Playing with Videogame Culture: Case Studies

Playing with Videogame Culture Report - 1 Sept 2021

Mainstream Games

Despite the large number of games across all genres that broadly locate their action in the dystopian or even post-apocalyptic futures of popular science fiction film and literature, it has been the strategy/simulation genre that has seen developers of mainstream commercial videogames most explicitly reference climate change.

Often drawing on the aesthetics and game mechanics of their tabletop/board game counterparts, strategy videogames are based around the management and development of resources and typically position the player in a ‘God-like’ perspective of oversight and control.

They present as complex simulations, building economic, technological, political, and environmental factors into their models.

Typically, climate change is presented as the undesirable, even unavoidable, consequence of industrialisation.

Researching and developing fossil fuels or developing technologies that lead to the invention of the automobile, for instance, might have the in-game effect of increasing pollution which might, in turn, impact upon the happiness and productivity of virtual citizens or impact upon the utility of land.

Gameplay often allows negative environmental impacts to be mitigated through clean-up activities and the development of new technological solutions such as cleaner energy production, for instance. In many strategy games, players are provided with options to reduce the frequency of potentially game-ending natural disasters or even deactivate them altogether.

Sid Meier’s Civilization (series)

Civilization 1991; most recent release Civilization VI in 2016

Developer: Microprose, Activision, Firaxis

Publisher: MicroProse, Activision, Hasbro Interactive, Infogrames, 2K Games

Platforms: Multiple console, computing and mobile platforms

First released in 1991, Civilization is a series of strategy videogames with six major releases that are augmented by expansion packs. The initial releases included a mechanic that connected the development of in-game industry with the production of carbon and pollution that required cleanup or mitigation. Subsequent releases diminished the role of climate within the game to the point where Civilization 5 (2010) included no climate change mechanic at all. 2016’s Civilization VI initially released without climate change included in its simulation but this was added in 2019 via the optional ‘Gathering Storm’ additional cost expansion pack.


Year of release: 1990

Developer: Maxis

Publisher: Maxis

Platforms: Mac, DOS, Windows and multiple videogame consoles

Following the commercial and critical success of SimCity, developer Maxis zoomed out to give the player a global perspective and responsibility. ‘Think globally’, ran the game’s 1990 advertising copy, ‘Instead of a city to run, SimEarth gives you the reins to the entire planet. Evolution, continental drift, climate, atmosphere, hurricanes, nuclear fallout, acid rain and a bunch of other disasters. All the cool stuff you need to rule the world.’ The game was designed by Will Wright with James Lovelock acting as an advisor. The influence of Lovelock’s Gaia theory can be seen in the design of the game’s simulation and its presentation of Earth as a complex, synergistic system.

SimCity Societies

According to Steve Seabolt, VP of Global Brand Development at EA, SimCity Societies’ focus on climate change gave the developers the ‘opportunity not only to demonstrate some of the causes and effects of global warming, but also to educate players how seemingly small choices can have a big global impact.’ What is most notable about SimCity Societies, and the 2007 press release this quote is excerpted from, is the partnership between EA and BP in the game’s creation. The release continues, “The time was right for this partnership. EA was developing the next iteration of the SimCity series at the same time that we were looking for opportunities to raise awareness about low-carbon power choices,” said Carol Battershell, Vice President, BP Alternative Energy.

The partnership manifests in the game through the branding of alternative energy power stations with the BP logo while fossil fuel energy sources are left unbranded.

“EA has a powerful reach to the next generation and BP has a suite of low-carbon power alternatives. In our collaboration through this innovative game, we can provide education on the issues surrounding climate change, its association with carbon emissions and the ability to take early positive action through low-carbon power choices.” 

Carol Battershell, Vice President, BP Alternative Energy. 

Independent Games

The term ‘independent’ (or more typically ‘indie’) is a somewhat slippery term in the context of videogame development.

It might describe a situation in which there is no financial or technical support from a mainstream publisher through versions of self-funding and crowdfunding, to contexts in which development and distribution are financially backed by a traditional videogame publisher but in which some greater degree of creative freedom exists than in the ‘mainstream’ development/publishing relationship context.

For our purposes here, we focus less on the minutiae of financial independence and more on other qualities of indie gaming, namely that development teams tend to be significantly smaller (perhaps even individuals) and that it is putatively possible to experiment, innovate and take risks.

While it is not inevitable, it is often the case that independently-developed videogames are more tightly focused in scope, perhaps being based around a single core mechanic or theme.

In contrast with the mainstream development sector, climate change has provided the inspiration and central theme for a comparatively large number of independently-developed videogames in recent years.

Indeed, even the most cursory search of indie-focused digital distribution platforms such as reveals a plethora of environmentally-themed games developed by small teams in the past few years. 

