Greenshifting Game Studies

Arguments for an Ecocritical Approach to Digital Games

Dr. Hans-Joachim Backe is Lecturer at the Department of General and Comparative Literature at the Ruhr-University Bochum. His research topics include: game studies, general narrative theory, media theory, & popular culture (especially film, comics and computer games).

Every time I talk or write about ecology as a tool or merely an inspiration for hermeneutic approaches to cultural artifacts, I feel like I need to start off with a confession: I am no hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist. Not only do I have serious doubts about the compatibility of hardcore environmentalism and dyed wool, I find it hard to subscribe to any sort of Ism, doctrine, or universal approach. And still, with all the relativism of the comparatist whose only creed is that there are always two (or more) ways of looking at any matter, I have become deeply fascinated with ecocriticism lately. Ecocriticism, the application of ecological thinking to humanism (and especially literary studies) developed in parallel with game studies, starting in the late 1970s and coming to real scholarly prominence in the mid- to late-1990s. I have been engaged in game studies since the late 1990s, and when I propose here to introduce a Greenshift into our field, it is not a moral, ideological, or philosophical argument I want to make, but merely a practical one: I am confident that the blend of ecological ideals and humanistic hermeneutics developed by ecocriticism holds great promise for game studies.

My reasoning may be somewhat involved, so please, bear with me. To Aristotle, the greatest achievement a poet could hope for is a metaphor that is understood universally and intuitively. The term ‘Greenshift’ seems to be one of those. Even if you have never heard the term before, it instantly conveys a movement toward a more ecological mindset and behavior. ‘Becoming greener’ has been a value in and by itself for decades now, whether you subscribe to the idea or not. Following the capitalist logic of perpetual growth, it sets out to replace the promise of endless consumption with the less suspect goal of reducing humanity’s impact on the non-human environment – or rather, it combines both ideals in the concept of sustainability.


When Barry Commoner formulated his Four Laws of Ecology in 1971, the idea of sustainability was new, and it was a big improvement over the status quo of total disregard of ecological questions. Commoner introduced the concept of renewable energy into public discourse and pointed out the intrinsic interdependence of all living things within the ecosphere: “Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to over-all improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced” (23). While sustainability is still a buzzword in politics and economy, some humanists have started to reject the concept. Steve Mentz has recently pointed out that sustainable thinking does not consider major changes in our relationship to the complex whole of the ecosystem, but is merely a romanticized vision of stabilizing nature to the point it can endure our interference permanently, so that we can go on consuming. To the critical minds of academics, this can only mean one thing according to Mentz: “It seemed like a good idea while it lasted, but we should have known it could not last. The era of sustainability is over” (586).

Mentz is probably right in his criticism, but he is way ahead of most people. Sustainability is, despite the problems Mentz identifies, an environmentalist vision palpable to the masses, and as such, the term Greenshift still is full of innocuous promise. More than that, it is sexy. A European IT company, a South African consulting firm, and a North American think-tank have recently chosen Greenshift as a name, and Canadian politician Stéphane Dion used the term for his pro-environmental policy. Although Dion’s lukewarm environmentalist agenda was later blamed for the Liberal party’s historic defeat in the 2008 parliamentary election, his use of the term Greenshift was so much in line with that of the commercial enterprises that one of them sued for copyright infringement.

When I am proposing a Greenshift of game studies, it is not as the facile promise of making the world a better, greener place without any real sacrifices. Greenshift has deeper, richer connotations that become apparent when considering the origin of the metaphor. In physics, the concepts of redshift and blueshift describe the Doppler effect on a cosmological scale. Just as the siren of an ambulance seems to change in pitch as it passes us by at high speed, our perception of the color of celestial objects is influenced by the speed and direction at which they move relative to our position. As the distance between a star and its observer increases, the light it emits appears redder than it actually is. Moving in opposite directions, a shift toward the blue side of the color spectrum is observed. Although the star’s color never changes, we perceive it differently. To understand and account for this phenomenon, we have to take a leap of imagination and position ourselves conceptually within a much larger context than we’re used to.

