Analyzing the digital and analog feedback loop.
Having spent some time (and by that, I mean “trapped”) with the faeries for the past few months, I (re)learned some things from them. For instance, that games, despite all their innovative trappings, are trash. To be more specific, as I don’t like to speak in sweeping generalizations – games can create a lot of socioeconomic trash. This is something I’ve been interested in for quite a while now and is part of the issue of preserving games for posterity as well.
We often experience games in a way that divorces our perceptions from the broader social and material reality of their existence. For instance, there is a shortage of chips to make new next-gen consoles that started during the first wave of the pandemic, which does not have a foreseeable end in sight, but which we don’t really talk of these days. Though we do speak often of how hard it is to get one’s hands on a PS5 or an Xbox Series X. Until this occurrence, many players were under the impression that, like most things in our current digital era, consoles and tech are ubiquitous and easy enough for some to access (especially in the global north).
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. If there is one thing that is readily apparent about the games industry, it’s that the production of games is fraught with inequality and unsustainable practices. From crunch culture to underpaying and ignoring outsourced labor from overseas development teams to conflict mineral mining to ableist game design and soaring prices for AAA titles, games are predicated on interconnected systems of late capitalist BS. Not to mention that as with many products of the broader tech landscape, games also possess no formal system of right-to-repair rules, leading to overconsumption and “mountains of e-waste.”
Two particular headlines have been revolving in my brain since I encountered them. The first is the study that revealed how little game history we have been able to preserve (and how it’s connected to previous headlines such as the one about Square Enix realizing how much of their source code is hard to locate or difficult to remaster). I’m still staggered over the missing 87 percent of classic videogames that were released in the US alone. The second is about the right-to-repair games and their attendant tech, how to shift from a planned obsolescence model in the industry to a more conscientious one. As Elizabeth Chamberlain, the director of iFixit (a company providing consumers with a free right-to-repair manual) discusses in a gamesindustry.biz interview it’s not just about planned obsolescence either. Companies are relying on constantly evolving cybersecurity issues to provide their wasteful practices with plausible deniability as well. The challenge is steep getting gaming giants like Microsoft and Sony to be open with communication regarding a way forward to sustainable technology practices, such as becoming more modular like PCs and Steam Decks for example.
Topping this off, in addition to destructive and oppressive extractive practices and no inroads yet to a consistent right-to-repair system, companies in the game industry are rampant with greenwashing campaigns. Sony promises to plant trees for trophies earned in Horizon Forbidden West, Microsoft releases special-edition controllers made with partly recycled plastics for Earth Day 2023 and Ubisoft educates players via virtual wildfire events. These events in particular, while well-intentioned, leave me with a deep sense of ambivalence as I follow news and personal stories of family friends this past August of those displaced by the Yellowknife wildfire. Not to mention the other wildfires that have been ravaging all of North America these past few years, especially during summers.
This greenwashing, or eco-justice lite tack towards tackling sustainability challenges is also present in the narrative design of a lot of games as well. For a long while games have loved including themes of how beautiful the natural world can be and how we must protect it. But the aforementioned Horizon series and countless other open-world games like Greedfall and, yes, even beloved Breath of the Wild, are often based off of colonial-imperialist systems of extraction and consumption. As Meghna Jayanth, organizations like Dames Making Games, critics like Dia Lacina and indie designers like Kaelan Doyle-Myersough have outlined how such systems center a powerful lone (and often Eurocentric inspired) protagonist who inhabits a world that is full of natural resources and people for them to exploit for their “noble” goals. These games often feature reductive or essentialist archetypes of civilized and primitive modes of living, even when intentions are supposedly to raise awareness of how destructive colonial-imperialism can be.
We like to bandy a lot about agency in games and how this will lead to positive changes. This is true for perhaps those who change their mindsets (which is of importance to climate change) but it isn’t necessarily a hundred percent true of infrastructural changes that could be made or changes at the policymaking level. And that’s not to say that all small everyday actions taken to improve our climate crisis doesn’t matter either.
