Investing in Climate Change

Video Games: An Unlikely Venue for Social and Environmental Impact?


The video game industry brought in an estimated $179.7 billion in revenue in 2020. Some of its success for the year stemmed from new gamers picking up the hobby during lockdowns, but the industry is not likely to fade with the pandemic. Forty percent of people who started gaming during the pandemic say they will continue.

Games are a powerful form of communication, and the impact of video games goes well beyond their potential to generate profits. Upstart Co-Lab describes games as a type of social impact media—they can reach large audiences, educate through narratives, and spur social action. Investors who are interested in the social and environmental benefits of innovative media may not want to overlook the many ways video games are creating change.

Video Games Expand the Boundaries of Educational Technology

Schools have long used computer games to help students practice skills like spelling and typing. As games become more complex, the possibilities for integrating them into classrooms only grow.

Some developers release special editions of games for teaching purposes. For example, Ubisoft created educational modes for its historical action-adventure Assassin’s Creed games set in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. These modes offer tours of historical sites within the games without the violence and other mature content that players would typically encounter, and they come with additional resources such as images of museum artifacts and quizzes.

The Education Edition of the sandbox builder Minecraft is suitable for collaborative projects and problem-solving challenges. Teachers can use precrafted lessons to teach subjects such as computer programming and geography. Teaching resources offered by online gaming platform Roblox guide students through projects like creating an animation, modeling a spaceship, and building a replica of a historical landmark.

In addition to acting as a platform for curriculum, gaming can help manage classroom behavior and keep students engaged. Classcraft raised $7.5 million from environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investors including MaRS Catalyst Fund to create a system that gamifies learning and rewards positive behavior.

Educational games apply to more than just children. Medical students and doctors use games to learn new skills and keep their knowledge up to date. For example, Level Ex publishes games for different medical specialties, such as cardiology and pulmonology. The games’ content is based on real-life cases, and doctors can earn continuing medical education credits for completing the most challenging levels. Level Ex is also developing simulations to help astronauts prepare for medical emergencies in space.

Thanks to the immersive nature of gameplay, developers can shift players’ understanding.

The Industry Takes Strides toward Greater Representation and Inclusion

Gamers are frequently pictured as young white men, but the actual gaming community is much more diverse. According to the Pew Research Center, 39% of women often or sometimes play video games, and gaming spans racial and ethnic groups. Although video games continue to be more popular with younger adults, the industry is finding new enthusiasts among people age 50 and above.

Still, games have not always reflected the diversity of their players. Game protagonists have been conventionally white and male. The industry has also been criticized for hypersexualizing female characters and employing demeaning stereotypes in its depictions of Hispanic, Asian, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. These failures signify missed opportunities to foster empathy and improve cultural understanding through the medium.

Representation has improved in some recent titles; almost one-fifth of games announced in 2020 featured female protagonists. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, players can select a male or female protagonist and have the option to switch the character’s gender at any time without disrupting the story. Tell Me Why centers on a transgender playable character. Hades has been praised for its racially diverse cast and its portrayal of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

Studios are also working to be more inclusive of players themselves. The Last of Us Part II was honored by the Game Awards for its extensive accessibility features including text-to-speech and audio cues for players who are blind or have low vision, awareness indicators and expanded subtitle options for players who are deaf or hard of hearing, and help with navigation and combat for players who have motor disabilities. Third-party accessibility apps are appearing to help disabled players enjoy games that have not yet built in these features. Console makers also generally allow players to remap buttons to accommodate their needs.

New Releases Encourage Players to Protect the Earth

Thanks to the immersive nature of gameplay, developers can shift players’ understanding of climate change from an abstract concept to an immediate, compelling experience. Several simple games promote conservation or teach the basics of ecology. Safari Central introduces players to biodiversity; Equilinox simulates ecosystems and allows players to experiment with how to maintain ecological balance. “Idle” games such as EcoClicker can illustrate the benefits of recycling through simple mechanics like clicking on pollutants to restore a virtual environment.

Other games with more intricate narratives encourage players to explore the far-ranging effects of climate change. Never Alone allows players to experience the wilderness of northern Alaska from both a person’s and a fox’s points of view, examining the threat climate change poses to an Iñupiaq community. This game was made possible thanks to an impact investment by a subsidiary of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

In Beyond Blue, players journey through the ocean as a scientist investigating the impact of climate change on marine life. In Endling, they take on the role of the last mother fox on earth as she tries to find safety in the wake of overdevelopment and habitat loss. The Civilization franchise once focused heavily on warfare and technological competition, but it has brought climate change into its scenarios. Players now experience natural disasters that result from their civilizations’ carbon emissions and have to grapple with the effects of rising sea levels on coastal cities.

As developers highlight the dangers of climate change in their titles, awareness grows of the significant carbon emissions that the gaming industry is itself responsible for. The environmental impact of video games may increase as new consoles require additional energy to operate. Some studios are beginning to acknowledge the problem: Rovio has committed to offsetting the carbon emissions from Angry Birds players charging their devices, and Microsoft earned CarbonNeutral certification for 825,000 Xbox consoles as a step toward its goal of achieving carbon-negative operations by 2030.

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