By Laura op de Beke
Videogames enjoy a privileged relationship with futurity. No other media formats ‘have the same kind of relationship [with] pure, speculative desire that games do’ writes Cameron Kunzelman in Vice. Their affinity with science fiction technologies. Other arguments about the relationship between futurity and videogames argue that something more fundamental is at play, owing specifically to the kind of reversible, branching temporality engendered in videogames. I call this temporality procedural futurism, using a term modelled after Ian Bogost’s notion of procedural rhetoric, to highlight a kind of if/then thinking that is at work in videogames. For Bogost, the constraints and pathways of videogame procedures contain arguments about how the world is, or should, work. Similarly, procedural futurism mounts if/then arguments that influence how we imagine the future. This article addresses briefly how procedural futurism operates in climate change videogames, and how, paradoxically, it enacts a foreclosure of the future rather than opening it up.
Procedural futurism names a particular quality in videogames often lauded in game studies. For example, in Respawn Colin Milburn, argues,
[V]ideo games provide a model for the conscientious shaping of the future: the forward-looking evaluation of innumerable choices that we make in the here and now, refined by testing and retesting those choices over and again in the speculative mode, learning from repeated errors to preserve, [to] remember, to carry forward felicitous decisions and to relegate infelicitous pathways to the status of alternate history. (222)
Milburn is neither the first nor the last to have identified this future orientation in videogames. Barry Atkins writes,
[The player] always apprehends the game as a matrix of future possibility. The focus, always, is not on what is before us or the ‘what happens next’ of traditionally unfolding narrative but on the ‘what happens next if I’ that places the player at the center of experience as its principle creator, necessarily engaged in an imaginative act, and always oriented toward the future. In effect, the game gaze might appear to rest on the image on the screen, but the player sees through and beyond the screen and into the future” (137).
Comparable arguments about anticipatory thinking appear in other examples of game design. Sid Meier, whose Civilization series is mentioned below, has described its gameplay in similar terms: “You’re almost not playing in the moment […] You’re playing in the future—and that future is just one more turn ahead” (Hutchinson, 2019). In short, playing a game involves thinking ahead, predicting the outcomes of choices, and opting for the one that leads to the best result. Wrong choices are there to learn from and to reset.
However, the freedom to shape the future described in these passages hides the ways in which videogames foreclose the future. Alexander Galloway, for example has argued that videogames are allegories of our modern control societies (vs. societies of discipline, or spectacle). Citing Gilles Deleuze, he argues that in driving on the highway you are free to go where you please, but only using the roads that have been provided for you. Building more roads affords drivers more freedom, while at the same time, paradoxically, multiplying the means of control (Galloway 2006, 87-88). Videogames, too, provide a certain space in which to act freely, but they rarely allow us to tread outside of this space. Staying with the infrastructural metaphor, climate change futures in videogames are pathways to possible futures, but they hardly get us off the beaten track. What is the use of cultivating a multiplicity of futures, if this multiplicity does not produce actual difference?
I suggest the kind of reversible, branching futuristic orientation described above should be seen as participating in a more general future-oriented media regime characterized by what Richard Grusin calls ‘premediation.’ Premediation is defined by an anxious desire to familiarize the unknown, to domesticate the future, and to foreclose its ability to surprise or change us. Grusin argues that in response to 9/11, tendencies that may already have been prevalent in American society crystallized to form a media regime that cultivates a kind of defensive prescience. By anticipating, modelling, and exploring disasters to come, mediations of the future serve to evoke a false sense of control over its unknowability, at the cost of a pervasive, protracted low-level anxiety. Grusin points out that videogames share a formal logic with premediation: “it is not necessarily about getting the future right as much as it is about trying to imagine or map out as many possible futures as could plausibly be imagined” (46). The notion of plausibility is key here. Premediation manifests in the multiplication of future scenarios – good and bad – but only those that seem to follow straightforwardly from the present moment, and not those that break with the present in unpredictable ways. What makes premediation harmful, therefore, is its foreclosure of alternative futures. Climate change coverage is subject to the same premediative logic because climate science is deeply influenced by the “cultures of prediction” that have come to characterize scientific and administrative practices since WWII, and which were greatly expanded during the Cold War due to the rise of computer technology (Heymann et al. 2017).
Climate change videogames thus seem especially compromised as they are both formally and topically tangled up in the media regime of premediation. One could even argue that they are “against futurity,” in the sense that they narrow down the set of imagined possible futures to those that are deemed realistic, or plausible (Smicker 117). Two brief examples will serve to illustrate how procedural futurity plays out in climate change videogames: Fate of the World and Gathering Storm, which is the latest expansion for the Civilization Franchise (FotW and GS from here on). FotW allows players to experiment with the next 200 years of policymaking, with the challenge to keep global average temperatures from exceeding a 3-degree increase. Every turn, you choose different policy options for different global regions, whose effects you get to review in the next turn, five years down the timeline. FotW maps out as many futures as there are combinations of policy cards to play. However, the game only provides a limited number and combination of policy responses that are truly effective, with a heavy emphasis on the development of certain technologies like carbon capture and storage, and the use of stratospheric aerosol injections – without which you cannot keep temperatures down. This model anticipates the 2018 IPCC’s low emissions pathway, which counts on technologies that have yet to be fully discovered and implemented (Nordblad 338), but whose role in climate change mitigation is already considered more plausible than, say, for instance, a more drastic strategy of degrowth and emissions reduction.
