“Slow Violence”: A Proposal for Ecological Game Studies

by Alenda Y. Chang

Critical game studies is by now a well-developed field. Thus far, however, there has been little sustained interest on behalf of game scholars in connections to the life sciences and pressing modern environmental issues. Popular perception of computer and video games as mere technology and recreation has also arguably shielded them from important questions about how they model natural environments, and the recent, all too familiar furor over video game violence makes these dual oversights rather evident.

About a month ago, on Christmas Day, the front page of The New York Times featured a disquieting article about the growing ties between the video game industry and firearms manufacturers, in the wake of public outcry after the tragic Newtown, Connecticut, mass shooting on December 14.[i] Given the accessibility and apparent popularity of the assault-grade weapons used by the shooter (including a Bushmaster semi-automatic military-style rifle and Glock pistol), the article’s authors drew attention to the licensed representation of purchasable guns in well-known, first-person shooter games like Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor and Activision’s Call of Duty titles. However, the article rates attention less in terms of its predictable media-effects finger pointing, than in its evidence for both the increasing commercialization and branding of game content and the persistent and problematically narrow ideal of realism in game design.


Environmental collateral damage in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (image courtesy Activision.com)

For decades, violence and video games has been a particularly fraught topic for anyone involved with the design or study of games, from scholars and researchers to industry employees. Having regularly come under Congressional examination, most often after high-profile shooting sprees of the Columbine and Newtown variety, video game violence is no doubt the game-related issue that most people, non-players especially, are most likely to have encountered in the mainstream media. Though in June 2011 the Supreme Court struck down a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors, ruling that games, like gruesome fairy tales, are Constitutionally protected cultural forms of free speech, politicians and pundits continue to press legislative reform over video game violence and its potential effect on minors and pathological individuals (much has already been written about Vice President Joe Biden’s investigations into violent media in prologue to President Obama’s recent recommendations on gun control). Video games (as well as other forms of screen violence) almost always bear the brunt of public and official reprisal, rather than lack of services for the mentally ill, our culture’s general glorification of military strength, and the distinctively American rhetoric of survivalism and frontier individualism (ironically, spokesmen for the National Rifle Association have done their best to redirect blame toward video games, despite the recent release of an NRA-licensed shooting practice iOS app).

While I agree with those that think games are too convenient a scapegoat for heinous acts committed by armed killers, I am more concerned that the obsession with game violence has diverted our attention from other, equally important forms of game realism, other aesthetic and experiential avenues for gameplay and design, and other vital ways in which virtual game worlds inflect and cross over into our lived social and material worlds. Without exempting games from necessary scrutiny of their often extreme and tasteless violence, what might we gain by leaving behind the perpetual struggle between First and Second Amendment rights and instead identifying and addressing what I see as unfortunate but telling lacunae in the study and reception of games?

In the first place, not all games are violent, at least in the sense that they involve shooting, maiming and killing, or assassinating one’s virtual enemies. As evidenced by the rise of so-called “art” games and “serious” games (sometimes called “games for change”), more and more games are being created outside of the channels of mainstream entertainment, with forms and goals tightly enmeshed with art, education, and political and social activism. On another level, one might also productively argue that limiting the definition of violence to the kinds of spectacular brutality common in fighting, action-adventure, and shoot-‘em-up games—that is, overt and often graphic physical harm generally committed by humans against other humans—ignores the reality that a different and more pervasive violence is constantly being perpetrated in today’s world, what Rob Nixon has called the “slow violence” of environmental destruction and cumulative toxic effects. Games both duplicate and deny this less sensational but equally destructive sort of violence, often by dissociating industrial and commercial activity from the social and ecological realities of labor, pollution, and waste:


A cheerful call for urban development in Zynga’s CityVille, on Facebook (personal screenshot)

A cheerful call for urban development in Zynga’s CityVille, on Facebook (personal screenshot)

And while only some games may be labeled as violent, all games feature a game world or environment in which gameplay occurs, though that environment may range widely in terms of detail and visual fidelity, from the relatively impoverished worlds of text-based or single-screen games to the intricate and immersive three-dimensional worlds of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and blockbuster console games. This suggests that a disproportionate amount of attention has been paid to a particular type (violence) and subtype (graphic violence) of game material, without considering a broader and in many respects more pertinent aspect of games, namely their environmental content.

