Environmental consciousness is now more important than ever.
Climate change, air pollution and dealing with waste are a few environmental issues that are at the forefront of most Aussies' mind.
According to a 2020 poll by The Australian Institute, 79% of Australians care about climate change. As we usher in a new year, we're seeing a shift in people’s mindset about environmental sustainability. It's the start of some big steps towards a better future.
Yet despite expressing their concerns for the environment, only half of Australians believe they’re doing their fair share to help protect the planet.
How can we bridge the gap between knowledge and real, positive action? How can we inspire everyday people to take small steps that will lead to a big impact?
Captivating audiences on serious topics like environmentalism is not easy - engagement is key. A message that transcends boundaries is more likely to make a lasting impact and change perspectives.
Today, video games have proven global appeal. Games are part of our daily ritual of play and relaxation, they've made their way into our homes, our schools, our workplace and our pockets. Games have evolved beyond forms of entertainment and are now modern day tools for change.
In this blog, I share some of the best environmental games from 2010 to 2020. I explore the what, how, and why of modern, digital environmental games.
- What are Environmental Games?
- What are the Different Types and Themes of Environmental Games?
- Why do we Play Environmental Games?
- List of 20 Environmental Games from 2010 - 2020
- How can Today's Video Games Help the Environment?
What are Environmental Games?
Environmental games are games that drive players to manipulate gameplay elements to alter and impact their in-game surroundings or conditions. At the core of their design, mechanics and aesthetics, environmental games promote ecological consciousness through play. They rely on the player's curiosity, resourcefulness, instincts and thirst for knowledge as the main motivation for gameplay.
Environmental games focus largely on ecology, but can also explore economic, humanitarian and societal dimensions of environmentalism.
For the past few decades, environmental games have thrived in educational settings. Today environmental games help drive social change campaigns, research, training and scientific exploration.
They're part of a broader genre of games called serious games.
Serious games are games with a primary purpose that goes beyond entertainment. Serious games can tap into our human motivational needs to change behaviour. They create strong emotional memories and transform complex concepts into first-hand experiences.
Environmental games are just one of the many applications within serious games.
Need to know more about serious games and why they’re so great?
I recently published a guide on ‘What are Serious Games: Everything you need to know in 2020’. Read it here!
What are the different types and themes of environmental games?
In a study on Serious Games on Environmental Games from 2017, researchers studied a sample of 25 environmental games developed from 1994 - 2013. From the 25 games, the following five types of game designs were analysed: hybrid simulation games, online digital games, board games, card games and digital games. The most ubiquitous themes of the 25 games comprised of:
- Conflict resolution (25%)
- Water management (23%)
- Irrigation (9%)
- Ecosystem ecology (8%)
- Environmental education (8%)
- “Other” encompasses themes such as agricultural and farming management, energy, geology, globalization, risk analysis, waste management, water saving, urban planning, and reforestation. (27%)
Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen the rise of environmental management games across PC, web and within the last decade console and mobile. Among the environmental games studied, most games offered basic knowledge on sustainable issues to help players develop familiarity with a topic. Some games aimed at raising awareness of causes and consequences and promoting a change in attitude and behaviour. A smaller percentage of the games studied, were created to stimulate the development of solutions and ideas through creativity.
Why do we play environmental games?
Schools are now teaching positive ecological impact from day one of their curricula. More children are now exposed to the truth about their carbon footprint and issues like global warming. Thanks to games, environmental education has transformed into an effective learning experience for both students and teachers.
Now environmental games are no longer restricted to the classroom. Today, serious games are natural tools for climate change awareness, education and engagement.
Environmental games know how to engross players by simulating climate-centred scenarios. Their aim is to create profound experiences that tap into a range of human emotions, from fear and aggression to joy and wonder.
Games give us agency over things that feel out of our control in the real world. They help reinforce positive action through gameplay and excite players into taking action.
Here are 5 reasons why we play environmental games:
Games are ‘designed experiences’ where players can learn through experimentation. Players are able to learn at their own pace and make informed decisions, rather than absorbing information from reading and traditional lecture formats which can cause disengagement.
According to decision science, first-hand experience is a much better teacher than exposure to information. Games provide high-levels of autonomy and agency which helps players connect to the characters, storyline and surroundings on an emotional level.
