Growing Games

by Alenda Chang

Years ago, I started an academic blog while in the thick of researching and writing a dissertation chapter on farm games, games made popular by Zynga’s bucolic bobblehead paradise, FarmVille. Pressed for a catchy tagline for said blog, I came up with the following high-minded slogan: “You grew up with games. Now games need to grow up with you.” While its finger-wagging tone still strikes me as somewhat cringeworthy, I stand by the general sentiment—not only do mature gamers need a wider selection of mature games to choose from (and by mature, I don’t mean blood-spattered or full of sexualized content), we also quite literally need games about growing things and things that grow. As players, whether we are cultivating calm through Zen gardening or wandering the ruins of human civilization, it seems clear that games provoke conversations about stewardship, world design, and human interaction with the environment.[1]

Despite this, relatively few teachers and scholars are directing their energies in this direction, so the following post has been designed as a broad introduction to digital gaming for academics in the environmental humanities. In it, I will share some of the on- and offline resources that I have found useful for work in this area, as well as a few ideas for using games in the environmental-humanities classroom. (Keep in mind that I am most familiar with resources related to literary and media studies, and thus may unwittingly neglect resources in history, environmental studies, and other areas.)

Resources

First, let’s be clear. Environmentally minded work on games is still a rarity, but you may find pockets here and there either through industry-focused and design-oriented conferences like the annual GDC, E3, PAX, SXSW, CHI, and DiGRA meetings, or, more likely, under the media or “new media” umbrella in the organizations you already frequent. For instance, games occasionally crop up at MLA in association with the digital humanities or the Media and Literature discussion group, ASLE has an “Ecomedia Studies” interest group, and SCMS is home to separate Media and Environment and Video Game Studies scholarly interest groups.

If attending those conferences presents a challenge, you can also find a number of specialized web sites both for the analysis of games and downloading or playing games themselves. “Eco” game blogs like http://ecogamer.org/, https://greeningthegame.wordpress.com/, and my own http://growinggames.net/ are simple, yet curated places to start, or you can peruse the swollen ranks of online and downloadable games for relevant titles on a multitude of sites and platforms. Some of my go-tos include Kongregate, Steam, the radical art games by Molleindustria, and the journalistic games at newsgaming.com. Furthermore, any major environmental media or activist organization has probably developed games as part of its kit of public-relations tools—all you need to do is look (more on this in a moment).

Teaching the Environmental Humanities through Games

Teaching with games is easier said than done. As with any technology-dependent activity, it requires a great deal of advance preparation and a fair amount of technical know-how. Is your classroom equipped with a data projector and HDMI inputs for a laptop or game console? Is there built-in sound? Is there a wired Internet connection for lag-free, networked or multiplayer play?

Before using games in a class of yours, give some serious thought to how you want the play experience to unfold. Do you want to play altogether, as a class, with students taking turns, or with you in the demo seat? Would you rather divide them into groups, or have them play individually for homework? Are you going to play the game from the beginning, or do you need to begin play from a saved file in order to highlight a particular scene or level? Will you allow spectating students to chime in while someone is playing, which could, depending on the students, create an atmosphere of teamwork or terrorize shy students? Ultimately, what do you want them to get from the experience, and how quickly? In my experience, these are all questions you must consider beforehand, to encourage the greatest possible participation and avoid allowing the game to consume the lesson. In practice, this often boils down to the following tenets:

Know your gear.

I know few people who could remain cool while untangling a rat’s nest of cables or calling university tech support while students watched and waited, hence the need for advance preparation.

Set ground rules.

The classroom is not a living room. Students need to understand that the overarching objective of playing a game in class is not just to have fun, but to better grasp a concept or theory (for instance, misogyny, resource extraction, or colonialist rhetoric). In other words, this is not the time to break out soda and chips, but a notebook!

Budget more time than you think is necessary.

