Below is a revised and expanded version of a presentation I gave at the Petrocultures 2018 conference at Glasgow University on Friday, 31st August.
In 2000, scientist Paul Crutzen proposed the term ‘Anthropocene’ as an accurate label for the current era of ecological existence, one defined by humanity’s relatively new, and often destructive, relationship to the environment. Dipesh Chakrabarty explains:
Now that humans–thanks to our numbers, the burning of fossil fuels, and other related activities–have become a geological agent on the planet, some scientists have proposed that we recognise the beginning of a new geological era, one in which humans act as a main determinant of the environment of the planet (Chakrabarty, 2017).
The Anthropocene succeeds the Holocene which refers to ‘the 12,000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilization developed’ (Carrington, 2016). Crutzen and many others argue that, since the 20th century, we have entered–or better, created–a totally altered planetary ecosystem and as such should define it appropriately. It is no longer the case that humans are simply harming the planet or corrupting something once pure; humans have transformed, reinvented and produced a wholly new ecological network. Crutzen and Christian Schwägerl elaborate:
Landscapes characterised by heavy human use – degraded agricultural lands, industrial wastelands, and recreational landscapes – become characteristic of Earth’s terrestrial surface. We infuse huge quantities of synthetic chemicals and persistent waste into Earth’s metabolism. […] it’s no longer us against “Nature”. Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be (Crutzen and Schwägerl, 2011).
The Anthropocene registers the point at which humanity can no longer separate itself from the ‘Nature’ it exploits. It introduces new ways to think about the position of the human subject, encouraging the uncomfortable but necessary idea that man does not exist independently of the environment. Timothy Morton has written extensively on the Anthropocene, and particularly on the strange horror that a true ecological awareness inspires. Like Crutzen and Schwägerl, Morton stresses the absurdity of the culture/nature, inside/outside binary which characterises mainstream environmental thinking:
The falsity of an inside-outside model is becoming more obvious as we enter an age of increasing knowledge concerning the seemingly obvious fact that we live on a planet. Where on Earth is “away” when we have planetary awareness? One’s garbage doesn’t go “away”–it just goes somewhere else; capitalism has tended to create an “away” that is (fortunately) no longer thinkable (Morton, 2017).
For so long the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards environmental degradation has downplayed the alarming implications and consequences of consumer capitalism. The advertising industry creates and reproduces an alluring bubble which neglects to expose the material reality of product manufacturing, waste disposal and pollution. But capitalism’s ingenuity cannot fool the world forever, nor can the human population continue to ignore and repress the damage inflicted by it. not when nations continue to suffer increasingly frequent and dangerous ‘natural’ disasters. The recent barrage of hurricanes and floods across the globe is only the latest of many warnings that a human created global warming is spiralling out of control.
The Petrocultures Research Group, and the conferences they hold, attend to the Anthropocene by placing under scrutiny the forces that move us and everything else: energy. Fossil fuels have powered the modern age of humankind and continue to do so today. Although renewable energy sources and less dirty fossil fuels are increasingly being used, oil is still king and our societies and ways of life are still dependent on it.
‘Petrocultures’ describes petroleum’s influence on our lives at local, regional, national and global levels. It shapes and defines modern subjectivity, creating and reproducing our daily habits, practices, thoughts and cultural imaginaries. The Petrocultures conference therefore concerns itself (primarily, but not exclusively) with the work of those in the Arts & Humanities because of its power to change how we see the world and redefine who and what we are.
This year’s conference theme was ‘Transitions’:
The organising theme of Petrocultures 2018 is Transition. We anticipate its cultural interpretation in a variety of ways. The conference will provide an important forum for examining and extending existent framings and sitings of oil and petroculture, while also striving to consider the social, cultural, and aesthetic life of alternative forms of energy, such as wind, solar, and hydro power (Petrocultures Research Group, 2018).
