Videogames can save the world

With the computer games industry marching towards ever greater profits, a group of researchers has been attempting to find out how to use the technology to raise conservation awareness.

According to a team at Cambridge University, there is an increasing trend towards games with an underlying message, with biodiversity becoming more apparent.

Of course, the mainstream games market may be unswerving from its predilection for the enjoyable highs of a couple of hours of escapist violence.  But with the games industry growing and evolving at a rapid pace, there is a possibility to expand on the environmental themes that were once upon a time played out on the Sega Megadrive’s Ecco the Dolphin.

According to one of the researchers, Bill Adams, a professor of Conservation and Development at Cambridge, games like the PlayStation’s Flower have updated natural themes for modern consoles. Professor Adams also points to Red Redemption’s Fate of the World, which the Guardian described as being close to a Football Manager take on conservationist themes. He believes that such games are a growing field of ‘serious games’ which have a social context.

With at times astonishing leaps in the ways that computer games can represent the real world, from the cinematic fluidity of Uncharted or the facial movements of LA Noire, gamers can feel connected ever more easily.

Certainly, games can be used for persuasive means. The US military famously launched its own propaganda-laden shooting game to court a new generation of soldiers.  The work at Cambridge University aims to show that there are other, dare we say, more noble uses too.

With this in mind, Adams and other researchers have been conducting workshops to discover how best to raise awareness of conservationist and nature themes.  It is hoped that a platform for further collaboration with gamers can be made in future.

This has thrown up a number of questions. The project asks:

“Can games adequately explain the complex ecological, political and social basis of biodiversity loss? Will virtual nature start to outshine living nature in the eyes of a game-obsessed world? Or can games engage a generation who have already lost contact with wild nature?”

For Adams, what is vital  to promote ‘green themes’ is not to tackle problems in an educational or preaching manner: “You don’t make computer games just to change attitudes, people only play them if they are enormous fun, but they do pick up attitudes if they are fun,” he told TechEye. “You write stories in games, and can create particular dilemmas, inviting people to think about problems.”

“In the past,” Adams says, “people haven’t particularly done that for the environment but there is a lot of potential.”

Evidently, Adams is aware of the suspicion with which the vast majority of gamers would approach what may sound a little like a public service announcement.  There isn’t much less inviting than the thought of whiling away a few hours being lectured of one’s civic responsibilities.

“You can’t write a game to make people eat more vegetables or save the world because it is not a lot of fun,” Adams contends. “You can make it part of the context, and part of the game, but it is no good trying to design games which are worthy but boring as no one will buy them, or they won’t buy them twice.”

Ultimately, gamers will be attracted to games which offer the most enjoyment. Sometimes, this often happens to be the ones which involve decapitating passers-by, and this is not likely to be something that is likely to change.

But with the games industry worth so much, and swiftly approaching the gravitas and exposure of the film industry, which it more than meets financially, there is certainly scope to approach a range of themes.

Whether this will mean that such ‘green’ themes proliferate in the mainstream is another question, with the strong attraction of gamers towards big titles. But for Adams, if game developers are willing to engage on certain themes, there are benefits to be had for all.