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Balancing Act: Playing Video Game Ecologies

Published onMay 19, 2021
Balancing Act: Playing Video Game Ecologies
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ABSTRACT

This paper explores the modelling and performance of ecological systems within the video game medium. Drawing on games from both the survival and management genres (Don’t Starve and Block’hood, respectively), I show how video games can position players in simulated ecological systems, recontextualising sustainable behaviour within a framework of ludic advantage and disadvantage. That is, in order to win the game, players must play or perform in an ecologically friendly manner, working within and alongside systems that model parts of our real-world environments. I also explore the role of genre in orienting these games towards specific perspectives on the environment, suggesting that each game informs our perspective on the environment without necessarily invalidating or causing obsolescence in the other. Neither fully eco-friendly nor total eco-hazards, games such as Don’t Starve and Block’hood strive to increase awareness of environmental issues while also struggling with the limits of their own material form.

Keywords: Don’t Starve; Block’hood; Video Games; Ecology; Game Mechanics


INTRODUCTION

Over the last twenty years, the video game industry has become a sizable force on the media landscape. While the global film industry brought in $41 billion at the box office in 2018 (Hughes 2018), the video game industry raked in over three times that amount, at nearly $135 billion (Batchelor 2018). As the industry grows, the video game medium continues to diversify, producing scores of thoughtful and intelligent games that look to engage deeply with contemporary themes and social issues. One such theme is our current ecological crisis. Of course, video games themselves are associated with an unsustainable cycle of digital waste, with e-waste production “on track to reach 120 million tonnes per year by 2050 if current trends continue” (United Nations Environment Programme 2019). Colin Milburn (2018, p.175) describes the so-called ‘green game’ as oxymoronic, as an attempted “mystification of its own material context”. However, despite their clear material effect on the environment, video games are at the same time capable of critically reflecting on environmental concerns and the impending climate crisis. A growing number of games use their core gameplay structures to highlight the relationship between player and virtual environment, with an implicit connection back to the relationship between the player and their real environment. For example, games in the survival genre such as Don’t Starve, Subnautica, or ARK: Survival Evolved, ask the player to scrounge for food and shelter in the wilderness, foregrounding our dependence on the land and our place within wider ecosystems. Alternately, city-building games increasingly incorporate ecological systems. For instance, in Oxygen Not Included, a more recent title from Klei Entertainment (the team behind Don’t Starve), players are asked to manage water treatment, basic agriculture, and air quality, all of which interact with environmental conditions such as temperature, air pressure, and the presence of bacteria. In this article, I explore how the environment is constructed across different video game genres, drawing special attention to the dynamics of control and dominance in the relations between player and virtual world. I begin with the theoretical framework offered by James Newman (2004), which implies that video games as a form are fundamentally tied to patterns of dominance and exploitation. I then draw on the examples of two games, Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve (2013) and Plethora Project’s Block’hood (2017), to refine Newman’s approach and locate a theoretical foundation from which video games may bring the player to engage with environmental themes and ideas. Where Newman sees the experience of play as about developing control and dominance over a given virtual space, I give more weight to the role of the virtual environment in shaping and determining the conditions under which players engage with the game’s fictional world. In short, I argue, the virtual worlds of video games are designed spaces. The player is no marauding overlord, bringing wrack and ruin to virtual environments – unless the game allows them to perform in such a way.

Broadly speaking, issues of control and dominance are well-trod concerns across video game scholarship. For instance, video game theorists regularly draw parallels between video games and different forms of imperialism. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter (2009) suggest that “video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire – planetary, militarized hypercapitalism” (p.xxix). They point to the links between the video game medium and military systems, arguing that video games “originated in the US military-industrial complex, the nuclear-armed core of capital’s global domination, to which they remain umbilically connected” (p.xxix). Many games especially involve a kind of Eurocentric othering, where a white male protagonist guns down hordes of enemies, be they demons, as in DOOM, aliens, as in Halo, or Arabs, as in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Really the example of Modern Warfare only makes apparent the implicit xenophobia of these other games, which are governed by a ludic structure of ‘white self against inhuman other’. In those games, cross-cultural communication and empathy are elided in favour of armed conflict. Demons and aliens function as a symbolic shorthand, nestling alongside recent political efforts to demonise migrant caravans, for instance, or to scaremonger about Muslim communities.