The ‘Call for Papers’ announcement made me think about what role video games might play in the context of energy transition, and whether they could be a useful tool for the social and philosophical reorientation that many scholars and critics argue is necessary for a successful transition.
in the brief After Oil (2015) book published by the Petrocultures Research Group, they argue that a ‘transition from oil to some other energy source will entail – whether we like it or not, whether we participate in the process or opt out – the unmaking and remaking of our social worlds’ (Petrocultures Research Group, 2015). Andrea Lim expresses a similar attitude: ‘Confronting a problem that threatens the collapse of modern civilization as we know it means drastically rethinking how that civilization functions – and some of the fundamental assumptions underlying it’ (Lim, 2018). Finally, Richard Seymour makes an important distinction between two utopian lines of thought when he argues that ‘we must give ourselves some idea of utopia, not as a programme or plan of action, but to create new sensibilities, new aspirations, new aesthetics, new fantasies. We must give ourselves an idea of needs we may have, that we didn’t know we had. We must give ourselves something we could want, if we wanted to want it’ (Seymour, 2018). They all seem to agree that we need to first address the problematic of ‘what do we need to be or become as social beings?’ in order to inform and ensure the success of the pragmatic issues of what is to be done.
It is here where I awkwardly, but hopefully convincingly, argue for the inclusion of video games into the arsenal of tools ready to combat petroculture.
When I was reading back over the short After Oil book I couldn’t help but notice that they more or less identified the video game medium without explicitly mentioning it. They describe the virtues of words, novels and academic research; the persuasive tricks of the image and other visual media; and finally, the disruptive and productive action of public performance. Video games are made up of words, images, sounds, and many other things, as well as players who effectively perform various roles in virtual worlds. ‘Performance undertakes deliberate organised acts designed to present, problematise and complicate our relationship as individuals and social groups to an oil-dependent world’ (Petrocultures Research Group, 2015). This passage refers to public interventions in the form of artistic protest, like the instance at the Tate Modern in which several artists/activists spilled large quantities of oil inside the building at a fancy event for donors to remind us of the unexpected, hypocritical connections between the art & heritage industry and its oleaginous money.
But game developers too can design games which ‘present, problematise and complicate’ our relationship to the environment, with the players both performing through these games while at the same time being performed on by game designers. The Petrocultures Group also echo the arguments of media scholar Ian Bogost when they say ‘performance is itself processual: it simultaneously registers and responds, and so is always already in transition’ (Petrocultures Research Group, 2015). In 2007 Bogost introduced the concept of ‘procedural rhetoric’ in which he discusses how games make persuasive arguments through their processes. Games are thus an absent presence in the After Oil paper, hiding behind media hierarchies but also perhaps a genuine unfamiliarity with new media.
Games Against the Environment
And the Petrocultures folk can be forgiven for not including video games because, as you can imagine, the video game industry and the games it produces are the last places many would look for progressive environmental politics, and with good reason. Alenda Y. Chang explains that we should focus less on the obvious forms of violence we see represented in games, and instead look at what Rob Nixon calls the ‘slow violence’ of environmental degradation that is also pervasive in games. She says ‘games both duplicate and deny this less sensational but equally destructive sort of violence, often by dissociating industrial and commercial activity from the social and ecological realities of labour, pollution and waste’ (Chang, 2013). There is no shortage of examples to illustrate Chang’s point
The Grand Theft Auto (1997-2013) series has always played into the fetish of the automobile, and it’s always struck me as odd how the player never has to fill up their car or motorbike at a petrol station, as if the vehicles are powered by some magical force. And the reason is because it would interrupt the fantasy of ease and convenience of travel that forms part of the appeal of the game’s playground.
Petromodernity is even starting to infect or intrude upon more fantastical game franchises like the Final Fantasy (1987-2017) series, the latest installment of which wanted to introduce an element of realism in its otherwise steampunk/science fictional aesthetic. The developers decided that the best way to do this was by revolving the narrative around a road trip, and the car travel and gas station stops take up a significant portion of the game’s gameplay.
And you have more obvious examples like Railway Empire (2017) which shamelessly romanticises the steam engine and the era of American industrial and economic expansion, powered of course by fossil fuels.
I could go on, but you probably get the point. These games do not critically engage with petromodernity, but naturalise and reinforce it. So are games in fact an impediment to transition? Should I just stop now? Well, recent developments in game design make me a little more optimistic. John Krajewski, who’s currently developing a promising ecological game, reassures us:
Within the experiential power of games, I believe we can find some of the power to untie the political knots that wrap up climate change, creating an experience in a virtual world where climate change is a problem you can see in front of your face, and it immediately threatens you (Krajewski, 2017).
