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Games as Environmental Texts
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Games as Environmental Texts

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Fig. 1.

A map of the convoluted cave system popularized by the early text game Adventure, drawn by Bruce Beaumont. Reprinted by permission of David Platt.

[End Page 56]

It is utterly different in a cave. Within seconds you lose sight of your starting point. The sinuous passages twist and turn. Always you are confined by walls, floor, and ceiling. The farthest vistas are seldom more than one hundred feet—along a passage, down a pit, up at a ceiling. You are always in a place; you never look out from a point. The route is never in view except as you can imagine it in your mind. Nothing unrolls. There is no progress; there is only a progression of places that change as you go along. And when you reach the end, it is only another place, often a small place, barely large enough to contain your body. It is conceivable that you have missed a tiny hole that goes on. You may not have reached the end at all. The only sign that you have reached the end is that you cannot go on. And there is no view.

Roger Brucker and Richard Watson, The Longest Cave

Nature and technology are for most people mutually exclusive realms. Many sympathize with Richard Louv's judgment in Last Child in the Woods that generations born since the 1970s are increasingly victims to what he calls "nature-deficit disorder."1 Predictably, Louv's primary culprits are television and the electronic devices that have come to occupy a disproportionate amount of our time—computers and game consoles in particular. Yet while [End Page 57] we may grant that Louv's work has sparked valuable efforts to reclaim wild land for the education and spiritual growth of children, a crucial problem remains in that Louv, like the nature-technology dichotomy itself, leaves little room for forms of media to be productive agents for social and environmental change.

Many of the benefits of the natural experiences Louv describes could be found in computer and video games: free, unstructured play without adult supervision; a chance to learn about natural processes and life cycles, or how people, animals, plants, and inorganic matter are connected; educated mentorship, or a guiding presence knowledgeable enough to provide more information about what one is experiencing; and hands-on activity with actual consequences. While game environments, no matter how lovingly realized, are not substitutes for direct experience of the natural world, more and more people are turning to virtual worlds not only for entertainment but also for challenge, companionship, and even civic participation—why not embrace and encourage game design in forms that recall our favorite modes of natural play?

Games can offer a compelling way to reconcile a deep connection to nature and the nonhuman world with an equally important connection to technology and the virtual. Even Louv might agree that this is a defining dilemma of our times, or at least of the generations raised with a walking stick in one hand and a joystick in the other.

"SORRY, BUT I AM NOT ALLOWED TO GIVE MORE DETAIL": Ecomimesis and Will Crowther's Adventure

Almost by definition, all computer and console games are environments, but surely not all games are environmental. What, then, constitutes an environmental game? Or, if we prefer to steer clear of environmentalist rhetoric, how can a game environment model ecological principles? Most games commit at least one if not all of the following missteps in their realization of in-game environments: relegating environment to background scenery, relying on stereotyped landscapes, and predicating player success on extraction and use of natural resources. In the first and most common scenario, a [End Page 58] game flaunts its environment to the extent that it provides gratifying visuals, but the environment itself remains inert, the functional equivalent of theater flats or bluescreen or greenscreen (chroma key) technology. Action takes place within or in front of such digital set pieces, and it is in this vein that volumes devoted to the artificial intelligence (AI) of games carefully outline the behavior of non-player characters (NPCs...