These patterns of control and dominance can also be conceptualised in spatial terms. Players exercise violent control not only over enemy bodies, but over different environments. Newman writes that the plot in a video game is often a superficial framework for a spatial adventure. He sees games as an extended transition from abstract, potential sites for action into colonised sites, which “have been acted upon, explored, colonized” (p.113). This structure applies neatly to games such as Modern Warfare, where in order to win the game, players must take ground from their enemies, invading foreign territory or defending that which has been conquered. The levels set in the Middle East only accentuate the themes of colonisation and empire under the auspices of the American military-industrial complex. Even in games that do not revolve around gun violence, the spatial dynamic of colonisation remains. For example, in SimCity, each new game opens with a sprawling forested island. Within the structure of the game, the forest is treated as an empty space, rather than an autonomous ecosystem. It is treated as a space of pure potential, an otherwise wasted opportunity to build. By the end of the game, the forest has become a sprawling urban city-scape. It has been acted upon, explored, and colonised. Newman’s theory again holds true: the natural forest environment is positioned as potential space, and the urban city as actualised space, space conquered and remade for human purposes. Crucially, the conception of the forest as potential space refuses a more ecological perspective, one that might see the forest as already-actual, with a thriving ecosystem that exists outside and before systems of human capital and colonisation. Newman’s concerns clearly do describe the representation of space and the environment in some video games. However, I would suggest that they do not account for all games; on the contrary, some offer meaningful engagements with the environment and with broader ecological themes. By considering two such games, we may develop counter-examples to Newman’s argument, and recognise some of the potential avenues by which video games may engage with ecological themes and ideas beyond this destructive colonising impulse.

COPING MECHANISMS

The first game under consideration here is Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve. Released in 2013, Don’t Starve is a well-known example of the survival genre, where the player is positioned within a series of ecological systems and is expected to survive, despite inhospitable conditions. In contrast to games like SimCity, survival games are predicated on the notion that the player does not control their environment. One can learn to live within the environment, and alongside it, under its rules and systems, but the player is not the master. In Don’t Starve, for instance, the player must find cover when it rains, or risk a sharp decline in their sanity. Other weather systems further dictate player behaviour. If it gets too hot, the player needs to cool down. When it gets cold during winter, the player needs warmer clothing, or risks frostbite. During a thunderstorm, a bolt of lightning might strike the player’s house or farm and start a fire. Each of these elements can be managed, but that does not mean the player is in control. They cannot stop the rain, or determine the order of the seasons. At best, they can adapt to their environment and develop a series of coping mechanisms to perform according to the constraints of the existing ecosystem.

Don’t Starve thus serves as a counterpoint to the earlier examples of SimCity or Modern Warfare. It illustrates the broad theoretical point that players play or perform within and under the constraints set forth by the game. If a game uses a hunger mechanic, then the player is obliged to eat. If a game asks the player to play as an American soldier killing Arabs in the Middle East, then those are again the constraints of the game. Newman is not wrong, but his theories of spatial adventures, of potential and colonised spaces, need to be contextualised within the wider systems of obligation imposed through ludic structure. In fact, the reason why SimCity fits Newman’s theory so well is because the virtual forest was not designed to offer any resistance to the player’s colonising efforts. Construction is never impeded by dangerous wildlife. The earth is never too soft to sink a building’s foundations. There are no underground streams that eat away at structural integrity. The depiction of the forest as empty potential space is a conscious design choice on behalf of the game’s developers, rather than a necessary component of video games as such. What Newman’s theory really articulates is the player’s experience of a video game world. In Don’t Starve, the player can explore and become familiar with different locations. In the mind of the player, the environment moves from unknown to known, from potential to colonised space. But that is not to say that players have somehow tamed or overcome their environments. It would be more accurate to say that the player has been configured towards the environment by the game’s ludic structure. One might think of it as a sort of environmental determinism for video games.