Chang, despite her earlier criticisms, echoes these sentiments:
[Games] are especially well-equipped to remedy the common difficulties faced by environmental educators and activists—including the question of how to successfully render the scale and urgency of global environmental change in less didactic or declamatory and more dynamic and intrinsically engaging forms (Chang, 2013).
To be ‘less didactic or declamatory’ is crucial, because, as Patrick Harvie said at the opening Petrocultures event ‘Scotland and the Transition’, alarmist methods of communication only encourage defeatism and inaction. I’ll now move on to show a couple of examples of the ‘more dynamic and intrinsically engaging forms’ of communication we can find in games.
Cities: Skylines and Simulation
Cities: Skylines (2015) is a city simulator game where the player gets to act as a frankly despotic mayor who builds a city from scratch. We all know this isn’t how cities are formed, but the player nonetheless gets to play God in this scenario. You are in charge of building residential zones, industrial areas, commercial districts, road infrastructure, and most importantly, power lines, water pipe systems and the energy sources which power them. The central goal is to create a lucrative economy and expand your city to make more money to reinvest in more space and so on and so forth.
If you spend the city’s revenue unwisely and fail to make good returns on your investments, you will be forced to cut valuable services and raise taxes. You soon realise you’re playing a simulation of austerity. That’s no fun, unless you’re David Cameron. It does, however, serve as an interesting and engaging point of entry to the economic logic underpinning neoliberal capitalism. That’s valuable, especially for people who have trouble visualising and comprehending this amorphous, omnipotent beast called ‘The Economy’.
The game also tracks and measures the amount of pollution your city’s causing, from road traffic carbon emissions to ground pollution caused by agriculture. As a player you are forced to make choices between choosing to invest in cheaper energy sources like fossil fuels to expand your city quicker, but at the cost of public and environmental health, or you can invest in clean energy sources like wind turbines which, while being more expensive and make for a slower expansion, keeps the public happy and the environment clean. Now while this is a relatively simplistic scenario – the game’s simulation is after all a rough abstraction of urban planning – this example nonetheless makes the player think about the ‘deep links that have been forged between profit and global warming, GDP and CO2‘ (Petrocultures Research Group, 2015).
I chose this game over the more recognisable SimCity games because the Cities: Skylines developers recently released a ‘Green Cities’ expansion to the game.
In this piece of added content, players have access to a new set of tools to get started on building their dream environmentally-friendly city. There’s an emphasis on public transport, bio-fueled vehicles, and extensive cycling infrastructure; new, innovative energy sources are available like solar towers and geothermal power plants; recycling centres can generate substantial numbers of new goods; more parks, sports facilities and policies geared towards healthy lifestyles help reduce the costs/waste for hospitals and clinics. So far so great, right? It certainly looks very appealing.
But when I was reading Imre Szeman’s critique of the techno-utopian solutions to the oil crisis, I noticed a striking similarity between his description of the techno-utopian post-oil landscape and the so-called green city in the game:
Techno-utopian discourses of future alternatives to oil magically resolve this opposition [between country and city utopias]: since the future is undeniably urban, great metropolises are envisioned as leafy green oases filled with mid-twenty-first-century flaneurs and cyclists who move between buildings crowned with solar sails. All of our worst fears about the chaos that will ensue when oil runs out are resolved through scientific innovation that are in perfect synchrony with the operations of the capitalist economy: problem solved without the need for radical ruptures or alterations in political and social life (Szeman, 2017).
This is almost exactly what we’re presented with in the game’s green cities mode. Yes, we have all these lovely ideas and it’s certainly geared towards decarbonisation, but the game’s green city is still based on a capitalist economy, one which requires constant expansion in order to survive, something that many critics see as entirely incompatible with the project of transition. So is this green city instead merely a green skin layered on top of a business-as-usual techno-utopian complacence? Or worse, is it nothing more than the insidious neoliberal phenomenon of gentrification, replete with expensive health food shops and gated communities? But despite these clear limitations, Cities: Skylines is an enjoyable and engaging simulation which, through a heuristic process of learning, might well sow the seeds of environmentalist thinking in its players.
