Can you learn about nature from computer games? According to one commentator, video games “remind us of how we create, and have always created, ‘nature.’ They signpost the virtuality of the real. They show our seemingly endemic proclivities to make over the natural” (411).
That’s from cultural theorist John Wills writing about video gaming in 2002: “a desire to explore multiple relationships with the natural remains part of human nature” (411). Games have moved on since 2002, but the following contact points between games and nature still hold.
Nature in video games
According to Wills, nature in games provides “a synonym for danger” (397), with “nature cast as savage and predatory” (398). He refers to Thomas Hobbes’ account of human kind bereft of the trappings of civilized society, where we are at the mercy of our natural impulse, which is for war: “every man against every man” (88). To the political philosopher we are under “continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (89). So Lara Croft has to contend with crocodiles, waterfalls, lightening, cliffs and treacherous currents.
But sometimes nature serves as a benevolent guide, “Assuming a folkloric kinship between human and animal creatures” (399). Wills thinks that in video games “nature thus translates as good counsel” (399).
Accurate or plausible representations of natural settings in games can add an aura of authenticity: “Programmers frequently employ nature as a sign of authenticity in video games. Designers recreate flora and fauna in digital guise to grant legitimacy and coherence to their artificial worlds” (400). This is common enough in representations in other media, but unlike a Romantic painting or a film, games involve interactions, and prescribed causal mechanisms. He suggests that games programmers “resemble Enlightenment philosophers in their treatment of nature as a machine” (401).
Video games also draw on nature as a source of the unknown. Nature’s mysteries provide cause for curiosity, but some games also present nature as something to be conquered as gamers follow the “Colonial impulse” (403).
Nature in games provides a cache of resources: a place to find minerals, hunt game, and overcome obstacles to win credits. Some of these challenges are modelled on outdoor pursuits, such as rock climbing, paragliding, and survival training. Nature is also a playground. Not only do players frolic and fight within nature spaces, but they also play with putative natural elements, directing the course of evolution, in so called “god-games” for example.
Then there’s the realisation of artificial life in video games, where natural elements grow and evolve and exhibit animal and plant-like characteristics, individually or as populations. A kind of techno-nature also develops, with the presentation of animal and machine hybrids.
As well as nature’s dangers, its exploitation and decline, some games portray a utopian return to Eden: “Virtual nature becomes synonymous with romantic sentiment and primordial innocence, its creation a form of digital nostalgia for paradise lost” (409). Wills notes how the “technological sublime and natural sublime meld together” (410).
Games now and always
In 2002 people thought of programmers as the main agents in the creation of video games. Now we know more about the role of designers and artists who bring various talents to the enterprise, not least an understanding of cultural context, the relationships between media, and a ludic and ironic sense to play.
The independently produced game also enters the scene. There’s now less imperative to reap huge sales to cover development costs. So there’s scope for experimentation. We now have games with more sophisticated approaches to environment, place and nature. See Mary Flanagan’s book on critical play for examples.
Some games have moved from the desktop and are to be played while on the move, out in the field — in nature as it were. Other games claim to afford benefits similar to those claimed of the wild. They are designed to be relaxing, fascinating, and/or therapeutic. One of our students, Hannah Drummond, has been studying the game Journey by thatgamecompany as a therapeutic game. It’s set in an atmospheric desert world, and is non-combative and affirming. See the Youtube playthrough.
Keeping some myths alive
Digital games also serve other roles in relation to nature. Like fantasy and science fiction film and other media forms, they keep alive the technological dreams of artificial intelligence, artificial life, autonomous robots, and posthuman hybridity. Wills says something that hints of this.
“Prolonged exposure to virtual worlds full of digital dinosaurs and artificial life will most likely lead to new ways of seeing, and understanding, nature, especially if so much game play leaves little time for genuine experiences of the great outdoors. Players whiling away their days in the Mario universe may expect from nature a hyper-reality to match the clear colors and textures of Yoshi’s Island. Videogames may yet encourage a tacit acceptance of biomechanical life forms, virtual nature servicing the continual collapsing of boundaries between the artificial and the natural, and the rise of amorphous identities” (412).
- Ash, James, and Lesley Anne Gallacher. 2011. Cultural geography and videogames. Geography Compass, (5) 6, 351-368.
- Flanagan, Mary. 2009. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
- Hayles, Katherine N. 1996. Narratives of artificial life. In George Robertson, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, and Tim Putman (eds.), Future Natural: Nature, Science, Culture: 146-164. London: Routledge.
- Hobbes, Thomas. 1991. Leviathan. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press
- Longan, M. 2008. Playing with landscape: social process and spatial form in video games. Aether: The journal of media geography, (11)23–40.
- Wills, John. 2002. Digital dinosaurs and artificial life: Exploring the culture of nature in computer and video games. Cultural Values, (6) 4, 395-417.