Environmental determinism is a geography term that basically refers to the influence of the environment in shaping human societies (Meyer and Guss 2017, p.6). It carries something of a stigma among academic geographers, owing to its most extreme uses, where the environment is fatalistically treated as a singular or overwhelmingly determinative factor in human development. Despite this stigma, geographers William Meyer and Dylan Guss are among those looking to revitalise the term with modest and scientific claims about the influence of a given environment. They see environmental factors as part of a “conjoint construction” between “social and biophysical dimensions” of human life (p.12). For our purposes, we may deploy an adapted form of environmental determinism, and note that in video games, the coded structure of the text does largely determine the way in which players engage with the fictional world. For example, in the 2015 game Beyond Eyes, the player is placed in the role of a blind girl looking for her lost cat. Players are only granted a partial view of the fictional world, and even that is always indirect; it is the fictional world as conceptualised or projected by a blind person. During gameplay, much of the screen remains blank until environmental stimuli help the player-character to fill in certain gaps. For example, at one point she hears a bird cheeping slightly above her, so she adds the bird to her mental map of the area. Crucially, the bird only becomes visible to the player under the conditions set forth by the game. The blind girl must hear the bird before it can be visualised. Again: in video games, the player is configured towards and by the environment. An ecological game is therefore one that configures the player towards the virtual environment in such a way as to model or simulate relevant environmental principles in the real world.

One such environmental principle is that of sustainability, which is explored through the game mechanics of Don’t Starve. In Game Studies, ‘mechanics’ refer to the rules of the game, the systems and procedures that constrain the player. Games often use these mechanics to simulate the function of the human body. For example, Don’t Starve has a health mechanic, a meter that measures health. When that meter reaches zero, the player-character dies, and the game is over. Another related mechanic is hunger, a meter that represents how hungry the player-character is. If the hunger meter reaches zero, the player-character is starving, and will begin to lose health at a rate of one point per second. A typical full health meter starts at 100, meaning that if the player-character starts to starve, they will be dead in less than two minutes. Obviously these simulations of the body are only crude approximations. Hunger and health do not work in these over-simplified ways; we do not die two minutes after missing breakfast. These simulations operate more on the level of metaphor, distorting and exaggerating different aspects of human physiology to make their point. Don’t Starve emphasises the crucial link between food and our continued survival. It reminds us that we are dependent on food, and simulates, albeit in an exaggerated and heavily stylised way, the biological consequences of starvation. It further uses a ludic structure to make the player emotionally invested in the main character’s survival. If the player-character starves, the player loses the game. Competition becomes an emotional springboard, quickly developing player investment in key themes and ideas. In Don’t Starve, the need for food attunes players to the specificities of how food can be developed and sustained, priming them for ideas around sustainable living.

One such priming towards sustainability can be found in the early stages of Don’t Starve. At the start of each new game, the player-character is teleported into a weird and magical world with nothing but the clothes on their back and must scrounge and forage for food. Two of the most immediately accessible food sources are carrots and berries. At this initial stage, carrots are a non-renewable resource: they can be found sticking out of the earth, and they can be pulled up and eaten, and then they are gone. Berries, by contrast, are positioned as renewable. If the player picks the berries off a bush and eats them, the bush remains, and in two or three days another crop of berries will have grown. Note that the timeframe for growing food is not particularly realistic; again, the game is weighted towards stylisation, rather than strict realism. Similarly, we know that carrots can actually be propagated in the real world. The division between berries and carrots in Don’t Starve is meant to be read on the level of systems. It is essentially a type of metaphor, as it models the different systems of renewable and non-renewable food sources. Non-renewable sources are used and exhausted, forcing the player to search for more. Renewable sources are cyclic, and will sustain the player over the long term.

As the game proceeds, the player is able to develop increasingly complex systems for sustainability across different resource types. For example, the player can develop a crude agriculture by building ‘farms’, which are essentially small vegetable patches. These farms draw on a string of different resources, including manure, which is only produced by certain animals, and a bird, which first needs to be trapped, and then contained within a birdcage. The manure functions as fertiliser, and the bird as the method of propagation, as the player can feed it fruit or vegetables and receive seeds in return. The output is thus partially tied into the required input: if a crop produces twelve pumpkins, one or two of those pumpkins may be fed to the bird to create more pumpkin seeds and start the process again. Other resources in the game operate according to similar principles of sustainability, where the output of a given process creates the resources needed to repeat the process. For example, when the player chops down a tree, they will receive wood and pinecones. The pinecones can be planted to make new trees, creating a sustainable cycle. If players choose not to maintain that cycle, they may end up deforesting an area, and will need to move on to find new resources. The stakes in this instance are not desperately high, as there will be several groves and forests scattered liberally around the map. Trees are not an especially scarce resource. Nevertheless, the basic premise remains: the resources gained from harvesting a tree include the resources with which to begin the next cycle. Players have an opportunity to integrate into a pre-existing ecological system and, in a sense, perform as part of that system.

