Playing Nature: Alenda Y. Chang on Gaming's Role in the Climate Crisis

"Play is hardly a panacea, but it is something we arguably need along with earnestness and righteous anger and grief."

Alenda Chang

Cover image: A Pacific Northwest-inspired forest biome from Strange Loop Games’ Eco (screenshot credit: John Krajewski)

We speak with Alenda Y. Chang, writer, academic and contributor to Artist Worlds about the relationship between video games and the natural world and the role that play can have in confronting the climate emergency.

Alenda Y. Chang is the author of Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games (2019), and the cofounder of Wireframe, a digital media studio fostering creative pedagogy, research, and design aligned with issues of social and environmental justice. Chang is also a founding co-editor of the open-access journal, Media+Environment. Kay Watson is Interim Head of Arts Technologies at the Serpentine.

Kay Watson: I became aware of your writing through the fantastic book Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games (2019) so to begin, for those who are unfamiliar with your research, could you introduce us to your work?

Alenda Chang: In retrospect, I suppose I am one of the intrepid few working in the emerging area of environmental media studies, which to me involves investigating how media and environments shape each other in many ways. Importantly, that shaping doesn’t just happen in a standard representational sense, but also entails material and infrastructural considerations. So, to give an example, I’m not just interested in how nature documentaries depict, say, Indonesia or Komodo Dragons; I’m also interested in how streaming that BBC special in full HD glory has its own carbon footprint and how the equipment used to capture footage required metals and ‘rare’ earth elements from as far away as Bolivia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. People like me think of ‘media’ very broadly, too, as more than mass media. As any microbiologist or ecologist will tell you, people and places are media, too. Things pass through us and our environments all the time, and are simultaneously shaped by that passing.

My particular niche in environmental media studies, at least thus far, has been video game environments. This work grew out of my personal attachment to both games and science, as well as a professional recognition that environmental scholars had, until recently, largely neglected interactive media. We had plenty of people writing about the natural world in Jack London or Wordsworth, but next to no one writing about it in games. When I first started writing on this topic, I complained that video games were apt to treat their in-game worlds as either pretty scenery or resource stockpiles, all to the benefit of the player, whose choices and gratifications were held as paramount. But coming at this from the combined standpoints of a long-time player, an amateur naturalist, and student of environmental philosophy and history, I was determined to lay out principles—scientific, artistic, and ethical—with which to create better, meaning more environmentally intelligent, games and game worlds.

Playing Nature book cover (design credit: University of Minnesota Press, 2019)

KW: What is it about play and video games that offers players or users insight into real world environmental systems and ecological thinking?

AC: In my book, each chapter riffs on a particular term that I think makes for a useful entry point into describing and evaluating game environments. For instance, one of those is the word ‘mesocosm’, which for scientists describes an experimental design scaled somewhere between natural conditions and the lab. For me, games are similar enterprises, in which certain variables have been established while others have been held constant. Although designers set the initial parameters for these worlds, players bring them to life and constantly test their depth and their boundaries. They operate as both experimenters and experimental subjects. Ecology, meanwhile, is a science heavily influenced by systems thinking, even cybernetics. It makes sense that games, as rule-based systems or computational media, would be readymade channels for ecological modelling.

Playing Nature became, in no small way, this project of teasing out what exactly it is about (primarily digital) games and play that lends itself to noticing, interacting with, and ultimately better understanding our relationship to the natural world, through the designed fictions of playable media. I offer some ideas, like the ability to range widely across scales, to play as nonhuman animals and phenomena, or to wreak environmental havoc and face the results, but much remains to be said.

Obviously, games cannot substitute for reality, but for me they are a powerful alternative in a time when most of us are less and less proximate to ‘nature’ (not to mention pandemic constraints) and nature itself is endangered by human attention. Play itself is also a vital attitude toward our mounting environmental problems. This might seem counterintuitive, but given how paralysing and demoralising typical environmental rhetoric can be, we need play and games perhaps now more than ever—because in play, we have the chance to establish community, tolerance, wonder, and creativity, as well as confront ambiguity and the consequences of our own (or others’) actions. Play is hardly a panacea, but it is something we arguably need along with earnestness and righteous anger and grief.

