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Issue 201

Is 2019 the Year that Video Games Respond to Environmental Crisis?

As predictions of climate catastrophe become realities, there has been a shift in game-making, from grandiose blockbuster ‘Anthem’ to the emotionally-charged ‘Sea of Solitude’

BY Gareth Damian Martin in Opinion | 20 FEB 19

Anthem is a video game about a planet locked in a process of cataclysmic change. Released in February, developer Bioware’s attempt to shepherd a new franchise into a rocky market represents the blockbuster example of a subtle shift in how games are responding to environmental change. It’s a shift that is fed by the increasingly apparent presence of our own planet’s climate crisis, both within the relentless news cycle and in the undeniable effects witnessed across the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s study on global warming – which inspired the apocalyptic headline ‘12 years to save the planet’ – dominated discussions of climate emergency in 2018. But, alongside this report, the sense of this crisis being an active process rather than a distant risk was prompted by local extremes of weather, including deadly forest fires in Greece, across California and even within the Arctic Circle. To say that these effects have been a long time coming would be to state the obvious but, as predictions become realities, the cultural reaction that has been gathering over the past decade is now coming to a head.

Within video games, this response is manifested in the way developers depict, relate to and design environments: there’s been a palpable shift in the representation of landscapes of calamitous change. Anthem is the noisiest, most grandiose example. Set on a planet abandoned by its gods – technologically advanced beings named the Shapers – in the middle of its genesis, the premise of the game sees humans surviving in holdouts against the shifting, collapsing, unfinished environment. Players take the role of ‘freelancers’, operating both together and alone, to explore this strange world. In Anthem, technology left by the Shapers creates disastrous shifts in planetary processes; it rapidly transforms ecosystems and mutates the planet’s life forms into new species. There are strong shades of the influential Gaia hypothesis here. Developed by the environmentalist and futurist James Lovelock in the 1960s and then championed in the ’70s by the late evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, it proposed that the systems of the planet – from individual cycles of organic life to vast geological change – form a single, self-regulating process. In Anthem, the Shapers have harnessed an extreme version of climate change expert Timothy M. Lenton and philosopher Bruno Latour’s 2018 concept, Gaia 2.0, which advocates that humanity should seek to reshape its existence in the image of Gaia as part of a self-regulating planetary process. More directly, Anthem mirrors the ballooning interest in geoengineering that, through proposed planet-shaping projects – such as dumping tonnes of sulphur into the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation – has provided a palpable meeting point for science and science-fiction.

Sea of Solitude, 2019, still. Courtesy: Jo-Mei Games and Electronic Arts 

Anthem represents planets as systems, ecologies as mobile and cataclysms as inevitable. In doing so, it mirrors a very contemporary view of planetary change. These new ways of understanding our relationship to our environment can also be found in other new video games released this year. An obvious example is Civilisation VI: Gathering Storm, which introduces climate change to the long-running series. As one of the formative games of the 4X genre – named for its four central activities of ‘explore, expand, exploit and exterminate’ – Civilisation simulates the classical colonial worldview across a map occupied by competing players and civilizations. To see such a worldview complicated by a need for restraint of industrial expansion and resource exploitation feels like the result of a sea change in how we understand our place on the planet. At least in the gaming world, civilization and climate crisis are now inseparable.

Of course, 2019 is also host to a slew of typical post-apocalyptic premises, all formed on the same well-worn bedrock laid out by the likes of the 1979 film Mad Max. The upcoming Far Cry New Dawn – another entry in a series deeply layered with colonial tropes of exploiting and conquering territory – takes advantage of the lawless land of a post-nuclear war US to form a new frontier of violence and warring factions. Visually, it is startlingly similar to Rage 2, another of 2019’s game wastelands, in which the landscape is a neutered space, cleared of the complications of ecology so that it can better serve as a staging ground for spectacular violence. Both represent tired paradigms resurrected time and again for the same audiences but, in 2019, surrounded by other visions, they feel particularly out of step.

Sable, 2019, still. Courtesy: Shedworks and Raw Fury

Take the waterlogged streets of Jo-Mei Games’ new Sea of Solitude. In it, a drowned city, based on creator Cornelia Geppert’s native Berlin, houses a single woman, Kay, who drifts amongst the empty houses of a flooded world. Designed around themes of loneliness and isolation, Sea of Solitude places the player in a wasteland of sorts, but one where the environment is imbued with emotional power. The arid setting of upcoming exploration game Sable, meanwhile, suggests a respect for landscape and ecology even within the supposed barrenness of a desert. Casting the player as a member of an ancient tribe sent on a ritual coming-of-age journey to serve the nomads of a sandy, rock-strewn expanse, it forces an engagement with the landscape and those who live in it, rather than encouraging us to exploit it. Both games elevate their environments to more than just backdrops, casting them instead as active agents of change. Not only this: both also find a generative power in environmental change and constitute, in some ways, a response to the challenges of how we understand our relationship with our planet today. In this sense, 2019 seems to represent a year in which games begin to deal with the climate change crisis as an essential part of what it means to be human now. 

Main image: Anthem, 2019, still. Courtesy: BioWare and Electronic Arts

This article first appeared in frieze issue 201 with the headline ‘Play Among the Ruins’

Gareth Damian Martin is a writer, artist and designer. He is the founding editor of the videogames and architecture zine Heterotopias and teaches at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. He tweets: @JumpOvertheAge