How Climate Change is Depicted in Video Games

Guest Post by: Ian Benedict Mia, independent contractor in academia and startups

Video games have always been a reflection of the times. The Final Fantasy franchise, for instance, has touched on themes like grief, existentialism, and loss, as well as politics, war, and religion, to name a few. Long-time fans of the franchise would praise the game for how it masterfully combines different elements into one coherent, memorable, and eventually nostalgic experience.

When I was growing up, video games helped me navigate life’s uncertainties as well as overcome my most awkward phases. I remember popping out my Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance in my parents’ car, playing various classics that I still think of fondly to this day. But that’s not the only thing that video games are for. If you think that climate change, for instance, can only be tackled by politicians or scientists, among others, then you’re wrong. 

Playing for the Planet Alliance, a global initiative established under the UN Environment Programme, consists of video game companies around the world that have committed to taking action against climate change and reducing their carbon footprint in the coming years. In its Impact Report 2020, the initiative reached 110 million people through ‘green activations’ placed in games by several major studios. These in-game activations enabled players to donate to tree planting initiatives and learn more about climate change, to name a few.

For me as a casual gamer who’s also into sustainability, it’s a pleasant surprise knowing that the video game industry is making its own contributions towards climate action. It’s a testament that regardless of where you come from, climate change is everyone’s deal, and that we each have the capacity to do something about it. 

Beyond green activations, however, it’s the storytelling in video games that stand out to me the most. If you’ve ever played a story-driven video game, you’d probably agree that the narrative elements are one of the main aspects drawing you towards the game in the first place. For me, video games that touch on climate change through its storytelling — even just briefly — have never failed to fascinate. 

In Chrono Cross, a Japanese role-playing video game released in 1999, there were many references to environmental destruction in which forests and wetlands, among many others, fell victim to humanity’s constant greed and longing for boundless wealth. In one scene of the game, one of the characters literally said, “…humans are just destroyers and a cursed, yet perhaps pathetic, blight on the world.” 

There were, of course, more optimistic narratives such as one character who expressed, “I’m sure there are many humanfolk who love greenery and are kind to the smallest of life-forms!

I might be cherry-picking here, because there are tons of other video games that touched on climate change in one way or another. My point is — there’s so much to learn and reflect from video games that we can bring towards our own aspirations towards climate action. It might come as a surprise to others who thought that video games are just for kids, but they’re way more than that. 

If we were to look at video games as a form of art — in this case climate change art — imagine what we can create to educate the younger generations who are very much into gaming nowadays. In fact, why don’t we capitalize on this growing trend of younger generations being more environmentally-conscious? 

Video games are a work of art, and it would take a lot of convincing from someone for me to say otherwise. If we can acknowledge the positive side of video games, like with anything else in life, then we could create more meaningful things through them — and ultimately, something much bigger than ourselves.

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