Exploring Nature Through Open-World Video Games

The artful construction of the simulated environments in open-world video games can offer experiences that are not feasible with traditional media or even direct contact with nature.

| Spring 2015

In his book, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits defines the act of playing games as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” It’s easy to dismiss playing games as an impediment to the real-world experiences required to develop an environmental ethos.

Video games seem especially emblematic of Western society’s retreat from nature and a widespread, willful neglect of real and profound environmental challenges during the past 40 years. As the population has shifted toward a predominately urban and media-saturated experience, many recreational activities have been virtualized and much community-scale interaction has been lost. The criticism leveled at a screen-dominated electronic culture—its physically disposable nature, the pollution and habitat destruction associated with its manufacture, and its profligate use of energy—would seem to apply especially to gaming, a nonproductive and potentially socially isolating activity.

But like any modern technology, video games have both positive and negative aspects. While urban environments restrict access to nature and the virtualized environments of many video games seem like caricatures of the physical world (for now), gaming provides an interactive experience that can support learning and awareness of the otherwise inaccessible natural world. The artful construction of the simulated environments in video games—which aspects of reality are simulated, at what fidelity and where they sit on the spectrum between realistic and fantastical—can offer experiences that are not feasible with traditional media or even direct contact with nature.

The first commercially successful video game was Pong, released a mere decade after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. During the four decades since, video games have evolved from simplistic, twitchy tests of reaction times and endurance that were created over months by individual programmers. They now encompass cinematic virtual experiences with budgets comparable to Hollywood films, crafted over years by hundreds of people. In a similar fashion, the environments in video games have matured to cover the gamut from Pong’s formless void to believable, simulation-driven spectacles that use the same special effects technologies as modern films.

However, in recent years an “indie” developer scene has been rethinking the expensive realism and large-scale production values that constitute a video game. Limited budgets are driving individuals and small teams of developers to experiment with minimalistic styles and explore themes and taboos that would normally be considered beyond the purview of mere games, such as mortality, morality, economics, and abuse. Humans develop and learn by playing, and that includes video games.

A player’s experience and abilities within a game are defined in many ways through the design of the digital environment, constraining the gameplay mechanic—the actions available to the player to overcome the game’s obstacles. The mechanic dictates how the simplified reality within the game supports a specific type of play, including the ability to replay scenarios and explore alternative approaches. The basic simulation technology underlying the environments of many video games is either cellular automata (2D) or box modeling (3D). Essentially, the reality being simulated is broken down into a 2D or 3D grid of boxes. The state of each box in the grid is determined algorithmically at each moment by a calculation that takes into account the initial state of the box, as well as that of adjacent boxes. The variables tracked in a simulation can be as simple as whether or not the box is black or white, on or off, or something much more complex.