Wyoming's Shoshone national forest from a fire lookout tower in Campo Santo's Firewatch (screenshot credit: Alenda Y. Chang)

KW: As game engine technologies continue to become more sophisticated and enable more hyper-realistic simulations in real time, how important is realism or the quality of rendering games in order to foster relationships between the player and the game world? And therefore, in the context of this conversation, the natural world.

Can you share with us an example of a game or virtual world that best represents some of these ideas in terms of collaboration, cooperation or understanding of ecologies, ecological systems and the non-human world?

AC: I try to write about all sorts of games, both analogue and digital, old and new, in large part because I don’t believe sophisticated graphics are necessary to an experience of environmental realism. Of course, I was trained in literature and used to be an English professor, so I suppose I’m more sympathetic than most to the idea that text itself is its own portal to imaginative worlds. I’ve written about the text game Adventure, developed in the 1970s by Will Crowther and Don Woods, and how the game’s written descriptions and navigational structure are surprisingly effective at conjuring an underground cave system (no doubt helped by Crowther’s spelunking hobby and the game’s tie to a real cave system in the United States). That’s not to say there isn’t a tremendous amount of potential in newer platforms and their affordances. I’m just as wowed as everyone else by millions of “tris” and subsurface light scattering and all that. But to go back to the environmental media approach where I started, I can’t help but remain sceptical of these platforms’ energy and resource costs and their role in perpetuating unsustainable cycles of technological planned obsolescence.

As for exemplary games, I still find it surprisingly hard to point to titles that do everything well, at least in terms of environmental design. It’s much easier to identify games that do certain things well. To give a short list, there’s Firewatch as a site-specific game (modelled on the Shoshone wilderness); Beyond Blue for its honouring of scientific expertise (I recently helped host Mandy Joye, the marine scientist who served as the model for the game’s main character and as one of the game’s primary science advisors); Never Alone, for its honouring of Indigenous expertise; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for its admittedly lush open world and dynamic weather modelling; Eco, for its audacious simulation of ecological interdependence and collective governance; and finally, even the massively multiplayer World of Warcraft, which I used to play, because there’s something humbling about a persistent game world that doesn’t vanish when you log off or stop subscribing.

KW: I know that you’re also working on the development of a game – Corridors – could you tell us more about that project and some of the ideas behind it?

AC: Corridors is essentially based on the problem of human infrastructure and the way that it has fragmented the natural world and created barriers for the many animal and plant species, and for that matter the natural phenomena like rivers or air currents, that need to navigate them. The most obvious embodiment of this is roadkill, which reaches staggering numbers in terms of animal lives lost and property damage. It’s actually been available on itch.io, but we never made it past a playable beta, in part because my collaborator and the main coder Intae Hwang finished his doctorate and returned to South Korea. The game is not nearly as much fun to play as it is to write about, or think with. I have a piece in the environmental humanities journal Resilience describing the process of putting my theories into practice, and how challenging it was to make my minor obsession with ‘wildlife mitigation techniques’ (reducing harm to wildlife by installing things like tunnels and overpasses) appealing. In the game’s existing five levels, I tried to offer a wider variety of scenarios, where infrastructure could include anything from roads to lights to houses. The trouble is, it’s often more fun to flaunt than abide by the level rules. And in the case of wildlife mitigation, I personally believe it’s less about what you do than what you choose not to do, and it’s hard to hype a game based on inaction rather than action (one reason I’m fond of so-called ‘walking simulator’ games).

KW: I ask this question as someone from the art world who has reached out to you, but are you finding more interest in your research from outside of academia? In the context of the art world, game engines are now so widely used by artists and institutions for CGI and digital projects, but there is also evidence of wider acceptance of video games as a cultural form by arts organisations (particularly contemporary art) in the last few years, and that has accelerated during the pandemic.

