Viewing Virtual Worlds: What Can Video Games Teach Us About Environmental History?

Large parts of my childhood were spent playing Nintendo with my twin brother and mutual friends in our basement. I’m not embarrassed—or alone, as there are estimates that more than 70% of American teenagers play video games. But I never imagined then that video games would be a tool I can use to study environmental history.

“Nintendo Mushroom” (CC-BY-2.0) by flickr user Tobias Vemmenby.

Gaming advocates already endorse using gaming as a method to solve challenges in this world, arguing that people want to be heroes and that it’s possible to incentivize problem-solving as levelling up. It’s an interesting prospect, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Playing video games may seem like an escape from the world, but there are worlds within games. And lots of games are set on earth—or earth-like places. The environment that the game activity exists in has to be imagined and drawn or scripted by the creators. This is known as “world building” in video games.  What makes a world feel real, even if it’s not realistic, is that it’s richly designed and detailed. There are many grassroots guides for DIY game designers to build worlds that feel immersive. People who create these worlds as their profession are known as “game environment artists.”

“Zelda” (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) by flickr user Kate0.

Yet despite the connotation that video games are science fiction or fantasy, many game worlds incorporate elements of real life. After all, the artists have to get inspiration somewhere. Intrepid gamers have tracked down locations and buildings they believe are represented in their favorite games and developed travel guides inspired by games. Indeed, while some elements of gaming worlds are imaginary, they can give insight into what’s around the game builders—or their imaginaries of what a better world looks like. This can help environmental historians understand the physical and social context when the games were created. Game builders are giving hints to what’s in the world around them—or possibly mourning what has been lost.

Consider the enormously popular franchise, Pokemon. It’s a game (and cartoons and movies) that invites players to ‘collect’ imaginary animals. The latest iteration, Pokemon GO, invites players to integrate their gaming worlds and real worlds by traveling around in real life to collect the animals. If you’re not familiar, you can check out the trailer here (not captioned but no words). Gamers have previously noticed the similarities between animals in the Pokemon franchise and animals that live on earth. What may the selection of those animals tell us about earth? Pokemon users engage endangerment rhetoric to discuss the animals—how might that reflect contemporary public opinions and regulations about animal protections?

“Pokemon GO” (CC-BY-NC 2.0) by flickr user Masaki Tokutomi.

Environmental humanities scholars use a range of tools and texts to understand the world, and video games should be part of that toolbox. Just as poetry texts and diaries are closely read for clues about weather and climate change, video game environments as source text may reveal fascinating and innovative insights into histories and imaginaries. I expect that more and more in the future, environmental historians will look to digital collections of video games for clues about past worlds—and how people hoped worlds would be in the future. Odds are that some environmental historians are gamers already and that this number will grow.

The Library of Congress has a video game collection, and the Strong Museum of Play has many collections related to gaming technologies. What will environmental historians find? I’ll be visiting the latter later this fall and will report back.



*Suggested reading: A. Martin Wainwright, “Teaching Historical Theory through Video Games” 47 The History Teacher (August 2014): 579-612.