Engaging with doom and gloom: the usefulness of dystopian games

Carien is a cultural sociologist and PhD candidate at Anticiplay. She observes very serious societal processes going on in game, play, and leisure — as well as very light-hearted, playful, and joyful mechanics in earnest institutions. In her PhD, Carien investigates how games can allow us to engage emotionally with transformations.

Still from Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (by Machine Games & Bethesda Softworks, 2017)

In the Anticiplay group, we tend to be more interested in utopian games than dystopian ones. In our efforts to address the ‘crisis of the imagination’, we feel that utopias are more challenging, and have more to offer: They instill in our brains the images of a future we can strive for. Dystopias seem relatively easy to create and to create an emotional effect with; disaster, doom, and gloom are inherently engaging. But those are not things to strive for, so how are these images supposed to help us on the way to better futures?

Sadly, war still exists — even if war and battle have always been themes for games and play. But what if we look into themes that are just a little bit more specific? Often placed within or against a backdrop of war, nuclear annihilation was an additional external Great Threat. More recently, we have seen a rapid growth of the number of games that are related to climate change. And perhaps, there is value in fixing the crisis of imagination on the disaster-side as well.

Similarly, the environment/climate change, and nanotechnology have been two main themes in Anticipatory Governance. According to Barben, Anticipatory Governance means ‘a broad-based capacity extended through society that can act on a variety of inputs’ and Guston adds that it ‘motivates activities designed to build subsidiary capacities in foresight, engagement, and integration, as well as through their production ensemble’. This is, all in all, pretty vague, but the point is: We have to govern our societies through futures that are, from where we’re standing, almost completely opaque. We need to deal, somehow, with everything we do not know.

Can we reach through this veil, and respond to the climate crisis before it is too late? Giddens is somewhat pessimistic about this. He writes that because “People find it hard to give the same level of reality to the future as they do to the present”, we have a paradox on our hands: The dangers of climate change feel so unreal and intangible that people will not do anything, but by the time the dangers have become real and tangible, it will be too late for adequate action and the damage may be irreversible. We may be in the process of flipping this around as more and more effects of climate change are becoming visible; however, most effects will be removed from most people in time, space, or both. In other words, because the risk is so far out of our realm of experience, we cannot correctly respond to it.

The same argument could be made for the (potential) dangers of nuclear energy, nanotechnology, and Artificial Intelligence: They are so far out of our lived experience, that we seem incapable of properly taking in the actual risks involved.

In games, we see that these risks have more in common: The effects are omnipresent, inherently but indiscriminately bad, a force of nature rather than will, but man-made, and incomprehensible from the individual’s point of view. They are a mirror for the potential danger of humanity; not as individuals, but as a species. They reflect the dark side of our strength: Cooperation. Nobody can create climate change alone; nobody can accomplish nuclear destruction. Huge networks of interdependencies are required to ‘achieve’ these disasters.

Because they are dependent on the actions of many people, these risks are also kind of vague. It is possible to connect them in-setting to some ultimate villain who made bad policy, but often it is recognized that ‘we’, as humans, were wrong. Wrong to extend our power and influence and resources beyond what was due, somehow. Our hubris’ remnants provide strong and evocative symbols, that are both reminders of this failure of humanity’s strength, and that are also shapeless enough that the player can imagine for herself just how it was that our species fell.

The Washington Monument in Fallout 3 (by Bethesda, 2008)

Can dystopian climate games help resolve Giddens’ paradox? I am optimistic. After all, Anticipatory Governance is a capacity that is extended through society. If people throughout society can experience the risks of climate change in games, they could possibly face those risks better in real life, perhaps address them better, too. I think it is important, though, that the dystopian futures are connected to the real world, so that A. we make the cognitive connection that stuff happening now, actually influences a very real future later, B. we make the emotional connection that what we have and love now, may be lost because of what we take and do now, and C. we can discover in the game where and how things went wrong. It is easier to ignore consequences that happen to a completely fictional world.

Games like Fallout and Wolfenstein are beautiful examples of this: You can look at the Washington Monument while sipping on irradiated water, or while surrounded by Nazis. You can imagine, maybe, sending your in-universe child on the same high school field trip you took yourself — except this time everything is a miserable hellscape. I want these real-Earth-apocalyptic games for climate, too.

The festive dystopia in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (by Machine Games & Bethesda Softworks, 2017)

And then what? Well, I’ll tell you what else I want. I want a part of these games (or at least an easily available mod!) to be an option that pops up after confronting moments, that ask you if you’re doing okay, and by the way: If you want to talk to some people about how much all of this sucks, or if you want to find others who agree this sucks, and organize with them… Our Discord server is right here.

Because, one more thing: Audiences shouldn’t be abandoned in a place of despair. Nobody feels like an active citizen, ready to save the world, when they’re desperate and defeated. Leave us in a place of hope and power, and guide us to action in the real world.

The research Carien reports on here is funded by the CGIAR research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. Our larger project Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!




An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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