This article starts with the observation that growth-oriented, techno-futurist narratives are predominant in climate change videogames. It then accounts for the lack of variety by arguing that these videogames are privileged expressions of premediation. Premediation cultivates a multiplicity of future scenarios, while at the same time delimiting them to suit presentist concerns, evoking a sense of inevitability and predictability strengthened by repetition. The iterative, branching temporality at work in this logic is deeply ingrained in videogames, as the trope of mastery through repetition and its analysis requires attentiveness to the affective dimensions of gameplay. If videogames are to engage with the climate crisis more productively, they must develop different temporalities in which the potentiality of the future is preserved. In this article, I analyse the games
- climate change
“How is your day going?” Depending on different climate change responses, your future answer may be any of the variations collected in Charlie Loyd's diagram (2019) (see Figure 1). In a number of joking but astute vignettes, he plots his visions of the future along two axes that measure political ideology and technological or economic outlook. What may strike us as we read through them is that some of these futures seem more familiar than others. We know about prepper futures from American television shows like
The ecomodernist futures in the diagram are some that feel especially familiar within this genre, with their robots, hover trains, and space elevators, but also – notably – their aerosol injections (“low-atmosphere spray”) and carbon capture and storage infrastructures (“carbon towers”), which rely on technologies already being cautiously considered in climate change mitigation by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (Edenhofer et al., 2014: 484). In juxtaposition to these more familiar visions for the future, the “goat farm futures” in the ecosocialist, degrowth corner of the graph appear all the more mysterious. Where are they to be found in popular media? What television shows, what novels, what movies, and what videogames spring to mind?
This is where especially videogames come up short. As I have argued elsewhere, although many videogames are increasingly interested in engaging with environmental issues like climate change, they also display a “strengthening commitment to narratives of progress and growth” (op de Beke, 2020). This trend evinces a lingering sense of optimism about the time to come, induced by a techno-utopianism that is fast becoming outdated. If anything, the years since the Great Acceleration of the 1950s have demonstrated that techno-industrial expansion comes at a terrible price, to be paid by future generations whose lives will be irrevocably marked by climate change. Aleksandra Wagner and Damian Gałuzka (2020) also find that many videogames reproduce rather than criticise hegemonic discourse on climate change and energy transition. In their study of the resource-imaginaries of 51 energy-themed videogames, they conclude that these games continue to associate fossil fuels with “stability and centralised control”, while casting renewables as marginal to the resource landscape (Wagner & Gałuzka, 2020: 9 of 10). The representation of resource politics in games thus reproduces “a hegemonic discourse governed by neoliberal market logic, focused on control and individual profits. The better future is an extended present with new technologies and old rules” (Wagner & Galuzka, 2020: 10 of 10).
To account for the tenacity of these growth-oriented techno-futures found in climate change videogames, I argue for the overriding influence of a certain ludic temporality, one that Richard Grusin (2010) has dubbed premediation. Premediation involves the act of cultivating a multiplicity of future scenarios, while at the same time delimiting their scope and variety to suit notions of plausibility that are fed by deeply presentist concerns. Premediation satisfies the desire to control the unknowability of the future by imbuing it with a sense of inevitability. In this article, I read climate simulation games as specifically illustrative expressions of premediation. By doing so, I expose an important affective dimension rarely addressed in the more common kind of proceduralist criticism that is often applied to climate simulation videogames. My argument thus also includes a methodological intervention. Too often simulation videogames are read as purely rationalist arguments instead of deeply affective interactions. Consequently, throughout this article, I want to make the case that proceduralist readings of videogames must be complemented by methods that attend to the affective dimension of play. In such an approach, a focus on the temporalities at work in videogames – such as repetition, mastery, and failure – is crucial.
