Factorio and Environmentalism
I’m not usually a huge video games person, but I’ve been playing entirely too much Factorio recently. In this game, you find yourself stranded on a randomly-generated world, and are tasked with launching a satellite into space. To that end, you need to extract resources, refine them, manufacture various products, and eventually build a rocket. All this industry creates pollution, which angers the creatures that already live there; as a result, you need to hold them off with walls, machine guns, and automated weapons.
Yeah, that’s about as anti-environmentalist as it gets.
The creators and players of Factorio are aware of this: the official subreddit includes the phrase “all in the name of progress” in its description of the game. It isn’t bad that a game explores themes and situations that would be detrimental in real life, and enjoying media that does this doesn’t have a moral dimension to it; after all, that’s more or less the entire point of most action and horror movies. But I think this is a good example when trying to understand how a video game, even one with little-to-no story, can have a “message.”
Most types of media include some form of framing, which can constitute the perspective and person of a novel, the literal framing of a painting, or the way that a movie is edited. Video games have a unique form of framing, commonly referred to as “ludonarrative,” that includes the collection of incentives and mechanics that a video game gives to the player. Dan Olson of Folding Ideas has a video called Minecraft, Sandboxes, and Colonialism that discusses an example from his own experiences: in order to gather more resources — in this case, ocelots — he kidnapped a villager from a faraway village and relocated it closer to his base of operations.
But who cares? The villager isn’t a real person, or even a living being: it’s a collection of polygons rendered on a screen. No one was harmed in the capture and forced relocation of a villager in Minecraft. In this situation, given a goal, Dan simply planned out a path to that goal and executed it. There were no real people that needed to be considered while doing so.
And that’s kind of my point. In the world of Minecraft, Dan was given a set of goals and incentives that don’t match the ones he has in real life. The villagers aren’t framed as being the same as the player character: they don’t build anything, they have different character models, they’re only able to communicate through grunts and trades, and they rarely leave their tiny villages. From this perspective, Dan had no qualms (at least at the time) capitalizing on the villagers as resources.
I have similar experiences playing Factorio. When I cut down trees so I can have wood to build power poles or expand my factory, I don’t consider whether that’s harmful to the environment, because the game doesn’t incentivize that. When I see the expanding graph of the pollution my factory is producing, I don’t worry about how that might be adversely affecting the aliens whose planet I’m colonizing. Instead, I worry about whether my defenses are enough to hold off their forthcoming act of ecoterrorism.
In this way, both Dan and I are acting with goals and under incentive structures that don’t reflect real life. I don’t actually think that it’s justifiable to create sprawling industrial wastelands to just to build more advanced circuits, just as Dan doesn’t believe that it’s okay to kidnap other people to… attract ocelots? Those actions exist strictly within their respective fictional world. In fact, I think this is one of the strong points of video games, especially open-world games: they can give insight into perspectives with wholly different values and goals from our own.
Is this bad?
No. Well, not on its own. Just because I think that it’s interesting to discuss the implications of a game’s ludonarrative, that doesn’t mean that I think that anyone that plays it is advocating the actions they take in-game. However, I do think the fact that most games in this genre have these characteristics bears examination.
In their article Toward a Sustainable Resource Escalation Game, Gregory Avery-Weir, a co-founder of the independent game developer Future Proof Games, discusses a few of the uncomfortable political implications of this type of game, termed “resource escalation games.” In this article, they lay out a few of the central assumptions of resource escalation games, as well as a few real-world justification that might lie under those assumptions. They also propose some changes that might lead to resource escalation games that espouse more sustainable choices. I think this article is worth a read on its own if you’re interested in their perspective both as a consumer and creator of video games.
I don’t think it’s bad that games like this exist, but I do think it’s telling that most resource escalation games use similar tropes and mechanics. Like movies examined using the Bechdel Test, a single piece of media passing or failing any given “test” doesn’t decide whether or not that piece of media is “good” or “bad”; rather, the point is to see how these patterns may affect genres and media markets as a whole.
Will I continue to play Factorio? Absolutely. I’ve played for several hundreds of hours, and I’ll likely play several hundreds more. Factorio is an incredibly good game for its price and has mountains of replay value. I will, however, keep in mind the implications of my actions, and how those might affect my perception of the real world.