Science: Playing Nature

Review of Playing Nature by Alenda Y. Chang

A potent new book examines the overlap between our ecological crisis and video games

When a designer decides to turn his billion-dollar video game into an exercise in sustainable downsizing in Richard Powers's novel The Overstory, another character asks, “How are limits and shortages and permadeath going to be fun?” People playing video games want to level up and accumulate, to monetize social status and trade it. Such hypercapitalist tendencies do not exactly encourage behaviors that will lead to the mitigation of climate change and other environmental crises.

But video games might not be enemies to planetary redemption. In Playing Nature, Alenda Chang, a media scholar and game designer, begins with the provocative claim that game worlds are kin to natural systems. She calls them “mesocosms”—experiments that incorporate or replicate aspects of the natural world—and cites games such as Colossal Cave Adventure, which deftly maps portions of the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, and Firewatch, which accurately replicates the Ute Mountain lookout tower and various U.S. National Forest sites, as examples of games at the intersection of play and real life.


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