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Games and sustainability transformations: a new paradigm

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

By Dr. Joost Vervoort, Anticiplay project leader, with notes from the project team

Cloud Punk by ION LANDS

This original article was published on Medium. Subscribe to our Medium mailing list to stay up to date on our articles!

We’re living in difficult times where there is an urgent need for deep transformations across human systems. The politics of change toward better and more sustainable futures are difficult, filled with conflict and inequality and can lead to frustration and despair. We are faced with a ‘crisis of the imagination’ as Amitav Ghosh puts it — it is hard to imagine truly transformative futures to work toward. Sounds serious, right? Not especially fun. But what if we could use games to engage with the world’s problems in a way that is both deeply serious, and deeply, deeply playful? What would a game design paradigm look like based on that idea?

Hello everyone, and welcome to the blog of the Anticiplay project! Anticiplay is a Vidi research project funded by the Dutch National Research Council. The project investigates the potential of games to help open up ways in which people imagine, and realize, more sustainable futures. We do this by focusing on both the ‘serious’ or ‘applied’ game space, and on the commercial game sector. We do it by trying to understand how existing games, of the ‘serious’ and commercial varieties, work; and by designing new games ourselves. On this blog page, we want to experiment with our collective and individual thoughts about the games we play, cultures around games, and anything game-like that seems relevant to us in terms of thinking about the imagination of better futures. The ‘we’ here refers to Carien Moossdorff and Kyle Thompson, the two PhD researchers on Anticiplay, myself, Mae van Veldhoven, the project’s communication officer, and our students and some of our wonderful colleagues connected to the project.

Games offer a unique opportunity to help create more imaginative, playful, inventive societies. Their ability to help players step into new roles, interact with complex systems in intuitive ways, and experience and tell stories in new worlds is really quite unique. Researchers working to help people imagine more sustainable futures have been turning to games for decades — and some of this work has been brilliant in terms of targeting specific groups — like policy makers or classrooms. But so far, games designed to help people imagine better futures have struggled to gain large scale audiences.

And then there is the commercial game industry. The reach of the game sector is huge, and it out-scales most other media. It’s getting bigger — more global, and reaching more diverse player demographics. What has been especially interesting to us is that, at least among independent game developers, interest in building games that help players grapple with difficult societal questions have become more and more common. Sometimes these games can be quite focused and small, and yet be very effective — like Papers, Please. Sometimes, the game represents complex and deep worlds and stories touching on many aspects of human experience. Disco Elysium is a great example of this, and we will be discussing this game at length in other blog posts.

Our team believes the time is right for a new paradigm for games development, and we want to investigate what this could mean. Here are some of our thoughts about what this paradigm might consist of.

Emotional engagement with radical change

First, let’s talk about the games themselves. Can the divide between commercial games and ‘serious’ games be crossed so that developers start to create games that engage with societal challenges, but beyond very narrow didactic purposes for specific player groups? What would happen if more and more games are developed that are excellent purely as games and yet stimulate societal imaginations about the challenges of our time, and how to overcome them? Games in which the engagement transcends the game itself? Parallels for such a new game design paradigm have long existed in other media. In literature, climate fiction and the ecopunk science fiction movement are obvious examples, but literature has always been a vehicle for societal critique and the exploration of alternative possibilities. In film and television, there are all kinds of formats that offer in depth fictional and non-fictional explorations of societal issues and are still presented in an entertainment context. Of course, such forms of media might not be the most accessible, and may be preaching to the choir. Could games be different?

Sustainability transformations — fundamental shifts in the ways in which societies and economies are structured and operate — offer lots of scope for engaging game play. Sustainability-focused games have tended to have a rather managerial, technocratic or scientistic flavor. But transformations are difficult, political, full of power dynamics, winners and losers, conflicting ideologies, and with consequences for real human (and non-human) lives. The emotions of what it means to live in a transforming world can go deep, and there is much potential for new types of games to work with such emotions. Carien Moossdorff will focus her PhD research on emotional engagement with transformation in games. Right now, she’s investigating the role transformation plays in existing games — from Wolfenstein: The New Colossus to The Sims. Carien will move on from the games themselves to the cultures and social dynamics around games — and to perspectives on transformation in the game industry. What would games look like that really harness the juicy, challenging, emotionally resonant parts of living with radical change?