Endling: Extinction is Forever


Developer: Herobeat Studios

Publisher: HandyGames (subsidiary of THQ Nordic)

Platforms: Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

Dubbed an ‘eco-conscious survival game’ and with the subtitle ‘Extinction is forever’, Handy Games’ Endling puts the player in the role of the last mother fox attempting to keep their cubs alive in the wake of environmental catastrophe. Spanish developer Herobeat Studios describes itself as a ‘Guerilla Collective’ and presents Endling as a ‘meaingful video game for change and environmental awareness’. The game’s marketing and framing emphasises the urgency and extent of human impact on the environment and ecosystem of these animals: ‘devastated environments based on real current issues’; ‘Experience what life would be like in a world ravaged by mankind through the eyes of the last fox on Earth in this eco-conscious adventure.’ ‘Discover the destructive force of the human race, as it corrupts, pollutes and exploits the most precious and valuable resources of the natural environment day after day.’

Bee Simulator


Developer: Varsav Game Studios

Publisher: Bigben Interactive, Nacon

Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch

Framed as an arcade action adventure game and set in New York’s Central Park, Varsav Game Studios’ Bee Simulator offers to let the player ‘Explore a world brimming with life in which you collect pollen, defy dangerous wasps and save your hive.’ However, beyond the myriad bee-related puns in its marketing materials, Bee Simulator also locates its gameplay within the contemporary discourse around the impact of climate change, habitat destruction and colony collapse. Noting the influence of the books ‘Bees’ by Piotr Socha and ‘The Life of the Bee’ by Maurice Maeterlinck, lead developer Lukasz Rosinski has spoken of the balance between delivering an enjoyable arcade experience with an educational message about the plight of bees and potential solutions and actions that can be taken both in and out of the game.

Beyond Blue


Developer: E-Line Media

Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Apple Arcade

E-Line Media’s Beyond Blue is an adventure game that puts the player in the role of a deep sea researcher leading a team of marine scientists aiming to better understand marine ecologies and, in particular, the diversity of marine life. E-Line Media describes itself as a videogame developer and publisher passionate about harnessing the power of games to help players understand and shape the world. Squarely located within the world of the Blue Planet II BBC TV documentary series, the game is the result of a partnership with BBC Studios and OceanX Media. In addition to drawing on scientific advisors during development, Beyond Blue incorporates documentary video clips recorded by the BBC’s Blue Planet II. These clips are built into the game’s reward system and are unlocked through gameplay and exploration.

Educational Games

While, in principle, all games, whether digital or analogue, can be utilised in formal and informal educational contexts, it is important to distinguish those games that specifically set out to support learning through developing knowledge or the acquisition and application of skills. While there may seem to be a comparatively fine line between educational games and the kinds of formal collaborations between videogame developers and climate scientists (such as we saw in the case of James Lovelock’s advice and input to SimEarth), we make the distinction primarily to highlight the specific educational claims made by certain games along with the contexts in which they might be developed and used. In this way, while other games might have educational value, ‘educational games’ are designed and marketed with this as their primary purpose.

As such, these explicitly educational games very oſten bring together different stakeholders in their commissioning, development and funding. NASA’s Climate Kids project is a case in point and we will see in our case studies examples of BBC funding in the UK context, for instance. Importantly, educational games based around developing knowledge and understanding of climate change typically place considerable emphasis on the credentials of their creators and the validity of the data and climate science upon which their models and gameplay are based which oſten sees the manifest foregrounding of stakeholders such as university research labs as (co-)creators. Interestingly, as we will see in our case studies, projects take markedly different approaches to complexity, data visualisation and different responses to the presence of political negotiation and even climate denial discourses.

Climate Challenge


Developer: Red Redemption

Publisher: BBC

Platforms: Web/Flash

Released in 2006, Climate Challenge was a game based around global warming. Developed by Red Redemption and produced by the BBC, the game ran on Adobe’s Flash web platform meaning that it is now unplayable on modern computing devices. Interestingly, the accompanying BBC website positions Climate Challenge as a learning tool and while noting that, ‘Wherever possible, real research has been incorporated into the game’, strikes a cautionary tone that draws attention to a tension between game and educational resource in suggesting that, ‘The producers’ primary goal was to make a fun, challenging game. At times it was necessary to strike a compromise between strict scientific accuracy and playability. For this reason, Climate Challenge should not be taken as a serious climate change prediction.’

