How enviros can tap the video game market
I’ll echo Dave’s sentiment that he expressed in his post “Reaching the hipsters“:
What about the hipsters? What about the semi-affluent, college-educated, tech-savvy, media-saturated twenty-somethings with artfully disheveled hair? They are, like it or not, apt to be central players in our culture in coming years (“the next generation,” blah blah).
They have no tolerance whatsoever for the kind of earnest, soft-focus appeals most enviro-groups pitch. They are, let’s face it, a tad self-absorbed, but they are attracted to all that is innovative, cool, and cutting-edge. Cool hunting is practically a genre unto itself on the net these days. And lots of stuff that’s going on in the green world these days fits the bill.
As I’ve written before, enviro groups might want to consider how they can introduce green themes into television shows and film, as well as develop campaigns to cultivate the emerging phenomenon of participatory journalism. One other unlikely medium that has significant potential is the world of video games.
Today, gaming is not limited to individuals playing alone at home on their PC or console. There is a whole culture and community where the gamer can play with a friend via splitscreen, a group over a networked system, or online against others from around the world. Additionally, gamers are building on the game developers’ original versions by creating their own maps, worlds, and characters.
And games are evolving beyond the classic adventure or first- and third-person shooter games. There are now more “serious” games used for educational and non-entertainment purposes. Games of this type were recently featured at the Serious Games Summit in Washington, D.C., an event covered by The Washington Post.
Among the games highlighted is “A Force More Powerful,” a simulation game (sponsored by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and developed by BreakAway Games) intended to teach social movements how they can employ non-violent action to achieve their goals.
WorldChanging’s Jamais Cascio, who has written extensively on social- and environmental-based games, reports that an “important theme for both serious and ‘fun’ games in the years to come” is “planetary management.” I don’t know exactly what is meant by this term, but it sounds like a SimCity for the Earth. This forecast could be encouraging since the current video game market is devoid of such games, as Jamais points out:
In compiling material for the WorldChanging Book this week, I found links to classic environmental games like SimEarth, Balance of the Planet, and Global Effect. But the last of these was published in 1992; I have yet to find any more recent commercially-available/freeware games that have planetary management or the environment as their central idea.
Me, I smell an opportunity. But if you find the idea of the environmental movement embracing video games a little crazy, consider the fact the many other sectors are already doing it. Not surprisingly, the military seems to be leading the pack. Games have also been developed for educational, governmental, corporate, and healthcare uses as well. And from the aforementioned Washington Post article we learn:
“Incident Commander” [another title from BreakAway Games] producer Parsons told a story about one of the beta testers for Incident Commander being sent to Louisiana to help deal with the Hurricane Katrina aftermath after spending an entire week playing the game.
“He learned things that helped him set up an 800-bed hospital for refugees in Baton Rouge,” Parsons said. “If through that process, people were made more comfortable, maybe lives were saved, then that justifies any amount of time and effort we’ve spent on doing this.”
This probably wouldn’t have surprised Ivan Marovic, one of the founders of a Serb student-resistance group that helped remove former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic from power, and who worked with the ICNC. Marovic has this quote in an October Wired News article about A Force More Powerful:
“The idea was to use the game to transfer knowledge about nonviolent action,” said Marovic. “The game can help more than movies and books because activists can simulate different situations and try different strategies before they try them in real life.”
Marovic sees games as a weapon of change, and so does BreakAway Games.
And if you think serious games would not be applicable to a movement like the Christian Right, you’d be wrong. This from Ian Bogost, a blogger who attended the Serious Games Summit and writes about a lecture titled “Serious Games for Religion and Religious Institutions“:
[T]he Christian market is part of a broader trend in “value added games” — games that are more than just entertainment. They want to create games that “were good” and didn’t include “blood and gore” — this was a real challenge because so much of the market expects those games. He described the change as a “moment of conscious.”
Sales of Christian products through the specialty retail channel is around $5 billion, representing around 2,500 – 3,000 stores. Wal-Mart sold over $1 billion in specialty Christian products. Games are starting to gain traction in the market. Moreover, the Christian sects are starting to gain more traction in media — on radio, for example. The Serious Games space might also create products to help ministries — missionary simulations, third-world infrastructure support, for example.
Many questions in The Bible Game are based on facts in the Bible, rather than doctrine, to appeal to a larger group of players.
So, can environmentalists add video games to their arsenal? I say “yes”, but it would have to be done right, as one badly designed game could ruin it for everyone else. As an occasional gamer myself, I’ve often wondered how a game that I was playing could be rewritten to incorporate green themes.
For example, Ubisoft develops the line of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six for PCs and consoles. In Rainbow Six 3, you play the leader of an elite anti-terrorist team battling a plot to exploit the volatile world oil market and create a war between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. After all the shooting, explosions, and hostage rescuing, one might come away with the sense that we’re over-dependent on oil, and that such a situation increases the possibility of military conflict. But since this wasn’t the purpose of the game, and thus not explicitly addressed, I doubt many come to this conclusion.
After watching The End of Suburbia yesterday at the Seattle Environmental Film Festival, I did become concerned about the potential military conflict after we hit peak oil and this valuable resource becomes less and less available. (But after listening to Kunstler for an hour, who wouldn’t?) So why not a game that explicitly addresses this along the lines of Rainbow Six or its sister game, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon?
And for something a little less violent, you could have some ex-special forces character working in Africa on an animal preserve. Due to the “special” background, he or she is enlisted on missions to stop illegal animal poaching, logging, mining, etc. — perhaps by some non-lethal means that the geniuses at the game development companies come up with.
But I can imagine some would want to stay away from violent games completely, so perhaps a SimCity-like game where you need to develop sustainable cities that run on renewable energy sources. (Sounds like planetary management to me!)
Now, I would buy any of these games in a heartbeat (assuming they were well-produced). How about you?