The grand strategy civilization simulator Gathering Storm is another example of a climate change videogame that reproduces a deterministic timeline. Players are challenged to build an empire to stand the test of time. In doing so they can see climate change coming long before it arrives because the panel monitoring global temperature and sea level-rise is accessible from round one, as is the tech-tree, and yet nothing can be done to prevent it from happening. There is no way to develop renewable energy technologies without making all the old mistakes. In other words, GS “cannot model a sharp turn in the course of world history,” even though that might be exactly what we need (Kunzelman 108). Other critical analyses of FotW and GS are more detailed regarding the specific ways in which they may or may not give rise to environmental thinking (Kunzelman, Smith, Long). Instead of using the limited space I have here to summarize these findings, I want to examine one specific element that has not been considered in the light of climate change temporality before, and that is FotW’s and GS’s turn-based nature, which is where I see the notion of procedural futurism most clearly manifested.
Most writing on the Civilization Franchise’s temporality focuses on its historiographic representation. However, Geralt Voorhees is one of the few to consider the temporality of its turn-based mechanic and its effects on the player. He argues that the Civilization games espouse a Cartesian subject position, in the sense that players hover over the map in a disembodied, godly fashion, “immersed in a world in which the relationship between action and effect, antecedent and consequent, is fully determined in advance by the intention of the idea” (255). In other words, turn-based games enact a tight, coherent loop between action and reaction, intention and consequence. This dynamic hinges on a button in the lower, right corner of the screen where you click to proceed to the next turn, after which the camera highlights and tracks the game’s countermoves so that nothing is ever lost on the player. Turn-based strategy games evoke a sense of “mastery of the consequences of player interaction,” by making explicit exactly how one set of actions provokes another set of responses (267). The problem is that climate change does not function like a turn-based phenomenon at all. It does not patiently await its turn while we consider our options; and it certainly cannot be anticipated and outmanoeuvred like an opponent in chess. Rather, climate change is unfolding continuously, often faster and more unpredictably than we can keep up with. The climate crisis, therefore, arguably demands a more eventful representation in videogames, one that is more unpredictable, alternating moments of high intensity and urgency, with stretches of boredom and dread.
Exploring such an eventful temporality in videogames is outside the scope of this article. What I want to do instead is focus more closely on the mechanic by which time is allowed to pass in turn-based videogames, at the click of a button. In his article on the mechanics of speculation in videogames Kunzelman dissects this action meticulously, pointing out that “the click is a minimal interaction that allows us to both pursue the future and defer it” (488). He explains that at least in one way clicking allows players to progress the plot and move through scenarios that unfold predictably from their original conditions. This is what the ‘next turn’ button in GS is for. However, Kunzelman argues, in some games the click can also hold off closure by keeping the game running, deferring the end. Games in the Civilization franchise, and GS is no exception, generally offer a “Wait! Just… one… more… turn…” option, allowing a game to continue even after victory conditions have been achieved. In a game of GS, staying with a climate-changed world, even after having ‘won,’ makes obvious the extent to which that victory is arbitrary. Lacking any further goal, players are finally free to actually take stock of the present, and from there to start thinking of other futures which are not enclosed by the game’s win conditions.
In 2007 redditor u/lycerius posted about a game of Civilization 2 that he had been playing for over 10 years which was locked into a brutal, dystopian stalemate: dubbed the Eternal War. What followed was an outpouring of interest and creativity from fellow redditors collected here. It seems that from within the impasse of the Eternal War, there was time to contemplate what it looked like from the ground and what it would take to resolve the situation in the fanfiction it spawned. Although ultimately strategic solutions were posited ‘fixing’ the stalemate – the impasse was, for a moment, a wellspring of speculation. It managed to gather a kind of energy behind it. To stay within the scale of the click, we can imagine that in the moment between pressing the mouse-button and before letting go there exists a space, a pause that we can choose to prolong, in order to halt the onrush of futures already determined. It is by lingering in this space that we can try to build up a certain intensity that may affectively reorient ourselves to the world.
In conclusion, I argue that the forward-looking, branching, reversible temporality that is often lauded in videogames, and which is especially explicit in turn-based games, should be recognized for participating in a more general media regime that narrows down the set of imagined futures available, instead of opening them up. Turn-based strategy games cater to the desire for feeling in control and being aware of exactly how the future emerges from the present, which is the affective motor that fuels the regime of premediation. In his discussion on the affective life of media, Grusin explains that affect infuses not just media content, but our interaction with media technologies more generally (90-118). Playing a videogame establishes an affective feedback loop between player and game that is concerned not just with the content of play; there is also affective investment in merely maintaining the loop, which becomes evident when game-flow is rudely interrupted (112). For Grusin this desire to be kept in the loop, and to avoid the shock of the unexpected by premediating the near future, is what governs the production and consumption of disaster media. Breaking out of the loop requires opening up to a more eventful temporality, experimenting with pauses and moments of suspension, and cultivating a less anticipatory attitude, and a more responsive, and responsible one.
Laura op de Beke, “Procedural Futurism in Climate Change Videogames,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2021): n. pag. Web 4 June 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.3.03
About the Author
Laura op de Beke (www.lauraopdebeke.com) is a PhD fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway. Her work is part of a project called Lifetimes – A Natural History of the Present. Her contribution looks at Anthropocene temporalities in videogames, which manifest as temporal affects: for instance anxiety over the future, petro-melancholia, a preoccupation with death, failure and extinction, as well as technofuturistic hope. Her other interests include science fiction, green media studies, veganism, LARP, and the environmental humanities more broadly. Laura is also the founder and co-convenor of the online reading group un-earthed (www.un-earthed.group.com).
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Feature Image: “Branching Paths” by Benjamin Horn