Fate of the World


Developer: Red Redemption

Publisher: Soothsayer Games

Platforms: Windows and Macintosh

Developed by Red Redemption who had previously created the BBC’s Climate Challenge web/Flash game, Fate of the World is a turn-based strategy game that seeks to simulate the effects of global warming on the Earth. Central to the development and marketing of the game is the collaboration with Oxford University climate scientist Prof. Myles Allen whose climate projection models were used to inform the game’s simulation. The game is based around distinct scenarios set between 2020 and 2200 and require players to manage natural resources and climate alongside the needs of an expanding global population.

Fate of the World makes great play of the complexity of its scientific model with its ‘detailed real-world data’, 1000 ‘impacts’ (including storms, floods, heatwaves, flash fires, desertification, glacial melt, sea level rise, resource wars, dissidence and political backlash and 100+ policies (including geoengineering, diplomacy, species protection, energy choices, population, politics, and clandestine operation). The game remains available via the Steam platform with the tagline, ‘Will you help the whole planet or will you be an agent of destruction?’

Infrared Escape


Developer: Earthgames

Publisher: Earthgames

Platforms: Android, iOS,

Where Red Redemption’s Fate of the World foregrounds complexity, the outputs of the University of Washington Earthgames group take a markedly different approach. Infrared Escape is a case in point being based around the journey of an infrared light beam avoiding greenhouse gases through the atmosphere to escape into space. The simplicity of this game design mirrors Earthgames’ Dargan Frierson’s research specialism in simplified models for improving the understanding of climate processes. The approximately 10 minute long game encourages players to learn about the impacts greenhouse gases have on warming our planet and how greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have changed over time due to anthropogenic warming.

As the game moves through pre-industrial past to a more polluted future, it becomes more difficult to navigate the beam on its journey. However, unlocking tools like the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and make the game easier to play. The game is accompanied by a downloadable teachers guide setting out the game’s objectives and learning goals.

Analogue Games

Although the primary focus of this report is videogames, it would be remiss not to draw attention to non-digital games.

This is, in part at least, due to the recent resurgence in popularity in what are now known collectively, and clumsily, as ‘analogue games’.

While recognising this increased popularity and visibility, it is, of course, notable that the cultural and economic dominance of digital games has seen to it that, even though they might precede them, board games, tabletop games and card games need now be differentiated in this manner.

Indeed, so prevalent is digital play in popular parlance that while board games are re-demarcated as ‘analogue’, the words ‘game’ and ‘videogame’ have become practically synonymous.

This notwithstanding, the analogue game space has (re)emerged as a particularly vibrant and important one with an independent development scene fuelled by crowdfunding, 3D printing for the fabrication of pieces and (perhaps ironically) digital gameplay prototyping, testing and sharing tools.

As is the case in the independent videogame development context, a number of analogue game makers have similarly sought to tackle questions of climate change through their designs.

While the nature of the form means that the simulation model that underpins an analogue game is unlikely to be able to achieve the complexity of the most sophisticated computer simulation, the analogue game has one potential benefit in that its rules are made manifest rather than being potentially hidden within the ‘black box’ of the computer or games console running inaccessible code and invisibly processing data.

It follows that, not only are the rulesets and systems more potentially accessible and knowable to the player of the analogue game, they are also potentially more readily adapted and modified in order to explore different contexts or conditions.

CO2 Second Chance


Developer: Vital Lacerda

Publisher: Stronghold Games/

Platforms: Boardgame

CO2: Second Chance is a boardgame designed by Vital Lacerda. The game is for 2-4 players aged 14+ with play sessions intended to last approximately 1-2 hours. The game places each player in the role of CEO of an energy company responding to government requests for new, green power plants. The goal is to meet the increased demand for sustainable energy whilst reducing pollution and maximising profits. Gameplay is based around the management of UN-granted Carbon Emission Permits (CEPs) which are spent each time a new energy plant is created and may be traded in the game’s internal marketplace.

CO2 second chance builds on earlier boardgames by adding a cooperative gameplay mode and a solo game based around the achievement of specific goals. Two simultaneous crowdfunding campaigns ran on the Giochistarter and Kickstarter platforms and the game is now available through retail outlets.

Carbon City Zero / Carbon City Zero: World Edition


Developer: Sam Illingworth, Paul Wake and Possible

Publisher: 10:10 Foundation

Platforms: Card game

Building on the initial Carbon City Zero card game designed by Dr Sam Illingworth and Dr Paul Wake of Manchester Metropolitan University and funded by UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), the World Edition is a collaborative deck-building game, in which players develop a sustainable city. Designed for 1-4 players, Carbon City Zero’s premise states that, ‘The planet is in a climate crisis. For decades governments have ignored it. Now it’s up to a group of city mayors to sort it.’