Games allow players to build empathy by taking on various roles and perspectives. Games help the player visualise their impact and allow for visioning — for example, being able to envision oneself in the future — and seeing consequences of actions at different points in time.
Games can simulate complex models or provide a level of control that is not possible in the real world. This is particularly advantageous when visualising atmospheric systems or water management operations - processes that would be otherwise difficult to bring to a hands-on level.
Environmental games can target outcomes, such as players’ motivations, attitudes and values. Digital games have an advantage over traditional teaching methods because they can collect valuable player data, show measured impact and track progress.
We play environmental games because we have ownership of our actions and are often the catalysts for change within the game's context and narrative. These games bring real-world issues to the forefront of the player’s mind and encourage them to confront the realities of environmental issues.
Games about sustainability and ecological impact aim to ultimately change the player’s attitude and influence their behaviour.
Here is our list of 20 incredible environmental games launched from 2010 to 2020:
Plasticity by Plasticity Games (2019)
Platform: PC and Mac
Themes: Waste Management and Recycling
Plasticity is a puzzle-platformer about a plastic-ridden world and the choices you make to save it. You play as Noa, a curious young girl who leaves her bleak home in search of paradise and a better future.
You embark on an emotional journey as your actions dynamically change both gameplay and the story. While each decision carries a consequence, few are irreversible—you may stumble, you may fall, but only you can save the world.
Plasticity is a free game created by students from the University of Southern California (USC). The students and professors in the development team believe that video games hold a key to inspiring environmental activism.
Plasticity makes the player think about the garbage we throw away and plastic we recycle, bringing to light how we don’t see where it goes or how it makes an impact. The game helps to visualise this impact through the art of storytelling and interactive choices you make in real-time.
Lumino City by State of Play and Noodlecake Studios (2015)
Platform: Android, iOS, Mac, PC
Theme: Renewable Energy
Lumino City is a puzzle adventure crafted entirely by hand out of paper, card, miniature lights, and motors.
The game was designed to raise awareness about renewable energy technologies and offers sustainable practices as an intrinsic part of the gameplay. Almost every puzzle in the game involves powering up a location using renewable technologies, or explores a form of self-sufficiency.
Players are also given a ‘handy manual’ which is carried throughout the game and further explores some of the applications of renewable energy technologies.
Beyond Blue by E-Line Media and BBC Studios (2020)
Platform: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 & Apple Arcade
Theme: Ecological Education
Beyond Blue is a single player narrative adventure where players explore the mysteries of our ocean through the eyes of Mirai, a deep-sea explorer and scientist.
She and her newly-formed research team will use ground-breaking technologies to see, hear, and interact with all ocean life. E-Line, BBC Studios, OceanX Media, and some of science’s leading ocean experts have crafted an evocative narrative and ultra-realistic exploration of an untouched world.
Beyond Blue also offers an in-game encyclopaedia, a collection of all the ocean creatures you encounter on your journey. It features insights and footage from the award-winning documentary Blue Planet II, and encourages the player to learn about and reflect on the incredible vastness of our ocean.
Get Water! By Decode Global Studio (2013)
Platform: iOS and Android
Theme: Water Management
Get Water is a side-scrolling endless runner, the player helps Maya collect water and other collectibles, as well as avoiding enemies. By collecting water the player unlocks new chapters in Maya's story, shown as still-image videos. Maya learns new skills so she can collect water faster and protect it better.
The story highlights the effect water scarcity has on girls' education in slums and rural areas of India. After each run the player gets additional information about water scarcity, how it is used nowadays, and how to conserve it in everyday life.
In addition to the information found in the game, a six-part lesson plan for 4-6 Grade teachers was available on the game's website in PDF format to download for free.
Fate of the World by Red Redemption (2011)
Platform: PC and Mac
Theme: Global Management
Fate of the World is a turn-based strategy game, with each turn representing five years. The game features a dramatic set of scenarios based on the latest science covering the next 200 years.
The player must manage a balancing act of protecting the Earth’s resources and climate versus the needs of an ever-growing world population, who are demanding ever more food, power, and living space.
Fate of the World simulates a planet in climate crises, players must learn how to manage public opinion, combat global warming, balance industrial progression, and maintain the human development index.