I don’t have any answers to these major issues above and neither am I here to lecture you on what games should be doing with their narrative design. But I have been researching some concepts that I think are helpful with regard to finding alternative perceptions of eco and social justice that are more intersectional and emphasize the interconnectivity of our creative existence with the natural world we are all part of and live in. The faeries also reminded me that one of the cruxes of unsustainability is the global north’s hyper-categorization of society and nature, without acknowledging interconnectivity and the collective (yet specific) culpability that comes with that acknowledgment.
The first concept I think could be beneficial to design thinking in games and their production is ethical relationality. After Papaschase Cree scholar Dwayne Donald as cited by Métis scholar Zoe Todd, who writes of “Indigenizing the Anthropocene.” Ethical relationality acknowledges not only our cultural interrelationships but our cultural differences, with regard to histories and lived experiences. When you’re approaching any matter with ethical relationality, you are actively aware that your cultural position and experience interacts with other cultural positions and experiences and how that affects any given state of affairs. In Donald’s words, from this awareness of interrelationships you perform “an enactment of ecological imagination;” ecological imagination being not the scientific sense of ecology, but our perception of how as humans we should approach climate change with principles of balance and mutual aid.
Ethical relationality is related to another model of thinking and performance put forth by writers like Zadie Smith in her Intimations of the pandemic and abolitionist scholar Ruha Benjamin’s concept of Viral Justice. Such models use the metaphor of a virus in different yet related ways to get to the core of how we can enact long-term social change or disruption. Just as viruses start off with small microbial reactions and can lead to large-scale events like pandemics, we need to think of small actions that, if made consistently, by many, in a concerted effort, lead to widespread chain reactions.
With particular reference to Smith, she analyzes how small and consistent actions taken with the spirit of contempt lead to systemic issues like racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia or classism. “Before contempt, you are simply not considered as others are, you are something less than a whole person, not quite a complete citizen. Say…three fifths of the whole. You are statistical. You worked around. You have no recourse. You do not represent capital, and therefore you do not represent power. You are of no consequence.” If we want our decisions with regard to sustainability in the games industry to last, I’d wager approaching such decisions with the idea that we are part of a system that takes ethical relationality to heart would go the distance. Whether this is from the standpoint of an individual or a group’s actions.
Then there’s the need to ensure that we remain cognizant of how theoretical terms are only useful up until a point and are always in need of active negotiating and evolution. While there has been a lot of useful debate over whether terms like Anthropocene (human-caused), Capitalocene (capitalist-caused) and Plantationocene (long-term impacts of creating plantations) are effective at situating climate crisis in specific actors or systems, we often get too mired in theory. Being aware of our collective responsibilities towards this global and often denied event is an important step, but we should also remember to focus on what specific actions we can take in the present with what skills and resources (inner or external) are available to us.
Now before I become too mired in theory myself, I want to reiterate that this is not me making a checklist of requirements for sustainability in games nor is it a doomer column. I’ve just been observing as of late that, rather hopefully, there’s been a lot more awareness of how games as capitalist objects and experiences are not isolated from more politically important objects and experiences. And there’s a roster of games and game designers who are approaching games in an anti-capitalist, eco-conscious manner. What’s more, players want more games with ecological themes.
I know I’m one of those players: I would like to play more games that engage with the concepts I’ve mentioned above and others like them that I haven’t learned of yet. I want more games that are solarpunk and center communities instead of lone heroes. I would like to play more games that aren’t modeling the climate crisis as inevitable and that don’t discount everyday actions as inconsequential. And I would like to see how as architects and consumers of technology we find better ways to approach crafting interactive experiences that embody and enact the ecological imagination.
Phoenix Simms is a writer and indie narrative designer from Atlantic Canada. You can lure her out of hibernation during the winter with rare McKillip novels, Japanese stationery goods, and ornate cupcakes.