From Systems Thinking to Abstract Ecological Philosophy
What is the nature of existence? That’s an ontological question beyond the remit of this post, but if we ask what is the nature of our existence in the Anthropocene, then we can say it is an era of anthropocentric hubris, where human being has assumed superiority in a hierarchy of existence/being, where we treat our environment as an ecological experiment, culminating in the present climate crisis. Naming this epoch and situation the ‘Anthropocene’ allows us to reframe our understanding of comfortable anthropocentric logics; it encourages an abandonment of the kind of thinking to which humans are accustomed. In her essay/prose poem, ‘Love Letter from the Anthropocene’, Maria Sledmere articulates the fear and the fascination of an encounter with the non-human as she imagines or remembers falling into a waterfall/lake:
This was a violent, childhood confrontation with the beyond, with possibility. If I entered the pool, I would forego my grounded, mammalian safety. I was young enough to know, to taste danger. This wasn’t salt water; there were no waves to toss me up, return me and hurl me to a distant shore where strangers would save me from the curious urge of myself. I would be sucked right down to the deep (Sledmere, 2017).
To wonder is to let go, to unmoor oneself from the grounded comfort of human logics, to wander away from fixed structures, the familiar world of human semiotics. In this opening passage Sledmere is already letting go, describing her potential human saviours as ‘strangers’ and the alluring but fearsome pool as the ‘curious urge of myself’, identifying with the non-human environment, enacting a kind of ecological co-existence. I want to briefly look at an abstract art game called Everything (2017) by David O’Reily and show how it uses the video game medium to produce a similar experience, one that makes us think about our ecological existence in more expansive ways; in a word, to suck us ‘right down to the deep’.
This game has no scores, points or objectives. It is in a sense a kind of anti-game, insofar as it refuses to conform to mainstream game design norms (however, since it was released on PS4, it does contain ‘achievements’, and although you collect them from general gameplay, they are nonetheless at odds with the game’s mood and purpose). In the game, the player spends time simply being various objects in our universe: from a spoon to a piano, from a planet to a spider, the player roams, crawls, flies, and floats through different planetary -spheres (lithosphere, hydrosphere, troposphere, stratosphere), finding new things to be and doing nothing at all. The game effectively brings the background environments of games into the foreground, as if O’Reily accessed the source code of a traditional shooter or RPG and removed both narrative and game mechanics, leaving only the environments and the objects within it.
Usually, games which centre the environment in their virtual worlds tend to do so only to emulate man’s domination over it. Consider the many popular farming simulators such as Harvest Moon (1996), Facebook’s Farmville (2009),Hay Day (2012) and the more recent Stardew Valley (2016). These games tend to represent romantisised fantasies of the idyllic, rural lifestyle, offering relaxing gameplay which involves tilling the soil, harvesting crops, raising livestock and socialising with friendly neighbours (or in the case of Farmville, with other friends on Facebook). However, what lurks behind these seemingly innocent simulations is the ideology of expansionism we also identified in Cities: Skylines, as players are encouraged to build upon their humble beginnings and expand their businesses. None of the farm games consider or address the environmental consequences of profit-driven agricultural practices, preferring instead to indulge the fantasy of a self-contained and sustainable utopia. While Stardew Valley positions the player as the hero who could defy and compete against the soulless ‘JojaMart’ and the ‘Joja Corporation’ to help revive the local economy, the player nonetheless remains an actor in an economy designed to exploit the environment. It’s worth noting that the intimate relationship between capitalist economics and environmental exploitation has led some scholars to prefer the term ‘Capitalocene’. Given the nature of the games listed above, the term and theoretical lens of the ‘Capitalocene’ is perhaps better suited for an analysis of video game ecosystems.
In Everything, no such fate awaits the environment. Why? There’s no humans in there to do it.
It’s somewhat striking that there are no humans represented in the game, especially for a game allegedly containing everything. It’s clearly a deliberate exclusion. And you might say to me, ‘well, Tetris and Pong featured no humans’, and I would say true, but as far as I know Tetris and Pong didn’t aspire to explorations of the nature of existence (though I’d be happy to hear arguments to the contrary). Everything, the game, does.
