Culture Bytes: Environmentalism in Video Games

The threat to our environment is probably the biggest issue facing our generation. Global warming, or climate change, is slowly destroying our planet and, worse still, our species is to blame. It's an emotive subject and little surprise that it has features so heavily in art. In literature we have Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in film we have The Day After Tomorrow and in music we have a host of songs by various artists exploring the horror of the zeitgeist. Many of these, The Road especially, are bleak, suggesting it is too late to save the planet, and ourselves, from ourselves. But do video games explore environmentalism in the same way and, if so, is the outlook as bleak?

Okami is an interesting game for many reasons, not least the fact you play as ancient Japanese goddess of the sun Amaterasu. The gameplay and beautiful design alone make it a must-play, but, even more than this, we see a distinct green-theme permeating through the game. The game sees Amaterasu trying to rid Nippon of the demon Orochi, whose evil leaves swathes of countryside a wasteland. While tackling the beast, Amaterasu must bring these areas back to life using the Celestial Brush, causing trees and flowers to bloom once more and giving nature the help it needs. Eventually, Nippon is restored to its former glory thanks to the efforts of Amaterasu. This is a truly amazing game with a very positive message - with a little effort we can defeat climate change. Interestingly, the way green issues are explored in Okami differ greatly from those we see in the mainstream media, especially the news. While Okami focuses on the beauty and serenity of nature in a very spiritual way, the news tends to focus on how green incentives might negatively impact big business. This mentality is damaging to the progression of green ideas, perhaps leading to the negativity of The Road and The Day After Tomorrow. The positivity and sheer radiance of Okami, coupled with the inmate get subtle spirituality therein, leave the audience with a simple message of hope. We can do this.

Regular readers of Culture Bytes will know I struggle to not mention Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, I will not be beating this struggle today as Final Fantasy VII is one of the most environmental games out there. The planet of the game is having its life-force torn from it to run towns and cities on Mako energy (think of our planet and oil). Whereas Okami looks at this from a demonic perspective, Final Fantasy VII points the finger at big business. The Shinra Corporation is not only the biggest energy company in the world, but are also the government based in the high-tech city of Midgar; they keep the rich in luxury and force the poor into slums even the sun can't reach. To many people, this is allegorical of what big companies do; forcing governments to run things to their whims lest the economy fail. As the game progresses we see the planet more and more as a living entity. We hear it's pained wails in Cosmo Canyon. We see the wasteland left by the extraction of Mako and the beauty of areas left untouched. The game is interesting because it tells the truth, placing the blame of climate change firmly on mankind's shoulders. When under most threat, the planet releases ancient creatures called WEAPON to level anything manmade and save itself from our destructive ways. But, as negative as all this may sound, the game in imbued with a distinctly positive message. At the end, we see the planet gather it's life force and use its power to destroy the Meteor summoned by Sephiroth. Once more we see the planet as a living being with sentience that it uses to protect itself and all upon it. This is another spiritual message from a video game, that we must respect out planet as we would any other living creature. More positive still is that when we return to this world in the film sequel, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, humanity seems to have learned from the planet, letting nature take back the land destroyed by Shinra. The games has a very simple philosophy - nature knows what it needs; listen to it. 

Both of these games have Japanese developers, which leads me to believe this spiritual rendering of the planet is cultural. The impact of Buddhism on the country must permeate into the art its citizens create - something we see in abundance in the storyline of Okami.  As the Dalai Lama says of Buddhism, "Since I deeply believe that basically human beings are of a gentle nature so I think the human attitude towards our environment should be gentle. Therefore I believe that not only should we keep our relationship with our other fellow human beings very gentle and non-violent, but it is also very important to extend that kind of attitude to the natural environment. I think morally speaking we can think like that and we should all be concerned for our environment". Add to this similar themes in the films of Studio Ghibli and it's possible there's an East/West divide. Other than these titles I struggle to think of games (save for those by the same developers) with a truly environmental message. It's true that games set in nature show the abundant beauty of it, as any platform puzzler will show you, yet to tackle the theme of climate change seems a big ask. Maybe it's the fear of the subject - how does one confront something so huge? But, surely, it's worth doing. If we send a positive message now we can bring ourselves and the environment back before it's too late. In the positivity if these games there is hope - a hope that will inspire far more than the fear seen in other media. Perhaps in the battle against climate change video games could be a powerful weapon, if only more would confront the problems.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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