With the aim of creating a sustainable city, each player starts with an identical deck, buying additional cards from a shared marketplace and collaborating and negotiating with other cities around the world. Gameplay involves balancing income generation with carbon reduction, and co-operation between governments, industries, and the public. Carbon City Zero is designed so that there are multiple paths to the victory state of collective survival, though collaboration is placed at the heart of the game. The focus on collaboration in the World Edition of the game is notable as the first release Carbon City Zero was a wholly competitive multiplayer game which, as Alice Bell co-director of Possible, notes, ‘the message which came out of our player focus groups was really clear – the crisis isn’t experienced or tackled in isolation, so the gameplay has to be cooperative to reflect that, as well as being international.’

Daybreak (in development)

Developer: Matt Leacock and Matteo Menapace

Publisher: CMYK

Platforms: Boardgame

Daybreak (formerly known as Climate Crisis) is a cooperative game about climate action that is currently in development. The game positions each player as the leader of a world power, deploying policies and technologies to break the cycle of global heating and build safe, resilient societies. If the global temperature gets too high, or if too many people are put in danger, everyone loses. The aim of the game is, through collaboration to reduce global emissions to net zero. Although the game remains unreleased, it has garnered considerable media coverage in part because one of its designers is the creator of the influential Pandemic boardgame.

One consequence of this coverage in outlets including Wired and the New York Times is the discussion of boardgames and the role of play in the public understanding of climate change. We also include it here as the designers are actively soliciting input into the game through a call on their website. ‘We’re looking for folks who have experience in climate advocacy, policy, science, engineering, art, or games to help us make Daybreak the best it can be. We’re especially interested in support from people based or rooted in the Global South.’

Game Jams

Drawing on the musical concept of the ‘jam session’ in which a group of musicians compose through improvisation and evolving collaboration with little or no preparation, a game jam describes a context in which individuals or teams attempt to create an original videogame from scratch.

Game Jams vary considerably in format but a key characteristic is that they are intensive and take place over a comparatively short period of time ranging from 24 to 72 hours.

Originating in 2002 (when what is now known as the 0th Indie Game Jam was founded by Chris Hecker and Sean Barret), game jams have become a staple of development conferences, higher and further education, partly because they foster creativity and innovation but also because they are based around dominant industry principles and approaches such as rapid prototyping, fast failure and literature design.

Organisations such as Global Game Jam coordinate international game jams – taking place across a record-breaking 934 locations in 118 countries in 2020 (before moving to an online only format during the pandemic).  It is supported by game development companies, publishers and platforms holders, including Unity, Unreal Engine, Microsoft, Sony Interactive Entertainment. Throughout the year there are also many local and hyperlocal game jams organised within universities, schools and museums.

For our purposes in this report, game jams offer a number of important qualities. Because they are based around individuals and small teams working over a short period of time, there is the potential for a large number of games – or sketches and game ideas – to be produced, shared and evaluated. Moreover, game jams are very often, though not always, organised around a theme with climate change providing the focus for events such as:

  • Climate Jam 2018 (supported by The Welsh Crucible, Bangor University, Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan University, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Sêr Cymru II programme and Swansea University).
  • Games For Change Student Challenge (supported by the US Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
  • IndieCade Climate Jam 2020 (supported by Niantic, Riot Forge)
  • The Green Mobile Game Jam (Playing for the Planet Alliance)

Industry Campaigning

It is an unavoidable fact that the production and distribution of videogames brings with it a number of environmental challenges.

The carbon footprint of the industry is significant with game development, physical and digital distribution channels all contributing to energy use.

While organisations are making their own pledges and commitments including Microsoft’s plan to be carbon negative by 2030[1], Sony working towards a zero environmental footprint by 2050[2], and studios such as UsTwo Games pledging to reduce carbon emissions and introduce green nudges into game design[3], for instance, there is recognition that coordination and better information sharing is required and a number of industry-led initiatives exist that seek to address these issues.

By way of example, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has established a ‘Climate’ Special Interest Group which focuses on building a Climate Guide 101 for game developers, game design patterns, industry benchmarking, and climate council advocacy.

Similarly, facilitated by the UN Environment Programme with the support of GRID-Arendal and Playmob, and launched during the Climate Summit at UN Headquarters in New York, Playing for the Planet is an industry-led initiative focusing on commitments from its Alliance of partners that include Twitch, Ubisoft, Rovio, SportsInteractive.

As the project website notes, ‘members have made commitments ranging from integrating green activations in games, reducing their emissions and supporting the global environmental agenda through initiatives ranging from planting millions of trees to reducing plastic in their products.

In August 2021 UKIE (a trade body for videogames in the UK) also announced a collaboration with Playing for the Planet, alongside ISFE (the Interactive Software Federation of Europe). Ahead of COP26, their ‘Green Games Summit[4]’ aims to ‘bring the international games sector together to share knowledge, discuss and shape the industry’s approach to the climate crisis and sustainability’.