Criteria for analyzing natural heritage in a video game and the example of Caesar III

Last March, I was invited to share my research on games and natural heritage at a seminar in Metz, France (CREM laboratory, Séminaire Passages, Pixel, Praxitèle, 15/3/22). One of the topics I presented was the criteria I use now to analyze natural heritage in a video game, whether it is a big-budget game (AAA), an independent game, or one of my own.

  • Nature conservation / natural heritage is a theme in the game
  • The game creators researched nature or ask knowledgeable advisors during their creation process
  • Visual accuracy (doesn’t have to be photorealism, but the player can recognize a natural element after seeing it in the video game. The animations also matter).
  • Correct behavior (a plant grows and dies, requires water, etc.)
  • Appropriate and non-destructive/capitalist gameplay (the player can interact with natural elements, not only by destroying everything or amassing/owning them)
  • Educational content (the player can learn about the natural elements, like plants’ name, family, component, how to grow them, their use and properties, etc.)

These criteria can be used to analyze the intent (if it is possible to do a poïetic of the game, by interviewing the author, studying game design documents, documentation used by the project, etc.), the game as an object, and/or the reception, as there can always be a huge difference between those.

I came up with these criteria over the years, looking at what was missing and what was achieved in both my games and other games about nature. These criteria are always evolving, and so far no game I know checked all the boxes. It is not a problem or even a goal to achieve as these criteria must really be understood as a tool to analyze a game or be mindful of nature when creating one.

Example: Analyzing Caesar III (Impressions Games, 1998)

Caesar III is an old management game where you got to build a roman city on a specific map, take care of your citizen’s happiness, defend or attack your enemies and achieve several goals. One part of the gameplay is about the food industry: you build farms on appropriate land, transform and store the food, sell it through the market, and make sure you have enough workers to keep the industry running. The game is old, but you can still buy it easily, as it use to be rather popular, and watch some playthroughs if you want to know more about it (for instance, the playthrough from GamerZakh)

Analyzing natural heritage in Caesar III as an object:

  • Nature conservation / natural heritage is a theme in the game: no
  • The game creators researched nature or ask knowledgeable advisors during their creation process: I couldn’t tell, as I didn’t do proper poïetic research on this game. From just looking at the game, at the very least the game creators researched the type of culture which were common in the roman empire.
  • Visual accuracy: the plants are more symbols of plants than actual plants themselves, and so is the livestock. We can see some of the plants grow in an unrealistic way. The visual accuracy wouldn’t help the player recognize one of the plants in the wild if she doesn’t know it beforehand. There is also non-gameplay nature, which mostly backgrounds visual, but also elements limiting the player (rocks, rivers) or that he could destroy. Water is also represented. Wildlife is almost absent.
  • Appropriate and non-destructive/capitalist gameplay: no. The gameplay is purely industrial. Nature is to be exploited by humans to its fullest. In addition to farming, you need to destroy trees to build for instance. The water system is interesting but focuses on human consumption.
  • Educational content: it is possible to learn what plants were popular as food and luxuries during the roman empire.

A French speaker issue: why I consider “patrimoine naturel” to be a sexist and anthropocentric term I won’t use anymore

Natural heritage is generally translated in French as “patrimoine naturel”. The term “héritage” also exists in French but it is generally meant as a financial inheritance passed on through families. It is not broadly used for culture or nature.

The popular translation of “heritage” would be “patrimoine” (ie “patrimoine culturel” for “cultural heritage”). For instance, in France we have the “journées du patrimoine“, a massive event to promote cultural heritage, which is organized yearly. Another example would be the “Fondation des sciences du patrimoine” funded by the French government, through Patrima and Patrimex.

The problem with the term “patrimoine” is that it implies a legacy from a father, or the fathers in general (“patri-” comes from latin “pater”). Several studies have indeed found that using masculine generics tends to introduce a sexist bias (for instance, see studies by M. C. Hamilton or S. Sczesny for English language).

As a result, some French scholars, and feminists have launched the “Journées du matrimoine” to defend that a large part of our cultural heritage comes from women/our mothers.

It is actually very rare to read about “patrimoine naturel” or “matrimoine naturel”, though. “Patrimoine” or “matrimoine” is mostly used when talking about castles, churches and museums. Even when I was still using “patrimoine naturel” to describe my research, I always had to define it for French speaking scholars, whereas it was at least roughly understood by most English speaking scholars I met.

As a researcher and as a feminist, I am not comfortable using the term “patrimoine naturel” anymore. Beyond the sexist issue (using such a term might reinforce the idea that all of our legacy would come from our fathers, which is a problem for both cultural and natural heritage), I think it is even more problematic when discussing nature.

Firstly, the gendered duality doesn’t apply to a large part of natural heritage. Think about gendering mountains or oceans: it has been done a lot, but it is a very anthropocentric way of seeing nature. Also, it introduces the question of gender (a social construct) in nature. A lot of plants do have reproductive organs that are often labelled “male” or “female”, but plants certainly don’t consider “pink” to be appropriate for female plants only in the Western world. Using such a strongly gendered noun might trigger even more anthropocentrism.

Secondly, “patrimoine” (or even “matrimoine”) implies that natural heritage is a legacy from humans to other humans. A part of natural heritage indeed is, at least partly, like selected plants or gardens created by humans. But a large part of natural heritage is not. We could argue that, due to climate crisis and industrialization, almost every milieu on Earth has been impacted by humans, but this is not a positive legacy, and “patrimoine” is generally understood as a positive concept.

