


In Conclusion

Not all of us are “gamers”, and even fewer of us are game developers, but this medium is here to stay, and our cultural dialogue around climate change will only become richer when we start utilizing video games.

If a game like The Last of Us Part II can challenge us to empathize with two sides of a revenge cycle, nothing is stopping us from using video games to communicate the complexities of the climate crisis and build empathy toward overlooked victims of climate change like refugees or poor farmers fighting drought.


(This post has since been edited and republished on Medium as ‘Using Video Games to Take on Climate Change’).

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