In the book “
Playing Nature” academic Alenda Chang argues that games often fail to realistically or usefully model the environment, specifically its “ecological states and relations”. She suggests that games often commit missteps like “relegating environment to background scenery, relying on stereotyped landscapes, and predicating player success on extraction and use of natural resources.”
Going further, she says that despite the existence of sophisticated, detailed virtual worlds, “the range of possible interaction with such game environments remains disappointingly slight … conveniently overlooking ecological concerns with the finite character of the natural world and entropic limitations on energy and throughput, or carrying capacity.”
In trying to think of games that serve as counter-examples to this critique, I find myself struggling. It’s difficult to think of (m)any titles that avoid these missteps.
So here’s the "Cheng Challenge" for y’all, if you can meet it: Name any game that avoids these missteps, elaborated on further below for some guidance and discussion:
- The environment is largely static background scenery and/or the range of possible interactions is highly limited: Think about the range of interactions you could have with the environment right now, and then think about how many of those actions your average game reflects. Since interactivity can take on so many different forms of gameplay this one is admittedly hard to measure outright, but for many games its hard to argue that the environment isn’t just “painted on” .
- The landscape is stereotyped: Using iconic flora and fauna is an example of how we might stereotype the environment, but it’s also a handy way for game designers to establish a theme or mood. Think polar bears and snow-topped pines for an icy biome design, or coconut palms and sandy beaches for a tropical theme. Do you know a game that features the environment in a way you’d describe as non-stereotypical?
- Player success depends on resource extraction or use: This one represents a real difficulty. Can you think of a game with a richly interactive environment that doesn’t also involve extracting resources from that same environment?
- The environment does not reflect real-world ecologies: Natural resources are effectively or literally infinite, there is no entropy to worry about, there are no limits to an environment’s carrying capacity.
- (Bonus point): The player perspective is non-anthropocentric: Rather than take the control of a human or humanoid figure, the player instead interacts with the game and its environment in some other way that is not cented within a human perspective.
I’m sure there are some, perhaps even many, games that can pass the test, but I’m struggling to think of a game that ticks all four (or five) boxes. Feel free to suggest some candidates, or offer your thoughts on this critique.
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