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, it’s not a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a video game: Away: The Survival Series. In it, players control a sugar glider – a nocturnal hovering opossum – and aim to keep it alive, moving through an ever-changing landscape ravaged by the climate crisis.
Published last year by independent Canadian studio Breaking Walls, A way is part of a new generation of environment-centric games. The titles are part of an effort to enlist more than 2 billion gamers worldwide in what backers are calling a now-or-never push to save the planet.
“This medium has incredible reach and agency,” said Sam Barratt, head of education, youth and advocacy at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Reaching audiences through video games “definitely works,” he added.
Worldwide, one in three people play video games. It’s a compelling audience for environmental activists to communicate messages about 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, integrating environmental themes into their games. And there’s plenty of evidence that in-game nudges can impact real-world behavior. Barratt pointed the game fortnitewhich raised $170 million for Ukraine.
Independent studios like Breaking Walls aren’t the only ones embracing environmentalism. Some of the biggest developers in the world are launching eco-themed games and activations. Last year, Pac man had reforestation as its theme, while Pokemon GO allowed players to outfit their characters in Earth Day-themed clothing. Other notable titles include June’s trip, where players can purchase 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 more about the importance of trees, encouraging them to support a forest conservation petition called Play4Forests.
More and more tech companies have also embraced environmentalism. Last year, Google Flights began providing travelers with estimates of their carbon footprint. Amazon now labels climate-friendly products. And financial giant Ant Group has planted more than 120 million trees on behalf of clients.
Experts say these digital boosts are crucial as the world watches the barrel of environmental calamity. “Our consumer practices are putting enormous pressure on the planet, driving climate change, fueling pollution and pushing species towards extinction,” says David Jensen, UNEP’s Digital Transformation Coordinator. “These green digital nudges help consumers make better decisions and collectively drive businesses to adopt sustainable practices.”
A key part of Playing for the Planet is the Green Game Jam. The annual competition, which brings together the biggest names in computer, mobile and console games, sees studios integrating climate change-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 contest raised nearly a million dollars and planted hundreds of thousands of trees. “Although it is in its infancy, it has exceeded anything we could have hoped for. Companies that are more accustomed to competing for viewership and talent are now collaborating on common environmental challenges.
Additionally, 60% of Playing for the Planet members have pledged to be at least carbon neutral by 2030. A new Young Green Game Jam has been launched with support from TiMi Studios, backed by students from over 300 universities.
As technology evolves, researchers see the potential of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in climate change education. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, for example, has used virtual reality to measure awareness of everything from deforestation to ocean acidification. In some cases, he immersed test subjects in the bodies of corals and cows. Researchers have found that the immersive nature of the medium not only helps people better understand environmental issues, but also gives them a greater sense of urgency.
Virtual worlds can allow users to have experiences that would otherwise be impossible, and as technology improves, these experiences can become more realistic and impactful when it comes to driving climate action.