With the term “ecoplay,” we attempt to identify a critical shift in the study, design, and rhetoric of digital games. Digital games have always thrived within complex ecosystems of plants, minerals, energy, animals, and machines networked together through global systems of culture and capital. In recent years, scholars in both ecocriticism and game studies have begun investigating the material impact of these ecosystems. Moreover, these inquiries have addressed what the representations of ecosystems within digital games might tell us about our contemporary relationship with ecology. Ecoplay contributes to this ongoing conversation by placing specific emphasis on how players’ performance and gameplay with and in digital games interfaces with ecological representations.

In traditional ecocritical thought, play is something of a dirty word read as signifying the escapism and frivolity that has contributed to, or at the very least obscured, the material impacts of ecological crisis. While play has indeed been used to the detriment of ecological awareness and inquiry, play can signify an openness to alternative forms of coexistence and the dissolution of barriers between human and nonhuman agents. Play can also enable the re-negotiation of social structures, allowing players to envision collectives that do not subsist on environmentally deleterious actions. Ecoplay, thus, challenges ecocriticism to think through both the problems and possibilities for play within an ecocritical framework.

In terms of digital games, our portmanteau of “ecology” and “play” denotes a movement from gameplay that occurs on or against static environmental backdrops, to gameplay that happens with, in, and as active and agential environments. It also captures a shift in the design of games from largely solo affairs focused on the actions of a single human agent, to games with a burgeoning ecological awareness depicting players within and among larger networks of plant, animal, and machine. Moreover, it suggests that gameplay can be a rich site for studying contemporary ecological thought and conservation efforts. Rather than sheltering players, playing ecologically can instead encourage us to practice ecological critique and awareness.

Rhetorically, ecoplay builds on M. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer’s Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America, as well as Sidney I. Dobrin and Sean Morey’s Ecosee: Image, Rhetoric, Nature. Both texts explore how rhetorical forms encourage support and sympathy for environmental movements. Ecospeak identifies rhetorical patterns in writing about environmental politics and argues that discourse is a fundamental part of the environmental problem. Meanwhile, Ecosee claims that image-based media plays a powerful role in shaping arguments about ecology, environment, and nature. With ecoplay, we invite examinations of play as a catalyst for environmental discourse, critically considering rhetorics of digital ecologies and how gameplay makes arguments about nature.

Play and its ecological arguments are central to Benjamin Abraham’s “What is an Ecological Game? Examining Gaming’s Ecological Dynamics and Metaphors through the Survival-Crafting Genre.” His essay contributes to emerging conversations about the nature and depictions of nature within open-world and “survival-crafting” games. Playing these games involves significant reliance upon the natural environment depicted therein for everything from shelter to entertainment. Through a close analysis of gameplay habits, Abraham proposes that although these games would have us believe that players participate in “ecological play,” these activities more closely mirror capitalist economic activities of resource accumulation and consumption. Critiquing the logic of industrialization at the core of “ecological” gameplay mechanics, Abraham considers how play might pose possibilities for a truly ecological game.

Gameplay can also resist such structures, and in Lauren Woolbright’s intersectional ecofeminist essay, “Ecofeminism and Gaia Theory in Horizon Zero Dawn,” she proposes that the “complicity of play” is a potential vehicle for ecocritical perspectives. Throughout her analysis of Guerrilla Games’ post-apocalyptic story in which the machine populous have become caretakers for the planet, she explores how players’ choices and their consequences entwine players with environmentalist and feminist ethics through their emotional resonances. Woolbright suggests that players’ choices in Horizon Zero Dawn present a warning about the potential ecological devastation of mindless heroism, and she shows how the game counters this harmful playstyle with one grounded in an ethics of care.

In “The Endless End of the World: Queering the Eco-Apocalyptic Narrative of Final Fantasy VI,” Jordan Youngblood brings together queer theory and ecocriticism to examine the heteronormative rhetoric of gameplay in Final Fantasy VI. In Final Fantasy VI, players find themselves battling a queerly resonant villain who threatens the game’s depiction of a romanticized nature. This figure, according to Youngblood, is a harbinger for dark ecology extending the game’s environment to include pollution, waste, and toxic materials. Reading the game’s formal elements alongside its gameplay, Youngblood proposes that the game tasks players with restoring an idealized nature through consumption, combat, and heteronormative love, and he considers what this gameplay loop might tell us about our current ecological perspectives.

With the growing intersections between play and environmental representations in digital games, as well as the proliferating material consequences of this ecology beyond games, play demands renewed attention from ecocriticism. Each contributor’s approach to ecoplay charts a few of the many ways in which we might expand the serious work of understanding play’s ecological and environmental impact.

Notes on the Editors:

Melissa Bianchi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing and Communication at Nova Southeastern University. Her scholarship focuses on the intersections between digital media studies, rhetoric and composition, and ecocriticism. She has presented her research at national and international conferences and has published her work in referred journals, such as Green Letters (2014), Revenant (2016), Ecozon@ (2017), and others. In addition to her scholarship, Melissa teaches several writing courses about a wide range of topics, including computer games and animal studies.

Kyle Bohunicky received his PhD from the University of Florida’s Department of English in Spring 2018. He is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Florida’s Digital Worlds Institute. His PhD work at the University of Florida’s Department of English focused on digital game studies, writing studies, media studies, and ecocriticism with forthcoming and published essays appearing in Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, and chapters appearing in Computer Games and Technical Communication, Doing Visual Studies: One Image, Multiple Methodologies, and Game Criticism. His dissertation explores the creative and critical dimensions ofdigital game play from a writing studies perspective. At the Digital Worlds Institute, Dr. Bohunicky explores techniques and technologies for storytelling through interactivity and gameplay. His teaching combines his interests in writerly practices and digital games through courses in “Writing for Interactive Media” and “Digital Storytelling,” both of which explore how to write for and with AR, VR, digital games and other interactive technologies.

Cover design and layout by Jason Crider

Website design and layout by Jason Crider and Aaron Beveridge

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