Picture a player two-thirds of the way through Civilization VI, the empire-building strategy videogame. Things are looking good. They’re swimming in gold, their fleets rule the oceans, and victory is just around the corner.
Then, disasters strike, one by one. Floods take out their most productive industrial zones. A Category 5 hurricane wipes out an entire naval fleet. The seas begin to encroach on their territory, the rising tides submerging prime districts one by one.
The climate crisis is setting in, in the gaming world too.
An expansion called Gathering Storm, added to Civilization VI by developer Firaxis in 2019, introduces anthropogenic climate change to the challenges in the series. The intensity of the disasters is determined by how many power plants a player built and how many forests they cut down, in a simplified version of ratios playing out in the real world.
This game was an early mover; there have since been others.
In the heart-wrenching survival adventure Endling (Herobeat Studios; 2022), the player is the last mother fox on the planet, fighting to protect and feed her cubs as they attempt to avoid extinction.
Anno 1800 (Ubisoft; 2019) has a scenario called Eden Burning, in which players must balance industrial progress with the health of the game world’s soil, air and water.
Beyond Blue (E-Line Media; 2020) explores the ocean’s depths and the threats posed to this vibrant ecosystem by human activity and global warming.
Terra Nil (Free Lives; 2023) puts players to work rewilding a barren, drought-struck wasteland; they must fight the clock to turn it back into a lush ecological hotspot.
In Horizon Forbidden West (Guerrilla Games; 2022) and Death Stranding (Kojima Productions; 2019), players explore post-apocalyptic landscapes and grapple with rapidly degrading biospheres.
In 2022, gaming giant Ubisoft held a virtual climate protest within the extreme sports world of Riders Republic. Last year, to bring the message home, the game’s forests were ravaged by wildfires.
What impact can such in-game narratives have? Well, in 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) helped launch the Playing for the Planet Alliance (PPA), which brings together more than 40 gaming giants, to explore how their products can help spread awareness about the climate crisis.
The alliance is an acknowledgement of the extensive global reach of this segment. Videogames are, after all, a $184 billion industry, worth more than Hollywood, Bollywood and global recorded music sales combined. In 2022, 3.2 billion unique users played at least one videogame, either on a computer, console or smartphone.
As Sam Barratt, head of education, youth and advocacy at UNEP and co-founder of PPA, has said: “The video gaming industry is probably the most powerful medium in the world in terms of attention, reach and engagement.”
What’s the score?
Those old enough to remember the “gamification” trend of the late Aughts and early 2010s — the idea that one could alter a user’s behaviour simply by adding a rewards-based game structure to an everyday activity, such as e-learning — may be sceptical about the aspirations of this wave.
There is also the question of whether such an approach is worthwhile, given the large carbon footprint of gaming itself. In his book Digital Games After Climate Change (2022), digital media sustainability researcher Benjamin Abraham estimates that videogames produce 3 to 15 million tonnes of emissions a year. That upper extent matches the emissions of the entire country of Slovenia. And that’s only counting the cost of the power required to create and play the games.
Add the resource extraction required to create gaming hardware, the physical packaging and the impact of e-waste (gaming consoles contributed 4.7 million tonnes of e-waste in 2019), and the environmental impact is, quite literally, unfathomed.
It is a problem the industry is slowly moving to tackle. As part of the Playing for the Planet Alliance, giants such as Microsoft and Sony have committed to decarbonisation and net-zero emissions targets. PPA is working to create tools to measure the scale of the industry’s emissions, and set industry-wide standards on sustainability. So far, however, most of the ways out involve buying carbon credits, and therefore smack of greenwashing.
More radical approaches are taking shape, but as a result of independent efforts. Kara Stone, a game designer and assistant professor at Alberta University of the Arts, has created a solar-powered server that can be used to play a certain kind of compressed format. She is now developing the first game in the required format. Called Known Mysteries, it will use highly compressed video to shrink its data to a few hundred MB (as opposed to the 100 GB of today’s standard games).
A 2020 study published in the journal Simulation & Gaming, meanwhile, found that games helped players conceptualise climate change better than scientific communication did. But the study focused primarily on boardgames, which are not as popular, and so the focus remains on videogames… and around it goes.
As this debate unfolds, some companies are stepping things up in ways that are quite befuddling. In 2022, Niantic’s popular Pokémon Go teamed up with “green search engine” Ecosia (which plants trees in exchange for searches run) to organise a “community day event” in which they planted a tree for every player who walked 5 km while playing the game.
How would one even begin to calculate the net impact of such a move?