Urban Minds
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Urban Minds

Beyond Reality: A New Hope for Youth and The Environment Through Video Games

Eco (Strange Loop Games)

A recent article published by CTV News highlights how youth are feeling “more depressed and anxious than pre-pandemic days due to climate change” based on CAMH’s 2021 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey. Students are expressing helplessness and fear regarding their future because of the uncertainty brought on by climate change. The article also reports on the use of video games and states “nearly one in five students matched the criteria for displaying a video game problem”. While the article does not go into detail regarding how video games are a problem, I will try to shed a more positive light on how video games can provide youth with hope for a better, more sustainable future.

Video Games Are Not Just For Entertainment

While video games are a source of entertainment, they also provide players with a creative outlet and simulated reality as a form of escapism. There are many genres of games, yet games that fall within the categorization of ‘sandbox games’ are the ones that elicit the most creativity. Unlike battle royales, first-person shooters, or multiplayer online battle arenas, sandbox games have an open-endedness where players can create their own goals. To learn more about sandbox games and video games helping youth develop their creativity, check out our team’s previous blog post about video games and urban planning. Some notable sandbox games include Minecraft, Cities Skylines, and Dreams; each of these games shares aspects of free play and free-form gameplay.

Other genres such as open world, role playing games, and action adventure games are story-driven with existing worlds and universes where players can take on a persona and live out the life of a character. Some games include Mass Effect, The Witcher, and Horizon Zero Dawn. Playing a story-driven game may be easier because the prescribed narrative provides players with an end goal to work towards. The ability to provide a realistic simulation while conjuring up enjoyable experiences are reasons why video games are so entertaining and engaging over long periods. Depending on the general tone and aesthetic of a video game, the medium’s ability to mentally stimulate players can become a source of optimism and positive attitude building through rewards and achievements.

Video Games and The Environment?

This source of optimism may translate to video games and a player’s outlook on sustainability. Given the educational and entrepreneurial nature of sandbox games, players can follow the current trends of environmental issues during their play sessions. Video game developers are being challenged to use this medium to teach youth about sustainability by introducing new ways of tackling climate change, or having to live out a simulation to realize the negative impacts of climate change if the world does not reach 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. This idea was adopted by The Financial Times in their minigame “Can you reach net zero by 2050?”, which brings players along a 15-minute journey to see how the choices they make will affect climate change and their city.

Can you reach net zero by 2050? (Financial Times)

Another example of a video game being used to push sustainability is Cities Skylines. In a 2017 expansion pack, Cities Skylines introduced ‘Green Cities’, where players can integrate low-impact designs/developments and create sustainable zoning by-laws in their cities. Taking part in these developments will enhance the overall sustainability efforts in-game and ultimately create a city that achieves the Green City status. Because Cities Skylines is based on real-world policies, zoning, and urban planning scenarios, it provides a visual of what the future can look like if more sustainable measures are to be implemented. This type of game is a prime example of what can provide youth with hope for their environmental future. Steam, a gaming platform, provides some insight into how well received games are. In the case of Cities Skylines–Green Cities, the majority of players gave it a very positive rating.

Cities Skylines Green Cities DLC Customer Reviews (Steam)

How can Video Games Provide Hope?

In 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme launched an alliance known as “Playing For The Planet” where 20+ gaming companies pledged to become greener and contribute to more environmental learning through video games. Creating advocacy, bringing awareness, and showcasing how small changes do affect the future beyond what is currently the reality of our youth are the main action points of the Playing For The Planet alliance.

If youth can see how their choices in a game can positively impact the video game world’s future, this should provide hope that the changes they wish to bring about in their real community and cities will also have the same effect. According to UN Environment and Playing For The Environment, this was the goal of Minecraft’s ‘Minecraft — Climate Hope City’ where players were encouraged to play and envision a zero-emissions future. This also had a real-world impact where the funds were donated to East Africa and used to plant 150,000 trees.

Minecraft Climate Hope City — Vertical Farming (Planet Minecraft)

It should be acknowledged that video game usage does have an environmental impact because of electricity use and e-waste, but many gaming companies are taking on the challenge of reducing their carbon footprint. Whether this is through looking at ways in shifting to a more sustainable method through the value chain for their products or looking into ways to use renewable energy, the gaming industry is aware of the part they also need to play in creating a more sustainable future for youth.

Amidst the depression and anxiety felt by youth because of climate change, there is a silver lining. An individual’s interest in sustainability and caring for the environment can translate into how new games are developed and designed, to reflect the growing needs of the world. While video games are an unconventional means of providing hope and a source for learning, it is another platform that must be utilized in addressing how to engage youth with environmental issues and providing them with a sense of not being helpless. Environmental issues are usually spoken about with a sense of fear-mongering, and tomorrow’s youth needs to be steered away from this type of narrative. It is important to show there is a better future as long as we all do our part — no matter how little or big the contribution is.

Cynthia Tia is a Program Coordinator of Urban Minds.

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​We are creating meaningful ways for youth to shape equitable and sustainable cities.

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Cynthia Tia

Cynthia Tia

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