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The Ecology of Games

2012 August 25

Stephen Rust has kindly invited me to contribute to this wonderful blog, which I consider an especially good fit given my ongoing mission to extend ecocritical examination to modern digital games. I look forward to the conversations that might follow, and invite you to visit my other online home at

First, a quick word about me. I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, with a background in literature, film, and biology (another research topic I’ve been smitten with for years is nature documentary, so I’ve been thrilled to find all your recent work on ecocinema).

My dissertation, Playing Nature: The Virtual Ecology of Game Environments, proposes new methods and objects for environmental inquiry by engaging the imaginative worlds of contemporary gaming. Essentially, here’s the problem as I see it: though some of the most sophisticated scholarship on natural representation has evolved within literary environmental criticism, ecocriticism has tended to exclude designed landscapes and modes of mediated interaction perceived as detracting from direct experience of the natural world; at the same time, new media theorists and practitioners have generally overlooked the ways in which emerging technologies are implicated in and by natural systems. Most game researchers and designers, for instance, continue to treat game environments as simplistic vehicles for graphical spectacle or extractive resource management.

Rather than accept that the natural and the digital are realms inherently inimical to each other (on this see my reaction to Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle), I’d like to believe that games are structurally predisposed toward creating meaningful interaction within artificially intelligent environments, and should be well poised to model dynamics long at the core of ecological thinking—interdependence, limitation, nested organizational scales, flows of energy and biomass, feedback, and so on. Yet despite the present historical moment, in which environmental movements are often stymied in their efforts to depict the scale and urgency of global environmental crisis, games remain largely untapped in terms of their potential to allow players to explore manifold ecological futures.

If you’re curious, or looking to teach games… here’s a quick rundown of my forays into this area:

  • The rough beginnings of an ecological philosophy of games can be found in my essay for a special “intersections of ecocriticism” issue published by the journal Qui Parle last year.
  • Coming up in ISLE but already available online is my more recent (and somewhat embarrassing) rant over the ecological and sociopolitical fantasies present in farm games (like Zynga’s FarmVille).
  • Most recently, I’ve been contemplating games’ ability to render scale (particularly the scale of environmental crises and their potential mitigations, in both space and time), by juxtaposing the game Spore with the 1970s Eames’ film Powers of Ten and the Futurefarmers’ recent variation on the theme.

I’d like to think that I harbor no illusions about the uglier environmental aspects of games (as amply evidenced in Stephen’s recent post), but I’m also hopeful that games can speak to the anxieties and desires of generations increasingly raised under the specter  of irreversible, anthropogenic climate change.

Thanks for having me! Feel free to email me or exchange pithy sentiments via Twitter (@gamegrower).

4 Responses leave one →
  1. smonani permalink
    August 30, 2012

    Dear Alenda, Welcome aboard! And thanks for the succinct overview of your dissertation and research. I’m keen to attend the ecomedia panel/workshop that you and Steve will be organizing at ASLE. In the meantime, I’ll follow along here.

  2. srust permalink*
    August 30, 2012

    Alenda, let me second Salma’s warm welcome. Your efforts to bring video games into the conversation are definitely helping ecocriticism move in the right direction. I’ll make sure to add Growing Games to our blogroll.

  3. September 29, 2012

    Great post, Alenda, and right up my alley! I’m working on my dissertation as well, concerning the representation of Nature in multiuser virtual environments, and have run across a similar dismissal of virtual reality that completely ignores the problems associated with the concepts “reality” and “natural” etc. Quite a rich history of thought in this area – and one that I think user-built “games” and virtual worlds (like Second Life) bring together in interesting ways. Like you, I see prospects for resistance and for envisioning alternatives. Hope we can chat further sometime.

    • September 29, 2012

      Thanks, Joe. I’d love to chat sometime, and feel free to email me or perhaps consider attending the workshop Steve Rust and I are hoping to run before the next ASLE conference in Kansas.

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