AC: Indeed, one of the best things to come out of publishing my book, beyond the expected gratifications of other scholars reading my work (and tenure!), is exactly what you’re describing. I’ve been surprised and delighted to discover not only that scholars in disciplines outside of my own, like landscape architecture, are finding my work useful, but also that curators, new media artists, scientists, and people working in the game industry are also interested in what I have to say. It has actually been a bit daunting because now I don’t just get the usual requests to review for humanities journals and presses; now I get the occasional nod from environmental studies or ecology journals, national science centres, and so on.

I do want to stress how right you are about game engines and digital assets rapidly permeating through all cultural spheres, from landscape design to cinema and television. I loved writing a recent piece about ‘digital morphogenesis’ and plant modelling by companies like SpeedTree, and may even publish my next book on this topic.

Still from Beyond Blue, an educational underwater diving adventure game developed and published by American studio E-Line Media

KW: In the first volume of Future Art Ecosystems, we use the term ‘infrastructural plays’ as a way of pointing to the often hidden ‘back-end’ of the art industry that feeds into the public-facing ‘front-end’ of the art world. Examining the ways that art projects are developed, produced and financialised, and outputs are distributed, stored and protected that often draw from adjacent industries, such as games. You write about ‘infrastructural play’, which I think really overlaps with this proposition. Could you tell me a little bit more about this as a concept?

AC: I love that we independently arrived at the same (or a very similar) term, for much the same reasons. For me, infrastructural play is what you do in a game like Corridors, or Phone Story (which rips the veil away from exploitative mining, manufacturing, marketing, and disposal practices for everyday smartphones). Scholars in critical infrastructure studies like to remind us that infrastructure almost by definition is beneath our notice, and that we don’t become aware of it until it breaks. My colleague Lisa Parks, who has written about everything from cell phone antenna trees to satellites, talks about infrastructure as ‘the stuff you can kick’. Of course, a good chunk of the developing world (and parts of the developed world, as evidenced by the state of Texas’s recent grid failures) don’t even have the luxury of taking infrastructure for granted. For me, infrastructural play is directed at bringing these normally hidden relations or dependencies into relief. So it’s also a fundamentally ecological project; ecology, after all, strives to situate human beings as one species among many, reliant on a host of biogeochemical factors both within and beyond our control.

boy and a dog walking into a blizzard
Still from Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), the first game developed in collaboration with the Iñupiat, an Alaska Native people.

KW: To end, who or what are you finding most exciting at the intersection of ecology and video games or virtual worlds right now?

AC: Aside from the fantastic work that you’re doing at the Serpentine, I can happily report that I see progress being made on multiple fronts: design, scholarship, and industry. More and more game designers are embracing environmental themes and gameplay, and groups like Games for Our Future have been sponsoring and finding growing support for a variety of developer-oriented ‘green’ game jams, e.g. on climate or clean energy. I’m eagerly awaiting new work from emerging and established scholars on these topics and heartened by what looks like increasing institutional support for environmental humanities/media research (judging anecdotally by the various workshops, talks, and events that I’ve been invited to be part of). Finally, I’m grateful to have learned about the International Game Developers Association’s relatively new climate special interest group which, although volunteer-driven, has been very active and already identified several ways to help game companies develop more climate-conscious games and design practices. These chances to intervene and open up at the levels of production and reception are precisely why I wrote Playing Nature.

KW: Thank you Alenda.

Artist Worlds is an ongoing series of commissions and events that support artistic practices that engage with simulated realities, immersive story-telling and virtual world-building and begins with an experimental live multiplayer virtual event focused on the interrelationship between ecology, sustainability and advancing technologies taking place in a revised version of Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s 2016 VR work Primal Tourism, a virtual island inspired by Bora Bora in French Polynesia.

"Play is hardly a panacea, but it is something we arguably need along with earnestness and righteous anger and grief."

Alenda Chang

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