Save a Rhino by Hello There and Perfect World Foundation (2014)
Platform: iOS and Android
Theme: Wildlife Conservation
Save a Rhino is a mobile game about escaping the dangers threatening rhinoceros, as well as what is being done to prevent the extinction of the species.
You can play as a rhino or elephant, trying to escape from poachers; help the South Africa Army stop the poachers from killing rhinos over the vast plains of Africa.
Rhinos are hunted and killed for their horns, which sell for enormous amounts on the black market. Save a Rhino aimed to raise awareness of the rhinos’ dire situation and raise funds for the Perfect World Foundation’s preservation efforts.
GreenSpace by RocketOwl Inc. and WeForest.org (2011)
Platform: Web and iOS
Theme: Waste Management
GreenSpace is a social media game that promotes environmentalism and sustainability through waste management gameplay.
Humans have been sending their trash into the galaxy for the past 300 years, unintentionally littering surrounding planets in the process. SpaceJanitors of the trash-clearing GreenSpace Corps are sent into outer space to clean up the planets and make them habitable again.
Players progress in the game by social networking to earn Rocket Fuel, Credits, Energy and experience points. These elements are used by players to travel to new quadrants, build new and repair structures and complete missions.
GreenSpace encourages players to interact with their Facebook friends in-game as part of a collaborative effort towards positive environmental action and impact. Rocket Owl and WeForest implemented a tree-planting campaign, Play2Plant - when players reach certain milestones, RocketOwl will match their efforts by planting a tree in real life.
Ice Flows by University of Exeter and InHouse Visuals (2016)
Platform: iOS, Android, Web
Theme: Climate Change
Ice Flows is a scientific simulation game that tells the story of the impact of climate change on the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Players are responsible for controlling the size of the ice sheet in order for the penguins to get to their destination.
The project combines fieldwork and computer modelling to investigate the relationships between changes in the atmosphere, the ocean and the ice sheet in this region. Computer-based ice sheet simulation models are used by scientists to both understand how the ice behaves and to make projections for future behaviour.
Ice Flows was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) as part of a project that aims to investigate what may happen in the near-future in the Weddell Sea Region of Antarctica and the impact changes here could have on global sea-level.
Working with Water by Central Coast Council and Chaos Theory (2020)
Theme: Water Management
Working with Water is a turn-based strategy web game helping teach students about developing and maintaining a sustainable water supply system in the Central Coast.
The game takes place in the Central Coast of Australia where the need for clean drinking water increases as the community grows, and the player is responsible for building new infrastructures to meet the increased demand.
Working with Water simulates the real life challenges of water management for the growing population of the Central Coast. The game will be an additional teaching resource for science and geography teachers who teach students in stage 3 and 4 (Grades 5-6 and 7-8).
Save the Park by Schell Games and National Park Service (2016)
Theme: Environmental Education
Save the Park is an endless runner, arcade game that aimed to inspire players to volunteer and make a difference at the National Park Service’s 400 national parks, monuments, and historic sites in all 50 U.S. states.
Launched as part of the campaign to celebrate the 2016 National Park Service Centennial, Save the Park seeks to inspire and encourage a new generation of park lovers to take an active role in helping preserve these important natural and historic resources for future generations.
To drive additional resources to the cause, the American Express Foundation made a $1 donation to the National Park Foundation for each download of Save the Park, up to $50,000. The donation will support the NPF’s park conservation and stewardship work.
FutureCoast by PoLAR Partnership at Columbia University & U.S. National Science Foundation (2014)
Themes: Climate Change and Climate Fiction
FutureCoast is an alternate reality game (ARG) and experiment in collaborative storytelling that explores the impact of climate change and gives players the chance to engage in discussions with their audience in a unique way.
Players weave a collaborative story by calling the FutureCoast hotline (1-321-7FCOAST) and leaving a voicemail which would then be added to a website where other players could listen and stitch together other voicemails into their own personal version of the future.
FutureCoast was a hauntingly-beautiful showcase for real people to share their ideas, concerns and predictions about climate change. It encouraged everyday people to face the reality (and alternate reality) of our world’s climate changed futures - this installation paved the way for the advent of “CliFi” - Climate Fiction.
Habitactics: by Zachtronics and Touch Press Games (2015)
Theme: Wildlife Education
Habitactics is a mobile puzzle game where you learn about wild animal and science facts as you solve Match-3 style puzzles.