INPUTS AND OUTPUTS

Although Don’t Starve demonstrates how games might engage with ecological ideas, it also has certain limitations that are worth acknowledging. For instance, it is not really addressing our contemporary ecological crisis in any meaningful way. It focuses on one individual living in the woods, rather than billions of humans burning coal in a post-industrial society. Arguably, the survival genre itself is not particularly equipped to confront the theme of global warming, as it operates on such an individualistic level. Further, because the primary goal of the game is for the player-character to survive, all other concerns are ultimately seconded to that goal. If a player is being chased through the forest by a monster, it is a legitimate strategic decision to burn the forest down in an attempt to kill it. Don’t Starve points to some of the potential of the video game medium for ecological themes, rather than exemplifying that potential on all fronts. With that in mind, we may turn to our second game, Block’hood, to consider how a different set of mechanics might better address some of the shortcomings identified in Don’t Starve.

Block’Hood is a 2017 game published by Plethora Project. It is a management sim, in the same vein as games such as SimCity, where players are tasked with managing a given environment – usually a city of some sort, although there are plenty of variations, such as the Roller Coaster Tycoon series, Prison Architect, and, in a bizarre metafictional twist, Game Dev Tycoon, where the player creates and develops video games. In Block’hood, one of the core ecological mechanics is that of inputs and outputs. Every element of the ecosystem is conceptualised in terms of what it requires, and what it produces. The same concept exists in Don’t Starve, although Block’hood particularly foregrounds this aspect through the user interface, which lists each individual item alongside its inputs and outputs. For instance, if a player wishes to place a poplar tree, they can see that it will require a set amount of groundwater, and will produce fresh air, wilderness, and leisure. Wilderness and leisure are somewhat abstract measures, representing lifestyle components mostly relevant to humans. Even so, the game foregrounds something about ecosystems through this basic framework of input and output. Trees need water, and they create fresh air. As with Don’t Starve, the process is stylised, but the basic theory is sound.

One area where Block’hood potentially offers an advance on Don’t Starve is in how it explicitly frames humans within the context of inputs and outputs. Again, Don’t Starve arguably also applies inputs and outputs to the human player-character, as it foregrounds the required inputs of food and sleep that keep the player-character alive. However, as noted, Don’t Starve operates under a rubric of human exceptionalism. By hinging failure on the death of the player-character, the game elevates the life of that character above every other dimension of the fictional world. Block’hood, on the other hand, treats humans as just another type of producer, no different to trees or animals in terms of their centrality or importance within the wider logic of the game. In Don’t Starve, humans operate in similar ways to other components of the ecosystem, but retain a sort of ludic priority. Block’hood flattens that hierarchy out by reducing every component of the ecosystem to its status as producer and consumer; that is, by considering things only in terms of inputs and outputs. For instance, the player can build a small apartment, which has as its listed inputs water and electricity, for the proper functioning of the building, but also leisure and fresh air, for the wellbeing of the apartment dweller. Given that leisure and fresh air are outputs of most types of tree, trees and humans are thus positioned in a synergistic relationship. Leisure is framed as an input for humans, and an output for the poplar tree. In less mechanistic terms, the implication is that people need leisure areas, and trees help to create that space. However, a system made up of only trees and people is not stable. The trees require a water source, which itself will have other required inputs. The game, then, is to loop all of these inputs and outputs into each other to the point where one has a stable ecosystem. The player builds up a complex web of interrelations, where every part is dependent on everything else, and where throwing one aspect out of balance threatens the entire system. This approach decentres the human figures, placing them alongside plants and animals as just another type of producer/consumer.