The study of climate change videogames is part of the larger field of green, or environmental, media studies. Following the rise of climate change fiction and its enthusiastic embrace by literary scholars (Johns-Putra, 2019; Trexler, 2015), a similar undertaking has taken off in the field of videogame studies, where questions about how videogames engage with the environment and environmental collapse are being asked more and more frequently (Abraham & Jayemanne, 2017; Chang, 2019; Chang & Parham, 2017; Condis, 2015; Kunzelman, 2020; Lundblade, 2020; Millburn, 2018; Raessens, 2019a, 2019b). Until a decade ago, however, videogames explicitly dealing with climate change were few and far between, nor did they garner very much commercial or critical success. Many of them were developed as edutainment and remained limited in their dissemination and appeal. But as concern about climate change grows, so does its prevalence in popular culture. Currently, we see climate change videogames pop up regularly in game competitions which screen for games of social impact (e.g., Games for Change), in independent development – for example,
Owing to the novelty of this surge in engagement, to date, scholarship on the topic of videogames and climate change remains limited, but what scholarship there is can benefit from pointing out the unique ways in which videogames are able to stage the issue of climate change. Videogames are interactive, procedural media objects, and they give players the ability to play around with ludic temporalities (Hansen, 2018). One could argue this gives videogames a certain edge: playful simulations can take as their subject processes as large and protracted as climate change without limiting their focus to an anthropocentric perspective of individuals or events. Additionally, simulation games often encourage players to play through scenarios more than once, allowing players to find and test different outcomes, making them apt tools with which to explore themes like contingency and responsibility. I suggest the kind of reversible, branching temporality they demonstrate can be described – following the notion of procedural rhetoric – as procedural futurism.
Many climate change videogames fall into established videogame genres: the city builder, the god game, and the resource management game. While I do not have the space to introduce each of these genres at length, it is important to point out that they generally rely on the power of simulation to persuade and engage, as opposed to narrative intrigue. City builders, god games, and resource management games rarely feature developed storylines. Instead, they model, or simulate, existing or fictional processes in an interactive manner. For scholars who choose to engage with videogames as predominantly rule-based systems, and who in doing so may ascribe to the discipline of ludology, there exist a number of helpful heuristic approaches. Analysing a game's procedural rhetoric is one such approach. Coined by Ian Bogost (2007) in his book
Take, for example,
Simulation games lend themselves easily to procedural criticism. Their focus is not so much on telling an engaging or human-centred story as it is on building an intriguing interactive situation. However, proceduralism (or the emphasis of rules over other aesthetic modalities like narrative and audiovisual rhetoric) has been on the receiving end of some very cogent criticism. Pure proceduralism, Sicart (2011) argues, is reductionist. It assumes a central authority who encodes meaning into the game and who has omniscient knowledge of the way the rules play out. This assumption ignores the fact that videogames are often subject to unforeseen manipulations by players, which can undermine a developer's intentions. In other words, proceduralism does not acknowledge the player's role in the heuristic process. It assumes game rules are passively internalised by players, when in fact players always interpret, negotiate, and even appropriate the rules of a game. Finally, considering videogames as primarily rule-based systems downplays their fundamental audiovisuality – and leaves us at a loss for judging aspects like tone or register. Is the classic board game Monopoly a celebration of capitalism, or a scathing criticism? Without scouring textual and visual design for signs of, for instance, caricature, it would be very hard to answer this question.
Although it would be wrong to characterise Bogost as a pure proceduralist (hardly anyone is), procedural rhetoric has also been criticised for its supposed reductionism. For example, in his discussion of climate futures in videogames, Abraham (2018) points out that games aiming to convince players of the urgency or reality of climate change by simulating its processes, like
Calum Matheson (2015: 464), too, faults procedural rhetoric for not acknowledging the “affective economy” that precedes and creates the circumstances for persuasion through simulation to occur. He argues that Bogost's understanding of rhetoric as persuasion is a limited one and could be supplemented by drawing on psychoanalysis. From a psychoanalytical angle, rhetoric serves not so much to convince others, but rather to convince the self in the face of a repressed trauma derived from a failure of signification. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the world refuses to be understood, controlled, or predicted to our satisfaction, and so we use symbolic language, or rhetoric, to suture up those tears in the fabric of our perceived reality. These strategies of signification gain power through repetition, becoming tropes and stories. The details of these tropes and stories are less important than their evocation of a powerful sense of self. For example, the fort-da game observed by Freud (similar to peekaboo) allows the child “exercise of control over the conditions of presence and absence, [making it] essentially a simulation that permits agency over a situation in which the child must be passive” (Matheson, 2015: 472). Crudely put, videogames like
Following Abraham and Matheson, I conclude that any discussion of climate change videogames and the visions of the future they profligate ought to take into consideration the power of iteration, agency, and the significance of the affective context in which play unfolds. This necessitates a broader view of the way in which climate change is represented in popular media, and the circulating affects surrounding the issue. To help me better understand this media landscape, I draw on Grusin's notion of premediation, which describes a predictive media regime that became prevalent after 9/11, and which now, arguably, influences much of the coverage of climate change.
