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Making video games encouraging ecological growth and values

By Alex Sferrazza
On April 8, 2014

UConn English professor Dr. Alenda Y. Chang argued that video games should use environmentally diverse settings in a lecture Tuesday afternoon.
"We should be expanding our conception of games to include more cognitive affective and ethical modes of engagement including more ecologically minded forms of play," Chang said.
Her presentation was the first installment of the digital media and design department's "Digital Directions" lecture series at the Merlin D. Bishop Center.
Chang - who holds a M.A. in English from the University of Maryland and a Ph. D. in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley, and comes from a multidisciplinary background in biology, literature and film - narrated a presentation entitled "Greening Games from Playing Nature: The Virtual Ecology of Game Environments."
The purpose of the lecture was to bring to light the little-noted trend of urban environments in modern video games over natural and rural ones.
Chang said modern blockbuster games' predominately urban settings are chosen for graphical spectacle and to maximize resource extraction as seen in titles such as the recent Xbox One bestseller "Titanfall."
Games such as those in the real-time-strategy genre such as Blizzard's "Warcraft III" as well as the company's MMORPG title "World of Warcraft" have gameplay systems based around concepts such as crafting, mining and resource management and help instill the idea that natural resources are indeed limited.
Moving onto "farm" games particular the popular Facebook title "Farmville," Chang said these titles can be vastly inaccurate in their depictions of commercial agriculture because they are "glamorized" for a game-playing audience. Rather than conservation of resources, games like "Farmville" promote the idea of capital cultivation and development of crop yield while turning a blind eye to the greater agricultural ecosystem. Additionally, many of these titles feature farmer stereotypes.
Chang argued that farm game mechanics should be expanded to incorporate cross species interaction between biological animals, plants and inorganic elements.
Chang praised legendary game designer Will Wright's creature creator title "Spore," which allows you to control creatures from the molecular level all the way to a civilization in the space age.
While noting the title's scientifically flawed "evolution" gameplay system, she complemented the title for encouraging players to balance both creatures and their surrounding ecosystem combining elements seen in earlier Will Wright titles "SimCity," "The Sims," and "SimAnt" and owes influence to '70s and '80s documentaries "Cosmos" and "Powers of Ten."
Chang then moved on to "Flower" an experimental art title from thatgamecompany in which players control the wind as it soars through flower fields in an effort to return life to a withered environment.
The professor said she chose to showcase the title because of its efforts to expand the emotional spectrum of games.
"This is one of my favorite games to teach in a classroom setting because it's so radically different," Chang said. "Or as another professor said "when do we get to shoot things?"
The lecture was well received by the crowd. "As someone who does not play games I was interested in the ability of "Spore" to shift from the atomic level to galactic level.
"It's fascinating to see perspectives shift so dramatically and how it shifts perspectives of our own environment," said Clarissa Ceglio, a research associate in the digital media and design department.

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