The first images are visceral and unsettling: we see a dystopian landscape dominated by swirling storms, fires and eruptions that threaten to devour what little life remains on a dying planet.
No, this is not a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a video game: Away: The Survival Series. In it, players control a sugar glider – a nocturnal gliding possum – and aim to keep it alive, moving through an ever-shifting landscape ravaged by the climate crisis.
Published by the independent Canadian studio Breaking Walls last year, Away is one of a new breed of games centred on the environment. The titles are part of an effort to enlist the world’s 2 billion-plus gamers in what backers call a now-or-never push to save the planet.
“This medium has incredible reach and agency,” said Sam Barratt, Chief of Education, Youth and Advocacy at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Reaching out to audiences through video games “definitely works,” he added.
Globally, one in three people play videos games. That is a compelling audience for environmental campaigners to communicate messaging around the climate crisis and other planetary threats.
To reach gamers, UNEP in 2019 launched the Playing for the Planet Alliance, a partnership with the gaming industry. So far, 50 gaming companies, reaching more than 130 million gamers, have joined, embedding environmental themes in their games. And there is plenty of evidence that in-game ‘nudges’ can impact real-world behaviour. Barratt pointed to the game Fortnite, which raised USD 170 million for Ukraine.
Independent studios like Breaking Walls are not the only ones embracing environmentalism. Some of the biggest developers in the world are launching green-themed games and activations. Last year, Pac-Man had a reforestation theme, while Pokémon GO allowed players to outfit their characters in Earth Day-themed clothes. Other notable titles include June’s Journey, where players can buy in-game tree decorations, which developer Wooga pledges to match by planting a tree in the real world. An activation in the puzzle game Monument Valley 2 allows players to learn about the importance of trees, encouraging them to support a forest conservation petition called Play4Forests.
More technology companies have also embraced environmentalism. Last year, Google Flights began providing travellers with estimates of their carbon footprints. Amazon now labels products that are climate-friendly. And financial giant Ant Group has planted more than 120 million trees on behalf of clients.
Experts say these digital nudges are crucial with the world staring down the barrel of environmental calamity. “Our consumption practices are putting tremendous pressure on the planet, driving climate change, stoking pollution and pushing species towards extinction,” says David Jensen, UNEP’s Digital Transformation Coordinator. “These green digital nudges help consumers make better decisions as well as collectively drive businesses to adopt sustainable practices.”
A key part of Playing for the Planet is the Green Game Jam. The annual competition, which features the biggest names in computer, mobile and console games, sees studios rolling climate-changed-related activations into their games. In two years, the competition has grown to 50 major players from just eleven studios.
“The Green Game Jam is our petri-dish to test how far it can go on environmental issues, and the signs are promising,” Barratt said. Last year’s competition raised nearly USD 1 million and saw hundreds of thousands of trees planted. “While it is early days, it has surpassed anything we could have hoped for. Companies that are more used to competing for audience and talent are now collaborating on shared environmental challenges.”
In addition, 60 per cent of Playing for the Planet members have committed to be at least carbon neutral by 2030. A new Young Green Game Jam was launched with the support of TiMi studios, supported by students from more than 300 universities.
As technology evolves, researchers are seeing potential in both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in climate change education. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, for instance, has used VR to gauge awareness about everything from deforestation to ocean acidification. In some cases, it plunked test subjects into the bodies of corals and cows. Researchers found the immersive nature of the medium not just helps people understand environmental issues better but also gives them a greater sense of urgency.
Virtual worlds can allow users to have experiences that would otherwise be impossible, and as the technology improves, those experiences can become more life-like, and impactful, when it comes to driving climate action.