In his discussion on the affective life of media, Grusin (2010) explains that affect infuses not just media content, but our interaction with media technologies more generally. Consider the affective relationship many people have with their mobile phones, which tie us to our loved ones and society and grant us a sense of security. Similarly, playing a videogame establishes an affective feedback loop between the player and the game that is concerned not just with the affective content of play; there is also affective investment in merely maintaining the loop, which becomes evident when game-flow is rudely interrupted. Moments like these create bigger affective responses than stirring content, Grusin finds. He argues that this desire to be kept in the loop and to avoid the shock of the unexpected by dwelling on the near future is what governs the production and consumption of media after 9/11.
Although 9/11 looms large in his theorisation of premediation, Grusin (2015) acknowledges that its tendencies were already prevalent in American society before the attack, and that 9/11 merely caused them to surface and intensify. In his work on the related notion of “mediashock”, he also flags an elaborate prehistory. I choose to follow Grusin's emphasis on 9/11, however, because it is the clearest way of presenting his argument, and because of the parallel I want to draw between the “war on terror” and the “war on climate change”. That said, there are other ways of thinking about mediated futures, and one should not take Grusin's framework to be a totalising one. But there does seem to be some agreement, for example, from Ulrich Beck (2009), which highlights the importance of staging future catastrophes in steering present action, as well as the lucrative aspects of the manufacture of risk for financial or political purposes. It is Grusin's sensitivity to affect, however, that makes his work so valuable to me. After all, I am arguing that climate change simulation games operate not just on the conscious level of rational persuasion, but that they participate in wider affective regimes that orient people to the future.
According to Grusin, the immediacy and unpredictability of 9/11 and the way it was framed in the news gave rise to nothing less than full-blown televisual trauma. For Freud, trauma is the belated return of a suppressed memory which manifests in nightmares, phobias, hallucinations, panic attacks, and so on. Traumatic neurosis is thus characterised by the compulsion to repeat – to remember over and over again, compulsively and in a fragmented manner – something that was never lodged properly into one's consciousness. This repetition compulsion plagued news media in the hours, days, and weeks after 9/11, with news channels looping endless footage of the event and broadcasters often at a loss for words, illustrating trauma's resistance to language and narrative. In response to this trauma, tendencies that may already have been prevalent in society crystallised to form a media regime that cultivates a kind of defensive prescience. By anticipating, modelling, and exploring disasters to come, mediations of the future serve to evoke a false sense of control over its unknowability, at the cost of a pervasive, protracted low-level anxiety, which, in the context of the war on terror, was exploited to support the logic of pre-emptive war. As Grusin (2010) explains, the war in Iraq was the subject of intense speculation long before the decision to go to war was even taken. The sheer relentlessness and ubiquity of these predictive scenarios of war engendered a sense of inevitability; however, the US would choose to do it, they
Premediation extends “beyond 9/11” (Grusin, 2010: 143). In the context of climate change, it rears its head in anticipation of natural disasters like heat-waves, hurricanes, and forest fires, as well as in the proliferation of imagined future cities, such as in the “postcards from the future” Andrew Baldwin (2015) describes. In
Videogames are privileged expressions of premediation because of a shared formal logic: “premediation works something like the logic of designing a videogame, it is not necessarily about getting the future right as much as it is about trying to imagine or map out as many possible futures as could
In Grusin's argument, premediation paved the way for the war on terror. Currently, it is arguably feeding talk of a war on climate change. This is an idea taken up by environmentalists like Bill McKibben (2016), as well as proponents of the American Green New Deal (Drum, 2020; Stiglitz, 2019). Notably, the discourse of the war on climate change is less futuristic than it is an expression of nostalgia for a period of supposed American national unity, centralised planning, tolerance to austerity, and economic reform during World War II and the New Deal era. The example of the war on climate change thus exposes exactly the kind of futurity that regimes of premediation tend to propagate: a futurity that is limited by the known and the plausible. More ominously, the martial framework of the war on climate change can also be used to downplay legal or democratic objections to the all-too-hasty implementation of controversial climate change mitigation technologies, as in Mills's (2010) defence of carbon capture technology as the latest weapon in the war against climate change. Mills compares the challenge of climate change with the Apollo projects and America's involvement in World War II, and in a tone of pure exasperation, he notes that “neither of those crash programmes would have achieved much had they been held up by legal challenges requiring that we go to Mars instead, or by protesters chaining themselves to the gates of aircraft factories” (Mills, 2010: 26). In short, regimes of premediation encourage martial attitudes intent on domesticating doubt, delineating the scope of contingency and limiting discord for the sake of continuity.
