Laura op de Beke (www.lauraopdebeke.com) is a PhD fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway. In her doctoral project she looks at Anthropocene temporalities in videogames, which manifest as temporal affects: for instance anxiety over the future, petro-melancholia, a preoccupation with death, failure and extinction, as well as technofuturistic hope. Laura’s other interests include science fiction, green media studies, veganism, LARP, and the environmental humanities more broadly. Laura is also the founder and co-convenor of the online environmental humanities reading group un-earthed (www.un-earthed.group.com).
Like many, I am concerned about climate change, and upset at the way in which its disastrous effects will be visited first on the people who are least to blame: young people, the citizens of the Global South and those in the Arctic. I am also outraged that especially petro-chemical corporations like Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Gazprom, ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP are not held accountable for their part in the destruction of the biosphere. In order to make myself heard and to exert pressure on my government to call these corporations to order, I have participated in my share of climate marches. At the last march, I walked in solidarity for Indigenous rights and climate justice. On the sidewalks there were mostly supportive cheers and smiling faces, and lots of love and support from strangers walking shoulder-to-shoulder with me. But there were also the usual couple of angry men, stuck in their vehicles, honking furiously. For these men our march presented an obstacle, a nuisance, a 10-20 minute delay to wherever they were going. To these men, we were a grievance. To be a grievance, is to be the cause of a disruption. We were getting in the way of things—which was of course exactly the point.
This got me thinking about the etymology of the word grievance, which derives from the English grief, and a little further back, from the Old French ‘grever,’ which means to burden. For games enthusiasts the affiliated terms “griefing,” and “griefer,” provide perhaps more direct associations. The Urban Dictionary defines “griefer” as “someone, usually in an online game, who intentionally, and usually repeatedly, attempts to degrade another’s experience or torment them.” Griefing is kind of like trolling, but it is more specific to online games. It happens in almost every MMORPG and it is one of the reasons why I’m always a little nervous about playing online. When I was 10 or 11 I used to play an online game called Runescape (Jagex, 2001). I loved it, until, one day someone persuaded me to hand over a self-made studded leather vest I wore, so that they could improve it. Of course once I traded the item, they just logged off, and I was left standing there in nothing but my shirt-sleeves.
In game studies, griefing can be understood as a form of dark play (Mortensen, Linderoth and Brown, 2015). Dark play occurs when players embrace morally reprehensible subject positions or otherwise engage in ethically questionable play practices for the sake of destructive glee, or merely for the joy of being contrarian. I’m interested in dark play because of my work on videogames about oil, which include mostly tycoon games like The Oil Blue, Turmoil and Drill Deal. Why is it that people flock to these games to play as cartoonishly evil oil barons while in real world the social and ecological destruction wrought by fossil fuels is becoming more visible every day?
It may surprise readers to find out that some players seek out opportunities for griefing. I often look at the Steam community forums, and on the general discussion page for the environmentalist, collaborative MMORPG ECO (Strange Loop, 2018) I found an interesting thread. A user named ‘SuddenlyGuns’ asks,’ “What is the potential for greifing (sic) in this game? Friendly fire, looting etc.?” A user called ‘Rektor’ replies “this is the game with the most griefing potential I’ve ever seen.” ‘SuddenlyGuns’ responds “Thanks for the reply, can you elaborate any further? Interested to see if this game will scratch my itch…” Rektor suggests “in a game where the goal is to maintain the eco stystem (sic) the easiest way to grief is just that, fuck up the eco system. 1 night with a friend and u can irrepairably (sic) damage the system by cutting down most of the forest. if u want to invest little more time, get tailings and pollute ur way through the map.”
When Eloïse Bonneviot and Anne de Boer (known together as the artist’s duo The Mycological Twist) asked me to join them on their server to play ECO, I gratefully accepted. Alongside a handful of others, I had been invited to explore the online game in the month leading up to the 2021 Athens Biennale, where we would each give a talk. To celebrate the end of our month together I threw an end-of-the-world party in the underground seed-vault I had built in-game and talked, among other things, about climate grief and practices of griefing in online games; since what I had tried to do in ECO was to explore the potential for both.
I started this exploration by creating my character, clad all in black. She is a griefer as well as a griever: someone who disturbs and who is disturbing, and someone who mourns the imminent destruction of the world. ECO is a survival-crafting game in the same vein as Minecraft, but developed more intentionally to serve as an educational space and a creative sandbox to play with environmental policy. You can join existing servers or set up one yourself. When you set up a server you can choose to play a scenario where after one month an asteroid will hit the planet. The goal is to develop the technology fast enough to be able to ward off the asteroid, by basically progressing down a tech tree. For any group of players this task is a formidable one, (made painfully obvious in last year’s blockbuster hit Don’t Look Up). A distant collective threat, even an existential one like an asteroid strike, may not outweigh the more individualistic concerns of the present. And also, why devote energy and resources to a collective project when you could also build a really cool private outpost and take your chances there? In a game that requires players to work together, such individualistic pursuits may be understood as dark play. But is it griefing?
In the same thread mentioned above, a user called Thyriel suggest that “you could join a server, dig a big hole at spawn point, claim the land and everyone joining won’t be able to get out the hole.” This is a practice called grief-claiming. ECO allows you to claim land as your own and to set it so that nobody can cross over it. As you can imagine, this property mechanic is easily abused, in videogames as well as IRL. What ended up frustrating our game is that in ECO, property, tools and resources are private by default, and they need to be set to ‘public’ in order to be usable by other players, which we often forgot to do. In this way, we ended up accidentally griefing each other, but only because the game assumed private property tohe be the default, making collaboration harder than it had to be.