Speed runs notwithstanding, you can’t rush gameplay. Your play time needs to accommodate false starts, less confident players, curious wanderings, and that essential facet of any game, replay

Fig. 1. Does your classroom technology look like this? Better plan ahead. Credit: User slworking’s Flickr photostream.

Fig. 1. Does your classroom technology look like this? Better plan ahead. Credit: User slworking’s Flickr photostream.

Now, if the idea of troubleshooting connections or buying extra cables and adapters for every contingency doesn’t sound appealing, or if you’re not already a seasoned gamer willing to tow your heavy game console and all its appendages to class, or if you’re concerned about finding games that all of your students can play, it may make sense to begin with analog games—after all, everyone has played a board game or a card game, and this relieves much of the intimidation factor present with console-based games. Did you know, for instance, that the Union of Concerned Scientists has a climate-change card game called Cool It!? Or that one of the most acclaimed general-interest board games of 2010-2011, Forbidden Island, is basically a game about sea-level rise (in it, the players must work together to collect four treasures from different parts of the island before it sinks into the sea)?

You could also begin with simple, free Web games, many of which are overtly polemical or commercial in nature and can make great starting points for discussions of the branding of nature or the challenges facing environmentalism and environmental activism. For example, Discovery Communications’ Animal Planet hosts a variety of games for kids geared toward domestic and wild animal appreciation, with names like “Mutt Maker,” “Survival of the Fittest,” and “Creaturefy Yourself.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has a variety of games geared toward kids, young adults, and adults, ranging from “Seal Slalom” (avoid sealers on a downhill course) and “Pirates of the Carob Bean” (seek the magical Golden Tofu to bring an end to chicken nuggets) to one of my favorites, a spoof of Nintendo’s Cooking Mama oh-so-subtly subtitled Mama Kills Animals

Fig. 2. Pluck your own Thanksgiving turkey in PETA’s Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals game. Author screenshot.

Fig. 2. Pluck your own Thanksgiving turkey in PETA’s Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals game. Author screenshot.

That said, environmental game selection need not be limited to games explicitly promoting environmental activism or knowledge, like the heavy-handed and not particularly well-designed Greenpeace games. In my experience, students are often put off by the blatant rhetoric and slapdash construction of such games, while they may be genuinely moved by less didactic games like Flower or Journey, which deliver compelling environmental stories without shaming or lecturing. Games tailor made for #envhum areas of research and teaching may be found across a variety of game genres and run the gamut from mainstream to indie, contemporary to vintage. Consider, for instance, cutting-edge, open-world simulation games like Spore and the much-heralded No Man’s Sky and historical and pseudo-biological models like John Conway’s Game of Life or SimEarth’s Gaia scenario.

I hope this admittedly brief excursion into digital games inspires you to include them in your research or on your syllabi—they are well worth the effort! And do look out for a future post, where I will focus on using game design as a pedagogical tool, with one of my own under-construction games as an example.

Alenda Chang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. Find her online at growinggames.net or on Twitter as @gamegrower.

1 See the “Relaxation” chapter in Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Video Games (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013) for games that resemble the Japanese dry garden, or karesansui.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Pingback: Growing Games on Ant Spider Bee | Growing Games

  2. Didrik Dyrdal Reply

    The article made me think about my teenage years’ favourite Abe’s Oddysee. The fantasy/science-fiction game features the weak everyday protagonist Abe, who works at the ‘RuptureFarms’ meat processing factory. When he discovers the plant owners’ plan to turn his people into meat products, he leads their escapee. The game features a moralising approach and a strong idealisation of native people and spirituality as a counterweight to capitalism, but its over-the-top humour compensates for this and prevents the gamer from taking it at face value. Nevertheless it delivers a compelling moral story and criticism of the meat industry.

    I doubt the game is much good for educational purposes, but it certainly appeal strongly to our sense of stewardship and has a dedicated fan base. It recently appeared in a retouched HD version, which some consider inferior in art style to the original.

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