Many videogames operate within such a martial framework, including many climate change games. Smicker (2009) argues, much along the lines of Grusin, that these war games are against futurity, because they show us a future that has already been foreclosed by the capitalist, militarist concerns of the present: “These games are set in the present or near future, and present possible future interventions into present-day hot-spots […] as necessary, unavoidable realities. They enact a particular mode of inevitable futurity” (Smicker, 2009: 113). “Proleptic wargames”, as Smicker calls them, “and their policy counterparts, are part of a broader effort to contain and manage the futurity of the future – that is its openness, its unknowability, its potential for difference or change” (Smicker, 2009: 116). It makes sense to read
In summary, what we see in many climate change videogames is the overriding influence of a certain ludic temporality – one that, according to Grusin, has come to characterise media regimes more generally. Premediation follows the videogame logic of plotting out a range of future scenarios, while at the same time it is subject to the urge to limit that multiplicity for the sake of convenience and narrative control (often called “railroading” in videogames). What is more, there are other ludic temporalities at play in climate change videogames that compromise their ability to engage with the climate crisis in all its complexity. These are the ludic temporalities to which I turn next.
Players come to videogames with certain expectations. Most importantly, they expect games to be fair, and they expect failure to be temporary – a learning moment. In other words, they expect to fail forwards (Anable, 2018). As Hanson (2018: 111) writes in his book on ludic temporalities, “mastery through compulsive repetition is a familiar trope in games”. Historical war games, he argues, allow players “to practice and perfect the past to satisfy ideological and social fantasies of control” (Hanson, 2018: 30). As I’ve explained, the same goes for mediations of the future. With each repetition, assumptions about what changes and what stays the same become more fixed, making the future seem more predictable and stable.
However, to achieve mastery, players must suffer failure. Although Hanson does not dwell so much on this aspect of the repetition-mastery dynamic, other scholars have (Anable, 2018; Juul, 2013; Keogh, 2019). Aubrey Anable (2018), particularly, writes at length on the affect of failure and its role in neoliberal culture and politics, which holds people individually responsible for failing to succeed. Most videogames mirror this neoliberal understanding of failure as a personal shortcoming. However, there are also videogames that can “shift our attention away from perceived personal failings and back to the failures of a larger ideological formation – say, a user interface, a digital platform, or even an economic system” (Anable, 2018: 129). These videogames may feature excessively difficult, opaque controls or situations that simply cannot be won. Rather than celebrate failure, Anable (2018: 129) argues, these games are invitations to “flail with [failure] for a while and learn its contours”. I propose that
As existing readings of
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Throughout this article, I have read
With a little bit of imagination, one could read
As a veteran, Scranton is a vocal critic of the notion of the war on climate change (2019). War brutalises people, and total mobilisation would entail social upheaval and political compromise, which runs counter to the myths of national unity and smooth transition that undergird the discourse of the war on climate change. In his own contributions to this discourse, Scranton emphasises that the most important thing being a soldier ever taught him was to embrace the inevitability of his own death in order to stay alive. In the age of climate change, he argues, this insight ought to be scaled up to make us realise there is no going on as we have before. This is not an expression of hopelessness; Scranton is after a creative destruction. Civilisation must die a kind of death in order for new possibilities to mushroom into existence. To do so, he argues that “we must suspend our attachment to the press of the present by keeping alive the past” (Scranton, 2015: 108). As I will explain,
At first glance,