Never mind our efforts, since we were so small a group and could devote only some of our time to playing the game, we were never going to be able to reach the end of the tech tree. So already on day one, we were living in a world with an expiration date. How do you live under the shadow of such an event? I turned to the register of grief, or melancholia which has been discussed at length in association with the climate crisis (Verlie, 2022;, Ojala et al., 2021). One of the go-to thinkers on this topic is Timothy Morton, famous for coining the notion of dark ecology, which is a call to strip ecological discourse of its fetishization of ‘Nature’. Rather, dark ecology is about “radical intimacy with radical strangers,” which is just as often uncomfortable, gross, and disturbing (2010, 269). The aesthetics of dark ecology embrace artificiality and otherness, without trying to excise ‘Nature’ as a thing over yonder to be admired. More to the point, in his work on ecological elegy Morton argues that ecological elegies sometimes mourn a lost ‘Nature’ that either never was or is not even already gone. Morton questions the “unseemly rhetorical rush” to mourn that which is still in the process of falling apart (2010, 255), and advocates instead an ethics of lingering, and choking on the indigestibility of grief and death rather than attempting to move beyond it.
Another author who writes about ecological grief and who comes to a similar conclusion is Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands. She demonstrates the power of a queer ecological framework in understanding what it means to mourn environmental devastation and ecological loss. Dismissing the late-capitalist framing of ecological loss which often resorts to nostalgia, she argues instead for the power of melancholia, or a queer kind of mourning pathologized by Freud as incomplete, or stunted. Unlike the nostalgic subject, the melancholic takes the mourned object into themselves and refuses to let it go, refusing to replace it with a new object-attachment (which would mimic a capitalist logic: consume-replace-repeat). During the 80s AIDS crisis, melancholia was politicized in response to the lack of recognition for queer attachments which made them ungrievable. Practices like mock funerals and die-ins were used to great effect by AIDS activists, and they now form part of the repertoire of a lot of climate activist groups as well. A similarly politicized melancholia might be able to help us hold on to, and make visible, the ecological losses we are suffering as a result of the climate crisis.
However, because I am at heart an English major, my way of expressing ecological grief in ECO was to plant signs that called attention to the imminent destruction of the world, some of which featured lines from Romantic elegiac poetry by people like Gerard Manley Hopkins. Especially the latter’s “Binsey Poplars,” about a little copse of trees that was cut down, is especially poignant, not because it called attention to the looming asteroid, but because it pointed to more mundane acts of destruction that the game, by genre, is fundamentally caught up with, since so much of it involves chopping down trees and delving for ore. “O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew” laments Hopkins in response to the death of the poplars. I cut down close to one hundred trees to build my house, my furniture, and even the signs on which I wrote the poems. As other scholars have argued, there is a certain affective shock involved in realizing the extent of the impact of one’s dwelling in the game (Kunzelman, 2020).
Another poem I reached for is Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden,” which made way for an entirely different realization. On my first day on planet ECO, mere seconds after spawning on a slim, rocky bank jutting out into crystal blue river I almost got run off my feet by a stampede of animal life. An elk, a wolf, a handful of rabbits and a mountain goat rushed past me in pursuit of each other. In the days that followed I realized that stumbling over leopards and bumping into bison was nothing unusual. There is so much animal life in ECO, and none of it seems to be afraid of you or pose a threat. This availability of life felt artificial, kitschy even, a vision of the Garden of Eden: a nature that was never real. Since dark ecology relishes in making this artificiality explicit, I thought Marvell’s poem—about a queer, abundant nature that is reaching out, fondling and tripping up the speaker—felt very apropos.
Yet the poem’s final stanza is the one I have chosen to reproduce here, since it captures something fundamental to my experience of playing ECO.
Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walk’d without a mate;
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.
A lot of survival-crafting games, and certainly a lot of pastoral videogames are single-player only (and perhaps I prefer them that way?). But the world is multiplayer, and that is both its strength and its tragedy. What ECO demonstrates is that it is very, very difficult to play together. Once again, on the steam community forums there are posts about the drama of social play. Solo players on shared servers complain about being left behind when collaborative groups, who have their own internal communication, blaze them by in steam-powered vehicles, while they themselves are still hauling resources with hand-drawn carts. More than its commitments to ecological fidelity in the game’s rules and its representations, I think ECO should be lauded for staging issues of environmental crisis in online social space where it invites both collaboration, as well as sabotage.
Kunzelman, Cameron. 2020. “Video Games as Interventions in the Climate Disaster.” Paradoxa 31: 105–22.
Mortensen, Torill Elvira, Jonas Linderoth, and Ashley ML Brown. 2015. The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments. Routledge.
Morton, Timothy. 2010. “The Dark Ecology of Elegy.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, by Karen Weisman. Oxford University Press.
Ojala, Maria, Ashlee Cunsolo, Charles A. Ogunbode, and Jacqueline Middleton. 2021. “Anxiety, Worry, and Grief in a Time of Environmental and Climate Crisis: A Narrative Review.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 46: 35–58.
Verlie, Blanche. 2022. Learning to Live with Climate Change: From Anxiety to Transformation. Routledge.