Outside In: Representations of Nature in Video Games

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On a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, I sat on a couch and obsessively played Angry Birds.  I had the chance to go outside and be with friends, but I just couldn’t stop launching birds at those mocking, green pig faces.  Still, I listened to the exotic tweets of birds, enjoyed the lush green grass, and blue skies–of the video game.  We don’t often think about the environment in which the gameplay takes place.  Is the grass green or brown?  Is there nothing but concrete?  Are we in a dystopian or utopian world?  Is the world grey or green?

Many video games take place “outdoors.”   I stopped to consider a list of Facebook games that I have played: Gardens of Time, Farmville, Cityville, Empires and Allies.  I thought of the dark underwater world of Rapture in Bioshock, the apocalyptic streets of the Resident Evil series, the dense fogs of Silent Hill, abandoned villages of Fatal Frame.  I remembered the hours I spent hoeing and planting and feeding my chickens in Harvest Moon–a game that revels in taking a player “out” into Nature.   Viva Pinata was another favorite where I lured strange and interesting creatures to linger in my pastures.   One of the delights in playing Red Dead Redemption is riding my horse throughout the arid landscape of the Old West.  We pass cacti.  We hunt for pelts and outlaws.  I spend little time inside of the saloons or shops.

Wii games emerged with a variety of outdoor games–tennis, baseball, golf, bicycle races, archery, and the list goes on.  Are video games supplementing our experience with Nature or removing us more and more from it?  One article I read felt that video games were harming Nature because humans were not engaging with Nature, with its ecosystems in same ways we had in the past.

Perhaps video games are preserving our experience with the environment.   In a landscape polluted by smog and litter, box stores, fast food chains, more subdivisions and ever more streets–it becomes harder and harder to find parks and patches of woods preserved for our enjoyment.  Many of us spend twelve to fourteen hours a day working inside, and by the time we actually have time to enjoy the sweet chirping of birds, it is too late in the day.  But, I can turn on my Xbox and ride my horse for hours.

When I was child, I was rarely indoors.  From the moment we were allowed outside in the morning until my mother called us in for supper, we were outside getting grass stained knees, climbing trees, eating dirt , and fascinating over bugs.  These days, an afternoon outside is only an occasional treat.   Perhaps video games and their representations of Nature are just what the doctor ordered for returning us to world we abandon after adulthood?

What role do these representations of Nature play in our psyche?

In the end, all I know for sure was how much I enjoyed hearing the bird calls in Angry Birds.  Did it prevent me from experiencing the real thing or did it provide me with an idealized approximation?  Who knows for sure?  But, in that world, the sun was always shining and the grass was always green unlike the world outside my window.

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