Global environmental upheaval and destruction in the wake of a dragon’s awakening in World of WarCraft: Cataclysm (2010) (image courtesy Joystiq.com)

Global environmental upheaval and destruction in the wake of a dragon’s awakening in World of WarCraft: Cataclysm (2010) (image courtesy Joystiq.com)

This is where I have focused my thinking for the past four years, while writing a dissertation on the ecology of games (and I really do mean ecology, as in the science presaged by figures like Ernst Haeckel and Jakob von Uexküll, not merely the loose suggestion of significant interrelation implied by terms like political or media ecology). Happily, my work in Playing Nature has found a congenial home in the nascent environmental humanities and ecomedia studies communities, by making an unlikely pair out of the disciplines of literary environmental criticism and new media theory (in particular critical game studies). In my mind, these academic areas offer each other much-needed correctives in a time of both widespread digital technology and environmental crisis, as the one has tended to exclude designed landscapes and modes of mediated interaction perceived as detracting from direct experience of the natural world, while the other has, with rare exceptions, failed to acknowledge emerging technologies’ embeddedness in material circumstances and finite natural systems.

In brief, Playing Nature accepts that our experiences of the natural world have been increasingly mediated by technology, in order to consider the tacit ecological lessons offered by both historical and contemporary gameplay. While a depressing majority of mainstream game environments fall into what I have called the “graphical spectacle” and “resource extraction” camps of environmental modeling, I would argue that games lend themselves to the representation and exploratory manipulation of simulated ecological functions, and that they are especially well equipped to remedy the common difficulties faced by environmental educators and activists—including the question of how to successfully render the scale and urgency of global environmental change in less didactic or declamatory and more dynamic and intrinsically engaging forms.

Urban revitalization in Flower (2009) (image courtesy thatgamecompany.com)

Urban revitalization in Flower (2009) (image courtesy thatgamecompany.com)

In my work, the term “game environments” is intended to designate more than a game’s scenery, or the pictorial components of its in-game world, or diegesis. Though many remember the scrolling clouds and colorful obstacles of Super Mario Bros., or the desert sands and garden palaces of Prince of Persia, as the defining elements of their respective game settings, game environments extend beyond surface appearances to the underlying mechanics with which programmers establish the “rules” of game universes. From motion physics to seasons and climatic zones, from resource availability and creature “spawn” rates to concept art and ambient sounds, players operate within a multitude of environmental parameters that determine not only what the game world looks like, but also how it responds to player input.

The logic of resource extraction and capital expansion in Zynga’s FarmVille 2 (personal screenshot)

The logic of resource extraction and capital expansion in Zynga’s FarmVille 2 (personal screenshot)

While environmentalism, environmental science, and environmental history have by now a decades-long intellectual history, the current groundswell of cross-disciplinary interest in environmental criticism that we are witnessing in the postmillennial aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and largely ineffectual international efforts to mitigate climate change, are evidence of both fresh wounds and radically felt anxieties and excitement over the ways that our scholarship can stretch beyond classroom walls and printed pages to the world we inhabit. Though many may rebel against the proposition that something as patently artificial and removed from the elements as a virtual game world might be thought of as environmental, how virtual is the virtual in an era when digital technology premises its eventual ubiquity on controlling a vast share of the world’s resources and transforming discarded electronic waste into othernational problems? And for how many millions of people do the hours spent in game environments vastly outnumber the hours spent outdoors or in wilderness areas, or even engrossed in books, movies, and television? Ontologically and epistemologically speaking, computer and video games present a rich limit case for the claims of environmental scholarship—a place where the natural and the digital collide and prompt careful reexamination of our assumptions about nature, realism, and the virtual.

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Alenda Chang is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation, entitled Playing Nature: The Virtual Ecology of Game Environments, proposes new methods and objects for environmental inquiry through multilayered engagement with the imaginative worlds of contemporary gaming. Ms. Chang is an active member of the Berkeley Center for New Media’s Executive Committee and recently helped to launch the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) forum, “Press Start to Continue,” on future directions in game studies. She maintains the Growing Games blog and has published work in The Information Society, Qui Parle, and Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.


[i]                   Meier, Barry and Andrew Martin. “Real and Virtual Firearms Nurture a Marketing Link.” New York Times 25 Dec. 2012: A1. Print.

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  1. Pingback: Slow Violence (link to Ant, Spider, Bee) « Growing Games

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