Every day Talma receives mail from her family in the city. At some point, these letters start reporting on a mysterious forgetting illness emptying out entire cities. Gradually, the tone of the game changes from serene to ominous. One day, Talma's brother and sister report that during a recent harvest festival, people suddenly started collapsing, and even vanishing. There seems to have been a blackout, and Talma's estranged daughter Sola, who is on her way back to the farm and passing through the city, explains that she has “started losing pieces of [her] day. The memory of it”. Then Talma's sister vanishes. For days there is no mail. Then the postman stops coming. Gradually and almost imperceptibly, the climate changes. Days grow shorter and darker. At night, the farm is harassed by wolves, and when you run out of shotgun shells, your goats inevitably get picked off one by one. Then the earth rots and your flowers die, while an oily black rain falls from the sky. The scene is apocalyptic. Strange dreams come at night: panning shots in greyscale of fields and fields of gravestones, suggesting the scope of the catastrophe extends far beyond the little farm. Finally, flickering embers are visible on the horizon, as if the Earth is on fire. The next morning, the farm is blanketed with a layer of snow, or ashes, and with nothing to do, and nothing to care for, you keel over and die.
Rather than build up a herd that will inevitably be lost, on my second playth-rough, I turned my attention to the more enigmatic aspects of the game, aspects that would have been too time-consuming or too frustrating to explore while also running the farm. After all, Talma's old-woman's pace means you can only do so much before evening falls. Time spent exploring, though slow and boring, reveals an interesting thematic investment in memory. Whether due to old age or the mysterious forgetting disease, Talma's memory seems to be fading. In front of a rock in the desert, she muses: “Somehow the scars on the palm of my hand match the edge of this rock”. Talma's present is a mystery to her, and in order to make sense of it, we need to cultivate memory. This echoes Scranton's emphasis on the importance of the past. He writes that in order to cultivate memory, “[we] must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness. […] We must keep our communion with the dead” (Scranton, 2015: 108). Indeed, going slowly over the land, instead of rushing from goat to goat with your milking pail, allows you to discover and collect small statuettes that are linked to brief snippets of memory, which enable you to piece together an impression of what life on the farm was like when Talma's siblings, children, and grandchildren still lived there. This knowledge reframes the game's final image. After Talma dies, the screen fades to grey, slowly zooming out on a picture of the farm with the whole family in front of it and a big, beautiful tree where previously there was only a stump.
Sensing a certain absence in popular engagement with climate change in videogames a few years ago, Benjamin Abraham and Darshana Jayemanne (2017) asked a provocative question: “Where are all the climate change games?” One way of revising that question for the present day would be to ask, in videogames, where the goat farm futures are. This question exposes that what engagement there has been with climate change in videogames more recently still lacks the kind of variety that would foster more pluralistic, pragmatic approaches to climate change mitigation. As Holly Jean Buck (2019: 48) writes, “so often, climate futures are described in terms of mathematical pathways or scenarios, behind which are traditions of men gaming out possible futures”. Buck's choice of words here is not incidental. As I have argued, one way to account for the tenacity of militarist techno-futures is by pointing to videogames’ participation in the larger media regime of premediation. The ludic temporality that rules this regime proliferates mediated futures, even as it narrows down their scope of the possible.
Other ludic temporalities, too, can get in the way of games’ engagement with the climate crisis. Videogames are temporally forgiving, in the sense that failures often tally up to victories. This is deeply misleading in the context of the climate crisis: “How do we retain the freedom of replay and creative exploration that makes games so delightful, knowing that our safety net is also a false bottom conveniently hiding the depths of our indifference?” (Chang, 2019: 73). One response is to dwell in failure a little while longer. In this article, I have tried to do just that. In the case of