Terra Nil: techno-fixes, nature for nature, and the importance of feeling ecological vibes
Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost
Terra Nil is out! This long-awaited ecosystem restoration game has been described as a ‘reverse city builder’ and a resource management puzzle game. Both of these descriptions seem apt to me. The release of this game is a big deal in the world of games that focuses on ecology and sustainability — because it’s a well-received, popular game that seems to sell well — backed by a beloved publisher. There’s a great article in French newspaper Le Monde about the significance of this game and the genre of city builders/4X games in general, that also features thoughts by games researcher Alenda Chang, Cloud Gardens developer Thomas van den Berg and myself.
Recent research by Playing for the Planet showed that many players of commercial games would be very interested in playing games with an environmental focus. Terra Nil speaks to this market. But it’s also just a really cool game. I haven’t been the biggest fan of city builder type games recently, though I used to play them a lot in the past. Maybe it feels a bit too much like work to me. But Terra Nil grabbed me and I played it through to credits pretty much immediately. Having played it, I have a few pretty different reflections I want to share with you about what this game means for games, ecology and the future.
First, I want to talk about the thing that touched me the most about Terra Nil: the vibe. My god, the vibe is so good. I think this game is almost completely unique in the way it taps into a deep human desire: the desire to let life flourish. Terra Nil focuses entirely on facilitating the growth of rich and diverse ecosystems. And it is such a joy to do this. Going from a barren landscape to a living biome is just an incredibly satisfying experience that touched something very deep and fundamental in me — at the level where my beliefs about what is valuable in life reside.
This is important to me. I’m an ecologist by training. From as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a deep love for the natural world, for life, for the complexity of ecology. As a child I learned to read through books about ecology and evolutionary history. I used to go out into nature with friends, bird watching or collecting old animal bones. We used to make exploration trails or exhibitions of cool materials. Some of my best childhood memories are about being interested and curious about the natural world, being immersed in it. I feel like Terra Nil taps into that deep love for ecology through everything — the game play systems, the visuals, the music and sounds.
And I believe this is important, because I think the game might be able to kindle this love for ecological flourishing in players where it maybe didn’t exist before — and re-kindle it in others who have forgotten about it. The deeply felt sense that nurturing non-human life is good is conveyed so amazingly and fully. It’s really quite special. It comes close to what I was talking about when I said I thought games needed to learn from psychedelic experiences — which are often inherently ecological in character. I didn’t expect this complete dedication to nurturing life from a city builder game — even a reverse one. Our researcher Carien Moossdorff writes about the joy of building institutions. This is the joy of growing ecosystems. It also very much connects to Alenda Chang’s work on rambunctious nature in games. The aforementioned Cloud Gardens is the other game that taps into this joy — Terra Nil takes it to the next level.
This stands out to me for another reason as well. There’s a really interesting model of different types of futures that can be imagined about how humans relate to nature, developed by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The Nature Futures Framework was created by my friend Laura Pereira and many others based on the idea that while many scenarios about ecological and sustainable futures aim to be diverse and original, they often still stick to a fundamental paradigm of nature existing for the use of humans, however sustainably. But the NFF shows that other futures are possible — futures in which nature exists for nature; and futures in which nature and culture are completely entwined. All kinds of hybrids are also possible between these three types of futures. We have a game development course where Utrecht University students work together with students from the Utrecht University of the Arts to develop sustainability-focused games. The IPBES Nature Futures Framework was a starting point for students in recent years — leading to games that explore ‘nature as culture’ and ‘nature for nature’ especially, and the choices that lead to these different paradigms.
Terra Nil stands out because in contrast to so many games focused on managing a sustainable society, Terra Nil goes one hundred percent for ‘nature for nature’. The game is only and fully about restoring natural ecosystems. This commitment is perhaps the clearest in the part of the game play where after having used various machines and buildings to help foster an area’s ecosystems, the level ends by asking you to puzzle out how you can remove all the non-natural structures from the area, and leave the ecosystem management to the fauna that is moving back in. Once all your equipment is gone, you are simply left with your flourishing ecosystem. You can move on, or go into ‘appreciate’ mode and just vibe with the environment.
I think this single minded focus on ecosystem restoration, on nature for nature, is effective, both in terms of what the game seems to want to communicate, and in terms of what it allows the game play to be.
There are also big, big things that can be criticized about Terra Nil. First of all, you could say that the game is essentially selling an escapist fantasy of techno-fixes as a solution for ecological destruction. Such techno-fixes, and especially geo-engineering approaches, are dangerous, not just in terms of the unintended consequences of the real technologies, but even more as a fantasy that is being peddled to avoid taking action now at preventing climate and biodiversity collapse. Such techno-fixes are part of the rhetoric of the current fossil fuel regime, and they serve as little more than a fantasy-fueled delay tactic. No good. Our colleagues are actively trying to stop this line of thinking and for good reason. More generally, and this is the point I made in the Le Monde article, the game gives a kind of god-like power to the player and takes out all the politics. This is so often the case with sustainability-focused games: turning sustainability challenges into management problems.
I’ve argued many times that we need different climate and sustainability games. Games that take the politics hands on and treat them as fertile soil for the development of intensely political, wild, courageous games. We are building a climate court case game with this specific mode in mind — funny, playful, subversive political gaming. The Game Dev Rebellion is a community organizing themselves around connecting real life activism and games. Terra Nil obviously does none of this directly. But the fact that the Terra Nil team are using part of the sales of the game to support real life environmental goals is very encouraging.
Finally, Terra Nil very emphatically does not engage at all with the need for humans and non-human species to live together. In the IPBES model, ‘nature for nature’ brings up all kinds of interesting questions about the role of humans in or alongside such natural systems. ‘Nature as culture’ offers, I think, many more interesting possibilities for re-imagining societies that truly integrate human and non-human needs — connecting to speculative fiction directions such as ecopunk and to multi-species futures and multi-species sustainability. What would a ‘nature as culture’ Terra Nil look like?
All in all, however , I believe there is a really important place for this kind of game that just taps right into the human love for the flourishing of the natural world in such a skillful, engaging way. I think it’s powerful, accessible and could well touch many players in ways that move them to take action — including younger people who might feel a spark to become an ecologist and activist like I once did.
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