Players explore different ecosystems and trophic zones and are tasked with helping ecosystems thrive by completing matches between predators and their prey.
Player’s learn about the animal food chain, the dynamism of animal populations and how other changes to the environment affect animal populations. Using a familiar yet fun game format, player’s gain a better understanding of the relationship between flora and fauna in the rainforests of South America and the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Never Alone by Upper One Games and E-Line Media (2014)
Platform: Android, PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, PS3, iOS
Themes: Cultural Awareness and Environmental Education
Never Alone is an atmospheric puzzle platformer, you play as the young Iñupiaq girl Nuna and her Arctic fox. Together you solve puzzles that swap control between Nuna and the fox. The story revolves around discovering the source of the blizzard that has ravaged Nuna's village and restoring balance to nature.
Never Alone’s narrative is told in the form of an oral tale, unlike traditional platformer games, which involve overcoming obstacles and defeating enemies, Never Alone rewards players with collectible "cultural insights" - video vignettes of Iñupiaq elders, storytellers, and community members sharing their stories.
The game was built in partnership with the Alaska Native community, it delves deep into the innate relationship the Iñupiaq people of Alaska share with the world around them. Never Alone invites a global audience to experience a unique culture through complex storytelling and fascinating gameplay.
World Rescue by ZU Digital and UNESCO MGIEP (2017)
Platform: iOS and Android
Theme: Global Management
World Rescue is a narrative, research-based video-game inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.
Set in Kenya, Norway, Brazil, India, and China, players meet and help five young heroes and help them solve global problems—such as displacement, disease, deforestation, drought, and pollution.
In 2014, UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace (MGIEP) launched its first international Gaming Challenge, inviting proposals for video games that promote peace, sustainable development and global citizenship. In October 2015, after a rigorous process of mentoring by their internationally acclaimed Jury, World Rescue was chosen as the winning game design document.
Eco by Strange Loop Games (2018)
Themes: Conflict Resolution and Natural Resource Management
Eco is an online multiplayer survival game where players must build civilization using resources from an incredibly reactive ecosystem, and whatever actions the players take affects everything within the world.
The game allows players to interact with both the world and each other, it pushes players to re-enact a sustainable lifestyle in a detailed wilderness simulation. Players have to care about balanced nutrition and need to control the gathering of natural resources, otherwise negatively harming or destroying the environment.
Eco is funded by both the National Science Foundation and Department of Education, it’s been played by over 250,000 players. Unlike other survival games, Eco does not have any combat between players or monsters, and there is no way for the player's character to die. It also encourages players to actively collaborate together with other players to create a sustainable civilisation.
Bleached Az by Chaos Theory and We Are Rad (2019)
Themes: Ocean Pollution and Climate Change
Bleached Az is a mobile arcade game based on the viral 2008 Aussie cartoon, Beached Az. The game is full of confrontational and irreverent humour aimed at driving a social and environmental purpose.
Players must save the hopeless coral from the dangers of plastic pollution and overfishing, the game promotes ocean health awareness and motivates players to actively contribute to environmental conservation.
In partnership with Carbon Neutral, 20% of Bleached Az’s revenue from ads and in app purchases go towards their ‘Plant-a-Tree’ Program - that plants a tree to help combat climate change. Bleached Az aimed to educate players and bring awareness to the adverse effect of climate change through the in-game carbon absorption meter as it serves as a reminder for players of their tangible impact.
Niche by Stray Fawn Studios (2016)
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac
Theme: Wildlife Education
Niche is a genetics survival game is a turn-based strategy game combined with simulation and survival elements.
Players can shape their own species of animals based on real genetics and it’s up to you to keep your species alive against all odds, such as predators, climate change and spreading sickness.
In Niche the player is introduced to the scientific mechanics of genetics: featuring dominant-recessive, co-dominant inheritance, etc. The game also features the five pillars of population genetics: genetic drift, genetic flow, mutation, natural selection and sexual selection. All in-game knowledge is interwoven with the game-mechanics creating the effect of learning by playing.
Morphy! by Smithsonian Science Education Center and Filament Games (2016)
Platform: iOS, Android and Web
Theme: Wildlife Education
Morphy! is a survival metroidvania-style game starring Morphy, an alien who has crash-landed on an unknown planet and needs to find his missing crew members.