As Barry Commoner’s First Law of Ecology – everything is connected to everything else – already suggests, ecological thinking presupposes a change in perspective of similar magnitude. Ecocriticism has struggled (and still does) with identifying and executing the necessary paradigm shift. Its early, almost happenstance formulation in Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination – an examination of nature writing in the tradition of Thoreau – was severely criticized by later ecocritics like Dana Phillips, especially because ecocriticism has the potential to be more than “transferring ecological terms to literary study by means of mere metaphor” (Heise, 510). This potential, Phillips claims, cannot be realized by adhering to theorems of ecology and treating it as “a slush fund of fact, value, and metaphor” (Phillips, 45). Instead, it needs to adapt the totalizing perspective formulated by Commoner and thus give emphasis “to more communal engagements with a natural world conceived as always intertwined with human existence” (Heise, 507). Consequently, ecocriticism has begun revising its own vision of nature, abandoning the pastoral tradition of sustainable, rural stability for the immersion in an inherently unstable, chaotic environment – abandoning the garden for the oceans, so to speak (Mentz, 588).

Ecocriticism and Dishonored

A Greenshift in game studies would therefore be something more than just increased attention towards the ways digital games partake in environmentalist discourses. This is, of course, a possible first step, and as a subject matter, the environment surely deserves of attention as much as the ‘holy trinity’ of cultural studies, race, class, and gender. As games do not only represent nature, but often simulate ecosystems, they can be even more interesting elements of the overarching environmental discourse than literature and film. By the same token, their power as consciousness-raisers is significant, if one wants to take an activist stance. And it is not only serious games that convey warnings about detrimental behavior toward the environment; mainstream hits from Frogger to Fallout deal centrally and explicitly with humanity’s threat to the ecosphere, both on a local and a global level.

At least as promising as studying environmentally pertinent elements of digital games is to take the implications of an ecological mindset as the foundation for a more profound shift in perspective. If we are willing to conceive of the ecosphere as one big, interconnected system in which humanity is only one element, it follows that the value system by which we perceive and analyze everything, including games, must be as comprehensive, if that is even possible. At the very least, this means that we have to work toward an ethical framework with a global outlook, yet no totalitarian vision; an ethics that encompasses all levels and elements of human behavior and thus neither privileges nor ignores any ethnicity, gender, or social group, because it privileges no region, biosphere, or species.

A recent game which highlights the benefits of an ecocritical approach is Arkane Studios’ Dishonored (2013). The stealth game is set in a steampunk world in which all machinery is powered by whale oil and where hordes of rats not only bear a deadly plague, but frequently attack humans. The mutual threat humans and nature pose to each other is the subject matter of discussions, pamphlets, and paintings in the gameworld, and the avatar witnesses scenes of animal cruelty as well as animal attacks. Dishonored is the rare action game that can be played non-violently, and the chosen play-style is reflected in changes in the environment. Aggressive behavior makes the gameworld chaotic and violent, while moderation becalms life on the streets.

Given the game’s ecological subtext, one might be tempted to interpret the low-entropy approach as a first, necessary step towards a sustainable relationship between humans and the natural environment. This facile, utopian reading is counteracted through constant references to a mystical past in which humans and whales are said to have lived in harmony, yet which produced whalebone charms which convey magical powers on the avatar. One of them allows him to abandon his anthropocentric perspective and see through the eyes of a fish or rat – only to kill the animal once the spell wears off. Stepping out of the dominance of anthropocentric thought always comes with a cost in the logic of Dishonored’s rules.

