From Zelda to Civ to Frostpunk—can climate change be fun?


For decades now, video games have concerned themselves with the end of things. From the bombed-out nuclear wasteland of Washington, DC in Fallout 3 to the flooded Hyrule of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, popular games have explored the concept of the apocalypse with both goofy humor and stark seriousness, often revealing unpleasant truths in the process. So perhaps it’s no surprise that as the all-too-real climate change crisis continues to creep towards a breaking point—even as the ongoing public health disaster known as COVID-19 eclipses it in the public imagination—video game developers are taking steps to systematize the ways that rising sea levels or other ecological catastrophes might overwhelm us in the coming years.

While many of these climate changed-focused games focus on depicting the dire future that experts predict if we refuse to radically alter our behavior patterns, others are a bit more traditional in their approach. And some notable game-makers like Firaxis Games (Civilization) and 11-Bit Studios (This War of Mine) are drawing inspiration from climate-change to craft ludic dilemmas that force players to make radical decisions in the face of overwhelming odds. In other words: if these studios can’t necessarily make living through the apocalypse as fun as it sounds, they can at least make it interesting.

The picturesque environments of Civ6 were about to experience some hardships.

A game that can do both

To be fair, climate scientists have understood for years now that video games have a unique ability to communicate the stakes and severity of this global crisis to a mass audience. Historically, many of these games fit well-within the strategy genre, and developers have tried different approaches to lure players in. For example, the commercial game Fate of the World often overwhelms new players with the heft of its interlocking systems: make a few bad decisions early on, and you’ll quickly find yourself hurtling towards a bad ending. All you can do then is apply the lessons learned to a future playthrough. On the other hand, educational fare like the underwater exploration sim Beyond Blue lean more towards accessibility. By focusing on the specific effects of climate change—in this case, the destruction of the Earth’s oceans—the game can communicate the costs of a warming climate to a wider audience.

While these so-called “global warming games” do succeed in changing minds, as an established subgenre of the arguably-outdated label “serious games,” they can’t quite penetrate the psyche of everyday gamers in the same manner as their ultra-successful commercial brethren like Minecraft. For many, that’s not their aim. However, a game like Civilization 6 can do both. When developer Firaxis Games announced that the Gathering Storm DLC for their latest entry in the classic strategy franchise would add climate and disaster mechanics, fans responded with major enthusiasm.

According to Ed Beach, the game’s lead designer, the team felt that these ecological features would help further flesh-out Civ 6’s core philosophy, which he describes as “playing the map.” Unlike previous Civilization games, if a player wants to build powerful settlements, they must invest resources in exploiting the particular terrain around a potential city, such as building a water-wheel next to a river or digging a mine beneath a mountain. According to Beach, letting that river overflow or that mountain erupt with magma every-now-and-then struck them as an obvious avenue for improvement.

“Climate change was a natural extension of that idea, especially since our game runs until 2050,” Beach says. “The next 30 years are quite critical ones for our planet where we may see just such dramatic changes to our planet’s landscape.”

In the early to mid-game of a Civ 6 match, flashy disasters like storms and floods are governed by the same systems as their more mundane examples, like famines and droughts. They’re all keyed to random dice rolls in the background, though players have the option of adjusting their frequency and severity. It’s not all doom-and-gloom—as with their real-life equivalents, these setbacks can produce unexpected benefits, such as fertilizing your soil for enhanced food production. However, once you enter the last third of the game—the so-called “modern era” and later—your nation’s industrial production can start to impact the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that can have a major impact on both your overall climate and the disasters that befall it.

According to Beach, Civilization 6 drew inspiration for its climate change systems from a very peculiar source—the first game in the series, 1991’s Civilization. Compared to the sprawling complexity of its sequels, Civ 1’s global warming system is quite simple: once the player starts to produce factories and the like in the industrial age or later, their map will slowly gain pollution. (Like Civ 6’s disasters, certain cataclysmic events produce massive amounts of it, such as a meltdown of a nuclear power plant.) If the pollution isn’t disposed of fast enough, the map will slowly transform, with coasts becoming swamps and once-fecund plains turning into arid deserts. Later games in the series would slightly refine these systems, but with Gathering Storm, Beach and the team wanted to inject fresh ideas that aimed more at rewarding players that took proactive action rather than punishing those who didn’t.

While Beach says that the primary goal of this new climate system was to introduce interesting wrinkles to the existing Civ formula, he also notes the franchise’s heritage as an educational tool even if its young players don’t exactly view it as “edutainment.” To Beach, climate change is going to become a key moment in human history, whether we want to admit it or not—just like the invention of the wheel, or the scourge of the Black Death—and that’s exactly what a Civilization game is made out of.

[Civ’s] sandbox had been missing any large-scale representation of how the environment has pushed back to check human progress and how mankind has impacted the planet,” he says. “Gathering Storm added these new elements to the mix; tools to experience world-scale environmental change. If that lets players appreciate how mankind can shape the planet, it just heightens the game’s ability to inform and instruct and hopefully that’s a win for everyone.”

Though careless play can allow rising water levels wreak devastation on these nations, Gathering Storm does give players plenty of tools to deal with elevated carbon levels. Some of these technologies are specific to the game’s “future era” and are entirely speculative in nature, including floating cities and carbon recapture (i.e. sucking the CO2 out of the atmosphere like a giant vacuum cleaner). As Beach tells it, the team wanted to include these as-yet-uninvented techniques in order to emphasize the fact that the apocalyptic future predicted by the worst climate projections is not necessarily set in stone—we have the power to change it, if we so choose. “Technologies such as these—things our contemporary scientists are hoping to unlock—give players a chance to put the world on a positive path, even if they have suffered significant effects from climate change earlier,” he says. “They were the final pieces in our efforts to make sure players always had the tools to positively respond to environmental changes if they are so inclined.”



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