Ecomodding. Understanding and Communicating the Climate Crisis by Co-Creating Commercial Video Games
This article explores how the climate crisis and specifically the underlying “crisis of the imagination” (Bendor 2018, 132) exacerbate the entrenchment of environmental communication, and how modifying commercial video games (ecomodding) can facilitate the use of games as effective communication infrastructures to address this issue. Environmental communication challenges are well-studied, but remain difficult to tackle in practice. Timothy Morton summarizes these challenges by defining climate change and related phenomena as “hyperobjects” (Morton 2013), which appear tangible but are always only partially knowable and communicable. In recent years, games have been increasingly regarded as a potential solution to these problems (e.g. Chang 2013); as games provide agency to players, they can be specifically effective as “tools to communicate about climate (change) uncertainty” (van Pelt et al. 2015). More recently, though, the promises of ecogames are offset against more critical questions. For example, (Asplund 2020) addresses “credibility aspects in research-based gaming”, and researchers become more aware of the inequities of “discursive gaming” (Voorhees 2012) like the carbon footprint of contemporary gaming technology and the disproportionate influence of larger publishers and platform owners. To address this issue, the article develops a comparative perspective on “ecocritical” (Bohunicky 2017) modifications of commercial games (ecomods) as an ongoing discursive process. Ecomods for two major game franchises – The Sims and Civilization – are analyzed as communicative acts over time, quoting, re-phrasing or outright challenging the procedural rhetoric of the original games. The definition of eco games as boundary objects (van Pelt et al. 2015) is thereby adapted to the characteristic multiplicity and redundancy of ecomods. This perspective acknowledges how modding can affect the games as communication infrastructure, e.g. considering that both franchises recently ‘responded’ with official expansions including environmental themes, Civilization VI: Gathering Storm (2019) and The Sims 4: Eco Lifestyle (2020). To conclude, the article briefly reports on an exploratory workshop, in which students applied ecomodding techniques to repurpose Epic Games’ Fortnite (2017-) as a platform for academic communication on the climate crisis. Due to the game’s immense popularity, climate researchers and activists have tentatively used Fortnite, e.g. via the ‘ClimateFortnite’ channel , where players can “find climate researchers and others discussing global warming while they play” (Boykoff 2019, 22), or a 2019 WWF ad campaign . These approaches, however, are characteristically relegated to small existing ‘niches’ within the “ecology of communication” (Altheide 2019) surrounding the game because they cannot modify or otherwise appropriate its contents. The workshop outlines how ecomodding not only constitutes a uniquely productive site for societal debate, but may also hold potential for augmenting academic communication on the climate crisis.
Werning, Stefan. “Ecomodding. Understanding and Communicating the Climate Crisis by Co-Creating Commercial Video Games.” Communication +1, vol. 8, no. 1, Oct. 2021, https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cpo/vol8/iss1/7/.