Designed to teach players the fundamentals of animal adaptation, players must face a slew of challenging platforming obstacles that can only be overcome by scanning animals whose traits are specialised to their environments. The scanned traits can then be added to Morphy’s abilities, helping players better navigate the environment present.
Morphy! teaches players how to use the survival features and skills of different animals through experimentation and exploration. Players learn about specific wildlife behaviours and tactics and how animals apply these traits in the real-world.
Fort McMoney by National Film Board of Canada (2013)
Platform: International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam
Theme: Conflict Resolution
Fort McMoney is a web documentary and strategy video game about Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada and Athabasca oil sands development.
The game consists of three episodes, each played in real-time over a four-week period. Players decide on the virtual future of the city, while exploring the social, economic, political and cultural history of Fort McMurray. Each week, players can vote in referendums and surveys that will affect the city's virtual future. It’s up to them to engage in debates, and attempt to win other players over to their "worldview" in order to influence the city's development.
Fort McMoney encourages people to participate in a remarkable, collective experience, playing alongside others from across the globe. The game simulates the collaborative power people have on environmental and economic impact, it addresses real-life social issues in a profound format that is thought-provoking yet grounded.
WWF Free Rivers by World Wildlife Fund (2018)
Themes: Ecological and Geographical Education
World Wildlife Foundation’s WWF Free Rivers is an augmented reality game that offers learners the ability to observe and interact with five diverse river habitats in the comfort of their own home.
The game is designed to teach how ecosystems depend on healthy, flowing rivers. Players are immersed in simulated environments based on the Himalayan mountains, South American grasslands, and Southeast Asian deltas.
WWF Free Rivers teaches players how actions like damming a river can affect its flow and health through interactions with the people and wildlife that inhabit it. The game is an in-depth interactive storytelling experience using the latest immersive technology to bring environmental learning to the palm of the players hand.
How can today’s video games help the environment?
There are an estimated 2.7 billion gamers across the world in 2020 and that number is predicted to rise to over 3 billion in 2023. As of 2020, the average daily total of play for Australian's of all ages who play video games is 81 minutes. That's 81 minutes of opportunity to Aussies but also engage them through the excitement of play.
Games have the real potential of reaching every demographic, across every nation - they are the engagement engine that can empower players to tackle the biggest environmental challenges of our time.
Games help create agents of change
Games can be a compass, guiding players towards developing a positive attitude and mindset. Environmental games offers players opportunities to negotiate conflict, conduct ecological problem solving, identify problems and connect with other like-minded advocates.
Games are the gateway for players to think more deeply about the moral and ethical issues, the negative and positive choices they make within the controlled experience helps them shape their own values and opinions. Skills and lessons learned within a game has the potential to be applied to real-life scenarios and challenges.
Games can help foster a relationship with nature
Game are not only ideal for delivering messages, but they can also simulate situations that people find relatable and relevant. Storytelling can reach players on a more personal level, transport them into worlds that would normally be beyond their reach.
Games can also fuel research and help mankind make discoveries that weren't possible without citizen participation, game technology and gameplay frameworks. The invaluable data we collect from games can help us better understand the world around us, we can learn how to better care for the environment.
Most importantly, games can influence positive behaviour
It all starts with one small step and games can drive change, whether big or small. Games tap into our subconscious to change our habits and motivate our actions through play. Taking action is ultimately up to the player, and when designed well - environmental games can plant the small seeds of passion in our minds that grows into activism and advocacy.
Alliances like Playing For The Planet aim to harness the reach and creativity of the video gaming industry to engage their communities around the world. They are encouraging game development giants worldwide to implement green and sustainable initiatives within their games to urge their players to take environmental action.
I've shared 20 environmental games from the last decade but there are new games being developed every day. Environmental games will continue to evolve alongside society, they'll branch out into the latest platforms, explore newfound themes and utilise tomorrow's ground-breaking technology.
The state of our world and our impact will always be relevant. Playing to save our planet has never been this fun!
Interested in how environmental games can create lasting change for you? We'd love to help!
Chaos Theory is passionate about making games that can help save our environment. We've developed award-winning games for environmental conservation - we're brought together by our drive for environmental, social and political change. Our vision is to improve quality of life and inspire a more sustainable future through the magic of play.