Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Evan Wisdom-Dawson reviews Playing Nature

Alenda Y. Chang. Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 281pp.

Review by Evan Wisdom-Dawson

12 May 2021

In our contemporary digital age, the boundary between the real and the virtual has all but dissolved. Media both articulate and compose personal and public experience and in many ways have become inextricable from our environment. Games are no exception; once relegated to the insular spaces of backstreet arcades and darkened bedrooms, games now constitute ubiquitous phenomena that deploy play spaces that bleed into realities both domestic and public and represent an economic market that exceeds the film and music industries combined. In Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games, Alenda Y. Chang contends that games have become “ambient,” and suggests that the rise of this omnipresent status in tandem with the equally pervasive climate crisis is no coincidence (p. 5).

Playing Nature is not simply a game studies book but rather a deeper treatise on environmental and media studies in which games in myriad forms figure as the primary sites of inquiry (despite the generalization in the book’s subtitle, its gameography is not limited to video games but also includes escape rooms, board games, and alternate-reality games). Chang reclaims the scientific principles inherent to the concept of ecology to formulate a definition of environmental games that is as capacious as it is exacting: an environmental game need not directly address ecological concerns but rather must exhibit ecological thinking in its activation of background scenery, its attention to scale, or its incorporation of nonhuman actors (to name but a few criteria). Her approach thus substitutes the didactic for the ontological, the straightforward for the processual. Playing Nature is thus a lesson in humanistic methodology in the face of climate change—how can we as gamers, game scholars, and media scholars broadly advocate for environmental consciousness while reckoning with the material conditions (from resource extraction to e-waste) and energy demands (from human labor to power consumption) of media objects? Chang dwells in such discomforts to propose alternative critical perspectives that productively engage the porousness between the realms of nature and technology. Her argument hinges on the unintuitive claim that, rather than alienating players from the outdoors, games have the capacity to reconcile a potent connection with nature while maintaining an equally crucial relationship to technology. The book’s theoretical scaffolding mobilizes concepts from scientific thinking to reframe how we conduct game studies; this synergistic approach mushrooms (theoretically and affectively) across the volume’s chapters: "Mesocosm," "Scale," "Nonhuman," "Entropy," and "Collapse." Playing Nature establishes a refreshing and provocative intervention in ecomedia scholarship. By reconfiguring the ways in which we examine, contextualize, and play games of all forms, Chang recognizes and demonstrates their catalytic capacity to unsettle edges, produce cascading effects, and inflect reality in a climate changing world.