As a result, I use the term “héritage naturel” in French to translate “natural heritage” and I try to defend this position. For most audiences, it is not an issue: “patrimoine naturel” wouldn’t have meant much to them anyway.

However, degenderizing the French language has not been warmly welcomed by all French scholars (I had a bad experience myself using that term while submitting a project to the Agence Nationale de la Recherche or ANR). It is important to note that there is a huge backlash against feminists (called “woke”) in French universities at the moment, sometimes described as “intellectual terrorism” in popular media.

I would be happy to discuss this question!

Reviewed by Hugo Thierry and Jorge Palacios (thank you !!!)

Literature review on nature and video games

I haven’t found many scholarly papers on video games and natural heritage, so my references are mostly from non-specific game studies, natural heritage, and environment education papers.

However, there are a few interesting papers and books that look at the intersection between nature and video games/digital media!

Here is my favorite list (so far), with some comments:

  • Chang, A. Y. 2012. « Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game ». Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. Vol. 19, n°2, p. 237‑252.

Great paper and a must-read! It is a critical analysis of agricultural representations in Farmville, considered capitalistic and dangerous for ecological awareness. This paper questions realism and authenticity in terms of simulation than can be compared to historical games. One criticism: very American-centric.

  • Smith, Bradon. 2017. « Resources, Scenarios, Agency: Environmental Computer Games ». Ecozon@. Vol. 8, p. 103‑120.

The paper defend that “god games” (Sim City, Civilization) support the American myth of second creation with wild abundant world to be colonized, and thus are anti-ecological. Minecraft has a similar issue (everything is a resource), but the game can still be subverted for environmental thinking. Environmental games that like Fate of the World are disempowering because they are top down and their challenges are too big in term of scale and complexity. World without Oil (an alternate reality game) is more successful. It is also American-centric.

It seems that positive impact on player’s environmental thinking is, in the case studied by the paper, done by an anxiety-provoking context, except for Minecraft, but the transfer to the real world behaviour is not clear.

Great blog post, from a talk. The author discusses the fact that gardens are colonialistic by essence (I don’t fully agree, but very good points there) and that video games function like gardens, and, as such, are colonialistic. This point has been defended by other scholars, but never using that angle (for what I know). Very inspiring, a must-read as well.

  • Ahn, Sun Joo (Grace), Jeremy N. Bailenson, et Dooyeon Park. 2014. « Short- and long-term effects of embodied experiences in immersive virtual environments on environmental locus of control and behavior ». Computers in Human Behavior. Vol. 39, p. 235‑245.

This paper is not about video games, but virtual reality. It is a pilot study, on using virtual reality for environmental education. It is compared to watching a video or reading about the same topic. The effect of the studied media on users is studied through an experience of napkin consumption: weird but clever. The use of “locus of control” notion was very inspiring to me.

  • Longan, Michael W. 2008. « Playing With Landscape, Social Process and Spatial Form in Video Games ». Aether: The Journal of Media Geography. Vol. 2, p. 23‑40.

This is a paper about the landscape from the point of view of geography and labor. It is particularly interesting because it raises the question of landscape production (by whom, when, how), for which video games could be the perfect medium, but they hide the labor of game developers.

  • Woolbright, Lauren. 2017. « Game Design as Climate Change Activism ». Ecozon@. Vol. 8, p. 88‑102.

Climate change activism (CCA) in games is questioned is this paper around two interesting indie games “The Flame in the Flood” and “Little Inferno”. I would have liked interviews of the developpers as it bothers me that their intentions were never questionned (probably the biais of being a poïetic scholar myself). The CCA in this game is indeed seen only through the eyes of the researcher-player. It includes interesting reflections on game design for CCA.

In addition, if you are interested in the topic, I suggest you to follow Alenda Chang (@gamegrower) on twitter, as she should be shortly releasing her book “Playing Nature” (December 2020)! She was one of the editors of Ecozon@ edition on Green Computer and Video Games, that I recommend very highly as well.

Please feel free to suggest your own recommendations!

Current research projects on video games and natural heritage

Screenshot of the videogame Tevi

I am currently working on three research projects:

  • Tevi: a mobile video game for nature awareness,
  • Vestigia: a set of video games around the natural and cultural heritage of Port-Royal des Champs,
  • Biosys: a videogame focusing on the relationship between humans and nature.

Tevi and Vestigia are projects I develop in a team with research-creation and user-research methods. It means I am both designing, developing games on these projects, and analyzing their reception on players.

Biosys is very different as I didn’t participate in the game creation. It was a commercial game released in 1999. I am studying it from an external perspective, using a method called “poïetics”. The principle of this method is to focus on the creation process of an art piece, rather than analysing the result only.

In this blog, I will discuss these projects and their evolution, as well as the underlying theory and the literature review associated with the topic of video games and natural heritage.

Introduction: Video games and natural heritage

Gardening and farming are relatively common themes for videogames. From farming and life simulators to survival games to management games, a large variety of games about nature are available to players. Nevertheless, it is extremely rare that video games take an approach that is beneficial for environmental education.
Natural heritage sites, on the other hand, have a strong focus on environmental education. Video games have become a popular tool for educational mediation in heritage sites. This leads one to wonder whether or not these tools could also be integrated into natural heritage sites.

In this blog, I intend to explore this question through research notes of my past and current research projects on this topic, as well as with conference and literature reports and recommended readings.

I lead these projects as a part of my work at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, at the laboratory CHCSC (Centre d’Histoire Culturelle des Sociétés Contemporaines) where I am an associate professor and at the LLSETI of the Université Savoie Mont Blanc (France).

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