Chaos Organized by Rules

Games like Dishonored thus not only exhibit all the productive ambivalence found by literary ecocritics in their analyzed texts. They also show that applying the systemic and holistic approach of ecocriticism to digital games enables a better understanding of both the depicted and simulated ecologies and the ecologies that the games themselves actually are. Ecology teaches that the ecosphere as a system is not completely explicable, as it is not characterized by order, but by a fragile equilibrium on the constant verge of radical changes. This idea of an inherent, potentially self-destructive dynamism is very much akin to current reflections on digital games beyond ontology or rhetoric. As soon as we add the player to any object-oriented descriptive system of games, we are confronted with the possibility of disruptive, transgressive, or dark play, with the blurring of in-game and real-life identities, with the permeability of the magic circle.

For some years now, it has been fashionable to conceive of games and game studies as a mess, and as productive as this view is, it might be even more productive to shift our perspective in one way or another, moving from the surface of the dung heap to the minute machinations inside of it or to the overarching system of decay and fertilization it is a part of. If we manage to pull this off while keeping in mind that the speed and vehemence of our movement will color our perception of the subject, we not only compensate for an academic Doppler effect, but improve our understanding of game studies as we gain new insights into games.

In the meantime, ecologically informed analyses of digital games facilitate the highlighting of their potential for commensurability of rules and subject matter through dynamic simulations that situate human behavior and decision making within interdependent systems. As soon as we accept games as, essentially, chaos organized by rules, with subject matter that is frequently defying the scope of human perception by focusing on the minuscule or cosmic, ecocritical reasoning becomes thus not only possible, but inevitable.


Discussant’s Reply

Grant Tavinor is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Environment, Society and Design at Lincoln University. His research examines aesthetics of videogames, including the ethics of videogames, videogames and fiction, and virtual worlds and interactivity.

Hans-Joachim Backe’s fascinating sortie into ecological thinking about games ends on what he sees as the hopeful note that such an approach is “not only possible, but inevitable.”

But is this really the case?

To assess this, we must first, I think, be precise about what we mean by ecological criticism. One interpretation is that ecocriticism is the claim that the consideration of games as ecological items or as having ecological qualities is a profitable heuristic for understanding games. But what is it for something to be an ecological item or have ecological qualities?

In fact, this idea may be ambiguous between the claim that games may take a thematic concern with environmental matters, that games may depict or represent ecological systems, and the claim that games are ecologies. The last seems the most theoretically ambitious claim, and it is one the author is friendly to.

However, these different positions are logically independent. While games can certainly take on ecological concerns—they can clearly adopt an environmentalist message—this does not show that such games necessarily instantiate ecologies or even represent them. Games can also represent or depict ecological systems in the form of environments and fictional gameworlds, but again, this does not necessarily mean that such things are actually ecologies. And of course, a simulated ecology might even portray an anti-environmentalist message by allowing the player to wreak havoc in the environment.

A critical suspicion may be that the ambitious claim that games are ecologies operates only at the level of metaphor. Games can be seen as similar to ecological systems in some sense at least—they are complex, unpredictable entities, in which small local changes can compound in unpredictable ways. But one wonders whether this apparent similarity is able to do any theoretical heavy lifting, or whether it amounts only to a post hoc massaging of games into a conceptual schema whose real use is in explaining the features of genuine ecological systems. Of course, many great discoveries have been made via such figurative redeployment of concepts. But equally, many explanatory metaphors turn out to be dead ends.

And we should not forget the differences between games and ecological systems. Games are functional artefacts; their features are, more or less, intentionally designed; they are also frequently the communicative acts of actual people. These features of games may be best understood in a theoretical mode adapted from those developed to account for technology and the arts.

[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author’s and the readers’ engagement with the text.]

 Works Cited

Arkane Studios. (2013). Dishonored. [Multiplatform], Bethesda Softworks.

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Chang, Alenda Y. “Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 19(2), 237–252. doi:10.1093/isle/iss007

Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle. New York: Knopf, 1971.

Heise, Ursula K. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism.” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. 121(2), 503-516.

Mentz, Steve. “After Sustainability.” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. 127(3), 586-592.

Phillips, Dana. The Truth of Ecology. Nature, Culture, and Literature in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Sicart, Miguel. The Ethics of Computer Games. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009.