Games as utopian processes

Secondly, the very act of playing a game can itself be transformative and utopian. Games can allow us to practice new forms of social interaction, new ways of engaging with the world. The obvious first direction to discuss is multiplayer. Multiplayer games offer many possibilities for online harassment and abuse. But there are some positively ‘utopian’ sides to online gaming, too. During the pandemic, people have found refuge and connection with others in games like the wildly popular Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch. People have picked up tabletop role playing online as a hobby to use their collective creativity to build stories and experiences together. And then there are the online ecosystems around games — in the form of streaming, YouTube essays, esports, and more — that may foster a sense of community and allow people to explore complex systems. One of the most interesting developments in this regard is the use of online gaming by political figures like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez to engage with their electorates. Beyond multiplayer and online culture around games, technologies like augmented reality and location-based game play allow us to integrate games with real environments. The health impacts of Pokémon Go are a simple but widespread example. A small but more complex example is the serious game we built at Utrecht University that helps people imagine better futures for our city. What if commercial games start using location-based and augmented reality game play at larger scales in ways that are beneficial to society? Perhaps games can help inspire social transformation? Of course, such thinking is idealistic. But so what? Let’s explore the possibilities together. Kyle Thompson is focusing his PhD research on games as ‘utopian processes’ — starting with existing games, then developing new games based on those insights, and like Carien, engaging with the game sector to add utopian gaming to explorations of the new design paradigm.

Beyond game design — a shift in the game sector?

So far, we’ve talked about a new kind of game. But in order for this to happen, some radical shifts within (parts of) the game industry would be needed. One starting point is education. When game developers in their various disciplines have opportunities to experiment with games around sustainability transformations in their educational programs, the likelihood that such themes will come back in their later work might increase. For the last five years, we at Utrecht University have worked together with game development students at the Utrecht University of the Arts and Glasgow Caledonian University to develop game prototypes that explore sustainable futures. Many of these prototypes are excellent examples of what is possible in this game design space — see this year’s results, for example. Skills, knowledge and interest among game developers are important.

However, the sector itself has powerful incentives to be conservative in its exploration of potential futures. Short-hand dystopian settings are recognizable, are easier to make, and offer useful contexts for violence. They sell games. There are also incentives, especially in the indie market, for more original and even hopeful settings, but these need to be cultivated. Part of this would be the investigation of new potential demographics of game players. Are there untapped types of players out there who would enjoy hopeful games that grapple with change in a meaningful way? As game player demographics grow and diversify, this is worth investigating. Then, there is the question of funding and publishing games. How can new sources of funding, publishing and institutional support be found to help develop games that engage with transformation in their game worlds and game play? Might it be possible to tap into types of combined and cross-sector funding that are not available in the current game sector? Importantly, such shifts in the game sector should be based on sustainable business practices and ethics — not just environmentally, but socially. The game industry has had to reckon with an exploitative and toxic business culture on the basis of which no truly transformative games could be imagined. But this reckoning has not actually produced any major changes in the business culture yet, outside of journalism. A lot of it has been like pushing on a wet noodle, in terms of confronting management. Can we build on the calls for better business ethics, for fairness, for diversity and inclusivity in the sector as well as in games themselves? And while we are dreaming, might it be possible to start imagining a transformation of the role(s) of games and play in societies? What changes in policy, in education, might be needed for this? For instance, live action role playing is becoming an important part of secondary education in many places around the world. Where else could such changes happen?

Boomer: “It’s all the younger generation’s fault!” Options: “No, it’s yours!” or “It doesn’t matter who’s to blame, we need to solve this issue!” Still from the game Energy Runner, a game prototype made by Utrecht University and Utrecht University of the Arts students.

A community of practice

The Anticiplay project research team will be working to organize a global ‘community of practice’ to help foster and bring to life this new paradigm for games engaging with sustainability transformations. We will start by organizing regular meetings between game developers, sustainability researchers and activists, game journalists, publishers, public and private funders of games and of sustainability work, and more. We hope that this community of practice will help establish principles for the new game sector paradigm, leading to a number of spinoff projects in the forms of games, educational programs, new funding calls, and more. Anticiplay research will support, learn from, and reflect on this community of practice. The CreaTures project, funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 Programme is investigating the transformation of entire regimes and systems of value when it comes to creative practices, including games. Anticiplay very much sees itself as a sister project in terms of this ambition — and we will be working together on the community of practice as well.

We hope we’ve sparked your interest in exploring a new direction for games! Keep an eye on this blog for more specific investigations. We’ll announce more about our upcoming community of practice meetings there as well!

Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!

Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost

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