Video Games Could Save the Environment

590031_xbox_controller_no_logoThe first video game came not out of a developer’s studio but from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, in 1958. The game, a mock-up of table tennis, involved an oscilloscope, skillful fingers and sharp eyes.

The first actual video game was Asteroids, played on a game console named Atari, from the company of the same name. This 1972 debut was – by today’s standards – a primitive single-person shooting game. In fact, it was so simple (point and shoot, over and over again) that it’s hard to imagine the evolution to the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) of today.

Video games are fun. They appeal to today’s young on a very visceral level, allowing pre-teens, tweens and twenty-somethings to claim a patch of virtual space as their own and live in it without all the customary rules, prohibitions and uncertainties of today’s real world. That is the video game’s charm, and also its downfall, say sociologists, some of whom want to use gaming as a handle on which to hang many of society’s defects.

A classic example would be WoW, or World of Warcraft, played by more than 10 million subscribers in 2012. These numbers indicate that gaming is clearly not a fad, but a lifestyle choice for many, replacing a world they find puzzling, painful and even hostile with a game whose rules are written, if not in stone, at least on paper (virtually speaking).

Unfortunately, many current first-person shooter video games on the market today are also violent, allowing players to shoot imaginary individuals, blow up buildings and vehicles, or use other dangerous weapons like flamethrowers and chain saws. These games can cause impressionable young people, who have yet to develop the critical skills needed to separate life from fiction, to think that violence is a solution to their problems. After all, nobody really dies, it just looks that way.

This is a particularly short-sighted assessment. As far as video games, television and even comic books causing young people to resort to violence, any therapist worth his or her diploma will note that causality is not provenance.

The one thing that video games can do (though few developers have taken this tack) is teach a younger generation how to solve the world’s current energy and environmental issues. A prime example of this learning while gaming is Sim City, an urban planning simulation that allows users to flesh out entire virtual cities using “green” electricity resources, for example.

Sim City players add these resources based on the cost of, and pollution generated by, various electricity sources like coal, oil and natural gas – even nuclear, solar, wind and geothermal power options. City builders must also keep in mind the usefulness, and carbon footprint, of various suburban designs based on pedal-power, maglev transportation, car-sharing options and building up rather than out to solve urban sprawl and provide green spaces for humans, animals and insects.

Sim City is not some “dippy, pie-in-the-sky green magic” as one cantankerous old nuclear expert notes. It allows the creation of light to medium industrial density near power plants, and cheap, clean natural-gas electricity plants as a hub for residential buildout. It also provides for some relatively polluting energy sources via oil-burning power plants which are monitored both short- and long-term with an eye to weighing air pollution against productivity.

My one objection to Sim City is the comment that players will develop ugly smog in their industrialized zones, but this is okay because nobody lives there and pollution can’t travel between cities. I’m sure this made James Lovelock (and Gaia) very unhappy, in view of the fact that real-world pollution travels around the globe, as seen by post- Fukushima radiation. (The Gaia Hypothesis is a Lovelock thesis which sees earth as a single, highly complex and fully self-regulating living being).

Aside from that ecological blunder, Sim City and other eco-oriented, role playing video games are invaluable, if only because children think they are playing and don’t often realize they are also learning until the lesson is firmly set in the maturing mind.

Georgia Tech professor and game designer Celia Pearce credits video games with giving players a chance to try environmental solutions in the virtual world – which helps them work together and develop realistic goals and expectations in the real world. In fact, gamers mature in an environment which rewards experimentation, and even failure, because it takes losing (and learning by trial and error) to start winning.

What if grade-school students were given ecologically oriented video games to play as part of their coursework? What might they learn about the environment, or good and bad choices regarding sustainability? Imagine for a moment that the video game called World Without Oil (developer Ken Eklund) was fifth period social studies, and students could take the game home to play with friends or family?

Could we pinpoint the nexus between energy and pollution, and devise better ways of getting the former without producing the latter? The answer is likely a resounding yes, according to Ekland, who says unequivocally:

“Any sort of solution is going to be a collaborative, widespread solution.”

Gaia would approve!

P.S., research shows that since 2007 and the introduction of games like Sim City and World Without Oil, greenhouse gas emissions – of which carbon dioxide is a large part – have fallen 13 percent thanks to the adoption of natural gas and renewable power options. There has also been a 9-gigawatt reduction in coal-fired generation. Coincidence? Perhaps not entirely.

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