Environmentally themed video games are few and far between, leaving kids either to play shoot-"em-ups or search out Earth-friendly titles.© Jim Motavalli
Several educational websites, including the Discovery Channel online and the Superkids website, rate educational software. Syndicated columnist Jinny Gudmundsen also offers many reviews at her website, www.computing withkids.com. All the sites have links to outlets still offering the games, although some of the links are out of date.
It appears that programmers create about one quality environmentally themed game per year. Unfortunately, the market for children’s educational software has shrunk, so some of the best games date back as much as four years and may be hard to find in stores.
Lucas Learning’s 1999 release "Star Wars Episode I: The Gungan Frontier" (ages 8 and up) is one such example. Players control an ecosystem of fantastic creatures from a galaxy far, far away. Children are forced to consider many aspects of nature in an attempt to maintain a sustainable system; life cycles and natural disasters add challenges. An additional creative mode allows players to sculpt their own creatures. The game can be purchased directly from the source; a demo is available from Download.com.
For slightly younger kids, Montparnasse Multimedia’s "The Living Sea" offers a gentle introduction to undersea life. There are three separate aspects: an adventure, a group of basic games and some simple dictionaries and creative features for making postcards. The software also offers physical rewards, a popular feature in games for this age group. By completing certain missions, kids can use the computer’s printer to produce art they can frame or color. Developed in 2001 by French programmers, this game has a certain meditative, Parisian feel, augmented by tranquil music. It’s available by direct order.
Last year’s "JumpStart Animal Adventures" is one of the few nature-based children’s games you’re likely to find in stores or on the Internet. Like the "Living Sea"—but set mostly on land—it offers fun facts and vocabulary lessons about animal life. "Animal Adventures" frames its fact-centered games around a larger mission, and also provides printed rewards. The game has come under criticism for its somewhat violent explorations of animal life: one game pits two crabs against each other; another makes a deer defend his territory (and not by diplomacy).
Environmental Games for Teens, 10 to 16
Veggie Games, a newly formed nonprofit Canadian company, recently announced plans to release "Steer Madness" in late 2003. The player controls a steer that’s escaped from the slaughterhouse on a quest to bring vegetarianism and environmentalism to the world. Veggie Games is probably the world’s first specifically environmental video game company, and it’s staffed by volunteers working for grant money, so the plans to release "Steer Madness" for the PC, Mac and Playstation are certainly ambitious.
In 1993, Capcom released a shooting game, "Eco Fighters," selling it to arcade operators with the slogan, "They clean up the planet. You clean up on profits." Now that arcades are drifting into memory, you’re unlikely to ever find Eco Fighters—unless you locate the semi-legal ROM file (a chip-to-computer code transfer) on the Internet and hook it into an arcade game emulator such as MAME (a fairly demanding task unless you’re quite tech-savvy).
Aside from those phantoms of future and past, most available games for youth are aimed at testing reflexes: blast the bad guys before they blast you. Players enter a three-dimensional, lifelike world armed with one or another gigantic gun. Environmental awareness takes the form of exploding cans of toxic waste. Still, for a more cerebral approach, there’s no reason kids of this age can’t handle "SimCity" and "Civilization" (see below).
Environmental Games for Adults, 17 and Up
A body of large-scale life simulations—sometimes called god games—provides you the opportunity to create ecotopias or, alternatively, make life miserable for as many people as you can. The programming team at Maxis deserves special praise, having always led the pack in representations of sustainable life systems. The company’s older titles such as "SimAnt," "SimIsle" and "SimEarth" (based on James Lovelock’s "Gaia" hypothesis) all emphasize the realistic demands of ecology in entertaining ways. "SimCity," the most popular game, is easy to find. Its fourth incarnation, "SimCity 4," was just released.
The "SimCity" series puts players in control of an urban grid with a growing population, requiring them to balance development, environmental issues and bottom-line economics against such facts of life as crime and natural disasters. The game provides a sturdy and repeatable challenge: send waste to other cities, or tuck it away in landfills at home? Allow unfettered power plants to pollute the air? Opt for a hydrogen-powered utopia? Each version improves on the game’s breathtaking graphics; the latest version also allows network play.
Escapists might also consider Maxis" "The Sims Online," a multi-player world in which gamers construct a home and business in a clean and happy model of real life. The Sims live in a relatively orderly universe, with none of today’s terrorists or greedy anti-environmental politicians.
Infogrames" "Civilization" series (now in its recent third volume) and Activision’s "Civilization Call to Power" (two years old, but still available) both adapt the old Avalon Hill board game to a broad historical time period, putting the player in the role of an imperial leader. The game places much emphasis on scientific advancement and conquest. Still, pollution is a factor, working against the demands of industry. As in "SimCity," "Civilization" players must be micro-managers. Choosing to build a hydroelectric plant in the Third World instead of in the U.S. may put you at the mercy of a guerrilla leader.
"Call to Power" takes the game into the distant future, with the potential to locate cities underwater and in space. The choice of governments includes a paradise "ecotopia": An interesting futuristic "eco-warrior" unit has the power to conve
rt a city to a park in a single moment, making forests of the skyscrapers.
While few games manage to hammer home a specifically environmental message, there are plenty that can address and model some environmental issues. Until "Steer Madness" is released, this may be the best we can hope for: gamemakers have evidently concluded that protests, highway cleanups and letter-writing campaigns don’t make for great video entertainment.
BEN CHADWICK, a former E intern and current Virginia-based graduate student, is a wizard with a joystick.