As a further advance on Don’t Starve, Block’hood recognises that the outputs of different actors are not always positive. For example, a human population will produce greywater and organic waste, such as food wastage. If the player does not find a sink or a method of recycling for these outputs, their ecosystem will quickly be overrun with rancid waste. Similarly, some available technologies for creating certain outputs can themselves have increasingly negative side effects, and in many cases are better off left unused. For example, the player is able to build an incinerator to dispose of inorganic waste. The incinerator takes inorganic waste as an input, burns it, and uses the heat to output electricity. However, it also outputs greenhouse gas and pollution. Large amounts of pollution will begin to generate sickness, and some agents may leave the area entirely, which in turn could cripple the wider system. Frankly, the incinerator is hardly worth the trouble. The player could deploy further technologies to offset the pollution, but at some point one has to wonder whether it might not be more efficient to simply avoid the problem in the first place. The game quietly encourages players to choose not to use certain available technologies. It casts the costs and benefits in such a way as to essentially obliterate their appeal. This ludic structure serves as a fascinating parallel to real-world movements looking to end coal mining or plastic bags, which similarly hinge on the idea that the costs of those technologies far outweigh any potential benefits.

Despite these strong advances, some scholars have raised concerns with an overly systematised approach to environmentalism. Milburn (2018) associates games like Block’hood with cultures of power and surveillance, lamenting that “there is no outside imaginable in the games of environmental control” (p.184). He continues, “Such games function according to logistics of infrastructure that cannot – or at least, this is how the societies of control perceive themselves – be radically changed, hacked, or reconfigured” (p.185). Without disagreeing with Milburn, we might note that similar concerns have been raised in the related field of religion and digital technology. For scholars in that field, the fundamentally systems-driven nature of video games seems to exclude the possibility of representing the supernatural as anything other than a mechanical process. Although the two concerns are not identical, both are looking for ways for video games and digital texts to express meaning, beyond the cold, insular logic of ones and zeros. Some inroads have already been made in the field of religion and digital technology; for instance, Daniel Vella (2015) focuses on the role of mystery in Dark Souls, which “suggests to the player an ineffable whole that extends beyond her necessarily limited perception and cosmic understanding of the game at any given moment” (n.p.). Scholars of ecology and digital literature might be able to dovetail such a concept with, for instance, Timothy Morton’s (2013) hyperobject – although clearly the heavily systematic nature of Block’hood means that it may not be the starting point for such conversations.

CONCLUSION

Within the context of these two games, then, Block’hood offers certain advantages over Don’t Starve, particularly in terms of how it treats human exceptionalism and the broad systematic nature of global warming. At the same time, Don’t Starve offers a much more personal vision of certain ecological principles. Block’hood exists on the relatively abstract level of urban design, while Don’t Starve focuses more on how the biology of an individual embeds them into a wider ecological system. Each game draws on strengths and weaknesses that are perhaps rooted in their respective genres. However, a range of questions are yet to be answered. The substantial body of research around the environmental impact of digital technology remains a point of concern. Also, as Lauren Woolbright (2017) suggests in a study of The Flame in the Flood, another post-apocalyptic video game, any “representation of climate calamity may have the opposite from intended effect, convincing players ... that the plight of the climate refugee is fantasy” (p.94). Her quite valid point taps into a broader concern about fiction as mere entertainment, a concern that applies just as much to poets or filmmakers or any other practicing artist. Speaking solely in terms of video games, future research might consider whether and to what extent the genres of survival game or management sim shape the thematic scope of their games, particularly regarding these ecological themes. Can the management sim insert a stronger sense of individual agency into its ludic structure, or, as Milburn suggests, is it destined to be programmatic in how it conceptualises higher-order systems? Alternately, can the survival genre offer any meaningful commentary on our current ecological crisis, or is it constrained by its individualism? The limits currently demonstrated by Don’t Starve and Block’hood are to some extent issues of scale. They activate issues that already exist in other forms and disciplines; for instance, Sebastian Conrad (2016) notes that from a historian’s perspective, “when we zoom in on specific moments and short time frames, personal decisions and individual agency move center stage ... [but] as soon as the time frame is extended, more anonymous factors will gain analytical weight at the expense of personal accountability” (p.156). Conrad is talking about temporal scale, rather than spatial, although he quickly notes that spatial scales have the same problems (p.157). It may be that the best solution is a composite approach that utilises multiple perspectives across several different games. In that view, Don’t Starve and Block’hood perhaps operate collaboratively, rather than competitively, in building up a wider picture of the operations of ecological systems. They bend the player in different ways, offering different perspectives on our relationship with the environment by prompting us to perform within ecological systems and processes that exist at different scales.


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