Can computer games help us save the planet?
There are many theories on how we can save the planet – from carbon emission taxes and more environmentally efficient motor vehicles at one end of the spectrum to personal activities like shorter showers and planting trees at the other.
And there are just as many theories about how we can ensure emerging generations are better aware of the need to be more environmentally sensitive and sensible than their predecessors.
Dr Naarah Sawers, one of the inaugural recipients of an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellowship, is fascinated by the role that computer games, now an accepted part of children’s literature, might have in raising awareness on environmental matters.
“The role that children’s literature plays in our society is incredibly important,” said Dr Sawers who is from Deakin’s School of Communication and Creative Arts.
“A lot of my work at Deakin, first with my PhD and now with the post doctorate scholarship, is about analysing the impact of children’s literature, assessing it morally and ethically.
“The project I am currently working on thanks to the Alfred Deakin Fellowship looks at the representations of the environment and environmental agendas in computer games for children.
“Games are really interesting compared to other texts such as novels or films because the participant is active in their engagement. They have to make decisions and choices when engaging the game.
“So in terms of analysis, what I am hoping this project will contribute is a more nuanced understanding of young people’s choices and decisions around environmental ethics and values.
“For instance, do they, in the game, decide to build a multi-storey complex and increase their financial budget, or do they decide to plan a forest of trees and therefore increase their environmental health?
“It seems at this early stage there is not a lot of cross-over yet between eco-critical studies and analysis of games.
“That might be because they are relatively new subjects. Whatever the reason, it is also part of my work to see what we might be able to do to bridge the gap.”
Already though, around the world a number of government agencies have started using computer games to engage with children on the environment.
“The first thing I had to do was collate a data base of the games and then start the process of analysing how they function in socialising children into environmental citizenship,” Dr Sawers said.
“In Australia, the Federal Government and the ABC have produced a game called Catchment Detox which looks at managing river catchment areas.
“New Zealand and the UK also have government sponsored computer games where environmental issues are the focus.
“There are also commercial bodies like Starbucks and Nickelodeon that have recently produced computer games designed for young people to engage in environmental responsibility. My role is to analyse these games for their cultural effectiveness.”
Less environmentally conscious computer games might also be unintentionally driving home the message.
“There are a lot of post-Apocalypse games and the young gamer might be positioned, as part of playing those games, to perceive environmental crises as both inevitable and salvageable.
“Games about evolution are also worth considering from the view of environmental ethics.
“It’s something my colleagues here at Deakin and I believe is important to study.”
Dr Sawers said being given the chance to continue to work with Deakin’s world-renowned expert in children’s literature, Professor Clare Bradford, through the Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellowship made her feel privileged and supported.
“After I finished my Honours degree at Deakin, I took a year off to work with Anglicare, the not-for-profit charity,” she said.
“I was then offered the choice of taking up an APA (Australian Postgraduate Award) for my Higher Degree Studies at Deakin or the University of Melbourne.
“I made a considered decision to remain at Deakin predominantly because the discipline in which I worked, literary studies, was dynamic, intellectually rigorous and contained internationally respected scholars, but it also afforded a level of personal support that is often absent in academic environments.
“Fortunately I made the right decision; the experience I gained during my PhD candidature, through the emphasis children’s literature at Deakin has on the teaching-research nexus, mentoring and team support, has meant that I was successful in my application for the Alfred Deakin Post-doc.”
Dr Sawers completed her PhD in April last year and that thesis was turned into a book - Critical Fictions: Science, Feminism, and Corporeal Subjectivity.
In June, she was awarded one of the inaugural Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellowships, a program set up by Professor David Stokes, Deakin’s DVC (Research) to attract and encourage the next generation of researchers at the University.
“I feel I am part of helping us achieve critical mass,” Dr Sawers said. “I feel particularly fortunate.”
If her work in analysing the capacity of computer games is successful in creating future generations of more environmentally sensible generations, we might all get to share in that fortune.