As well as encountering other objects which talk to you, giving you advice or muttering vague philosophical statements, the game is also intermittently narrated by seminar excerpts from Alan Watts, a British philosopher in the 60s who was heavily influenced by Buddhist thinking. A characteristic excerpt is as follows:
There are no separate things in the physical world. The physical world is wiggly; clouds, mountains, trees, people, are all wiggly. And only when human beings get working at things, they build buildings and straight lines and try and make out that the world isn’t really wiggly. But here are we sitting in this room all built on straight lines but each one of us is just as wiggly as all get-out! (Alan Watts seminar excerpt in Everything)
If you were listening to this on its own, you might be more likely to dismiss it as hippy nonsense. But within the context of the visual experience of the game, as you crawl along the seabed as a piece of algae, inhabiting a normally unseen non-human pocket of the world, the player can begin to reevaluate and question the anthropocentric thinking which informs and influences all areas of human life, and which has led us into our current ecological situation. Watts and the game encourage players to dissolve the centuries old dichotomy between human/nature, civilisation/wilderness, to embrace a more expansive perspective of existence. O’Reily says ‘the whole game itself is about describing a state of reality with no Us and no Them. No We. Just I. For infinity. Everywhere’ (O’Reily, 2017).
‘You are one note in a symphony that was waiting to be played since the beginning of time’, a galaxy informs me. Cheesy? Yes. Flying in the face of anthropocentric thinking and yet simultaneously calling for a cosmic awareness of and responsibility for our actions as a species? Perhaps. What this lyrical metaphor does is combine two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas: the absolute insignificance of our existence (a tiny note within an endless symphony) and the valued importance of this same existence (the grand symphony includes you). The metaphor expresses the raison d’être of naming and understanding the ‘Anthropocene’: we do not exist apart (at a distance), but rather as a part of something much larger.
And while no humans are in this game, some relics of human destruction are (like oil rigs and human currency, above), almost as if to remind the player why they weren’t included in this peaceful, quiet game in the first place. Now you might have noticed I haven’t mentioned energy or petrocultures here, and it’s because Everything contains no systems or rough ecological simulations like in Cities: Skylines. Everything‘s universe is static, including its time. Humans aren’t there, but it is neither post-apocalyptic nor pre-historic. This level of abstraction is part of the game’s purpose and message, but at what cost? What do we really gain from this game-like art installation? Is the game in fact politically toothless? I’m not sure, but I’m glad it exists.
Well, Friend or Foe?
While the video game industry remains deeply problematic vis-à-vis energy and the environment, publishing games concerned with ‘human stories’ which rarely consider the game environments through which these stories are told, I hope I’ve at least shown that games are capable and primed to be an ally. The two examples I’ve given play very differently and offer different approaches to the Anthropocene, and however limited their scope and execution, they do demonstrate a promising future for environmentally aware game development.
But how can games even continue to be produced at the rate and volume they currently are, or even exist, without petroculture? Good question. That’s an essay for another time, and for someone more qualified than me to answer.
Carrington, D. 2016. ‘The Anthropocene Epoch: Scientists Declare Dawn of Human-Influenced Age’, Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth
Chakrabarty, Dipesh, 2017. ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’ in Energy Humanities: An Anthology ed. by Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer (Maryland: John Hopkins University Press)
Chang, Alenda Y., 2013. ‘Slow Violence: A Proposal for Ecological Game Studies’ http://www.antspiderbee.net/2013/01/27/slow-violence-a-proposal-for-ecological-game-studies/
Crutzen, Paul J. and Christian Schwägerl, 2011. ‘Living in the Anthropocene: Toward a New Global Ethos’ in Yale Environment 360 https://e360.yale.edu/features/living_in_the_anthropocene_toward_a_new_global_ethos
Double Fine Productions, 2017. Everything, video game, PS4, David O’Reily
Lim, Andrea, 2018. ‘The Ideology of Fossil Fuels’ https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/ideology-fossil-fuels-apocalypse-petrocapitalism-energy-humanities
Morton, Timothy, 2017. Humankind (London: Verso)
O’Reily, David, 2017. Interview by Ben Roazen https://hypebeast.com/2017/4/david-oreilly-everything-video-game-interview
Paradox Interactive, 2015. Cities: Skylines, video game, Steam, Colossal Order
Sledmere, Maria, 2017. ‘Love Letter from the Anthropocene’ in Numero Cinq, 8(8) http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2017/08/15/love-letter-anthropocene-essays-maria-sledmere/
Szeman, Imre, 2017. ‘System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster’ in Energy Humanities: An Anthology ed. by Szeman and Dominic Boyer (Maryland: John Hopkins University Press)
Seymour, Richard, 2018. ‘The Road to Zero’ https://www.patreon.com/posts/road-to-zero-20856454