Many games focus on entertainment and fun as their main priority, including social commentary as a side concern if it's included at all. But the interactive nature of games lends itself well to helping people to understand complex issues and games making concepts like social equality and the environment the primary focus are becoming more common.
Environmental games are a popular subset of socially conscious games, as sustainability works well with resource management and 'tycoon' style games. While not all of these games are works of art, it's interesting to see the way that game developers are tackling difficult issues and using the games medium to demonstrate the balancing act between our desired lifestyle and what it takes to maintain it.
McVideoGame: A Satirical Approach to Tycoon Games
In the 'social commentary' genre, developer Molleindustria reigns supreme; their games tackle everything from the iPhone's exploitative production process to faking orgasms. While they vary in quality and success, McVideoGame is one of their most effective efforts.
Like many tycoon-style environmental games, McVideoGame requires the player to make advertising choices, to make decisions about land use, and micromanage the activities of workers and animals to ensure a smoothly running business. But what makes this game different from the typical tycoon game is the way it critiques the business model of large corporations—while you have the option not to bribe nutritionists, not to encourage the spread of Mad Cow Disease to save money, and not to destroy rainforests for burgers, those options just aren't sustainable. Demand for your product rises, requiring fatter cattle (and more of them), and unless your growth continuously improves, your board of directors will fire you.
McVideoGame isn't winnable—that's the point. The statement here is that corporations like the one depicted in the game, corporations that gain power over time, will outgrow the people who wish not to exploit natural resources and human beings. McVideoGame is impressive not only in how it gets away with harshly critiquing one of American's biggest companies, but also in how effortlessly it gets the point across that large, exploitative corporations simply aren't sustainable without corruption.
BBC's Climate Challenge Puts Choice in Your Hands
Less satirical and also decidedly less game-like is the BBC's Climate Challenge, where you play as the president of the European Nations. Your goal is to lead the world in reducing carbon emissions, encouraging other countries to do the same while also maintaining a good enough approval rating to keep your position.
Climate Challenge differs significantly from McVideoGame, which paints a rather bleak picture of success. There are multiple approaches to success in Climate Challenge, depending on your ultimate goal; if you want to reduce Europe's carbon emissions significantly and you succeed but lose the election, how much have you really lost? Or, if you just want to stay in office as long as possible but never fix the environment, is that really a loss?
The game naturally raises questions about the intentions of politicians, but that isn't really what the it's about. Though it's not particularly fun or beautiful, Climate Challenge does a good job of showing that achieving change is a balancing act between resources, requiring you to juggle water, food, power, money, and carbon emissions to find the right amount of change versus compromise. It's not as simple as funneling money from one place to the other when you throw in public approval and resource concerns, and the game can help you understand how and why change isn't an overnight process.
Environmental Games Suffer From Preaching to the Choir
While they're good at getting their point across, many environmental games suffer from a serious lack of fun. Whether it's a requirement for a game to be fun is up for debate (a point illustrated beautifully by another Molleindustria project, gamedefinitions.com), but at the end of the day, a lot of these socially conscious games are tedious and frustrating rather than engaging.
What the two games above do well is encouraging choice and strategy while enabling the player to define the terms of success for herself. You can play Climate Change like a total jerk and win—but why bother? This isn't a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition, where your choices lead to different story paths. You can 'win' or you can 'lose'; there's not much more to it than that.
Therein lies the problem of these games: they've very much about preaching to the choir. You know what you're getting into when you play either of these games, and if they disagree with your worldview, you're not likely to fire them up. As teaching tools, they hold a lot of promise, but they are unlikely to do much to change the minds of anybody who feels strongly about a particular issue.
These games can help to reinforce a worldview you already have or they may help educate people who feel they don't completely understand a particular issue. They're not perfect, and they're certainly not tools to brainwash people into a new way of thinking—they're not fun enough for that—but their ability to demonstrate an idea through interactivity shows a lot of potential.
Environmental games bring to light aspects of a cause that many people ignore, and resource management and gameplay borrowed from 'tycoon' games are a great way of getting that point across. Whether you agree with the cause or not, the interactive nature of games gives them a lot of power for exploring environmental causes.