Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Garden in the Machine: Video Games and Environmental Consciousness

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Garden in the Machine: Video Games and Environmental Consciousness

Article excerpt

Into the Deep" is a nature documentary, or at least that's the way it seems. It is complete with a British-accented voiceover, a professionally edited title sequence, stirring background music, and informational tidbits such as, "[male humpback whales] can grow over 16 meters in length and weigh just under 40 tonnes." It purports to document the undersea voyages of a hi-tech submersible named "Theodore," which in the 13-minute film discovers unique kelp formations, thriving fish schools, and various species of shark--and documents along the way signs of human-made environmental degradation. With its mix of evident wonder, ethical concern, and scientific explanation, it might well be an episode of the David Attenborough-narrated series The Blue Planet (2001), but, in fact, it's made entirely of footage captured from gameplay of Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V, 2013).

GTA V is an "open world" or sandbox game, a game which gives its users seemingly free spatial reign of an area of several square kilometers, encompassing the fictional city of Los Santos and the rural Blaine County. These areas comprise the state of San Andreas, the GTA series' stand-in for California, which is surrounded on all sides by an ocean. The ocean forms the boundaries of the game world, but it is an explorable space of its own: users can swim, boat, or pilot a submarine within a limited radius around San Andreas, and it is portions of the programmed ecosystem discovered therein which YouTube user Chaney555 has compiled as "Into the Deep." (1) Humpbacks and orcas, kelp and coral exist in the game as infinitely bountiful objects, which are capable of a varying degree of interaction with the user and with one another, but whose numbers are essentially inexhaustible and immune to changes in the ostensible ecosystem in which they live.

The game's simulation of an undersea ecosystem might therefore be said to be woefully incomplete, but the narrator of "Into the Deep" adds the un seen and unobservable causations and interactions that would be present in "real" life. The discovery of human waste on the ocean floor is given a place in a temporal development that is not possible in the world of GTA V itself:

The sheer bulk of this [air]plane [on the ocean floor] has caused irreparable damage to the coral reef which lies beneath. However, all is not lost: given time, the coral and algae which once thrived will latch on to the bulk of this colossal aircraft, and the cargo plane itself will become the foundation of a brand new coral reef.

The narrator accuses the Los Santos International Airport of illegally disposing of unwanted airplanes in the ocean, but also foregrounds that, with the passage of time, this cultural waste will form part of a new ecosystem with the natural life that had preceded it. And the narrator's words have some weight: as the submersible drifts over the wing of the aircraft, we can see the coral actually "beginning" to grow on the plane.

Although, on the one hand, "Into the Deep" is a pastiche of the nature documentary genre, it is also evidence that natural environments in games are not always beholden to the goal-directed behavior of the user, and can lead to the user's more complex considerations of ecosystems and the nonhuman. As Aleandra Chang's recent dissertation on nature in video games puts it, "games can offer a compelling way to reconcile a deep connection to nature and the nonhuman world with an equally important connection to technology and the virtual." (2) The puzzle-platformer game Journey (2012), for example, has the user navigate natural spaces marked by the decrepit remains of a mysterious civilization, solving spatial puzzles to advance toward a mountain always imaged in the distant background. Chang argues that, although it is centered around the activity of its (presumably) human character, the game continually gestures toward spaces and temporalities beyond directly embodied experience. …

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