Don’t Starve: Hearts and Minds

Alright – I know I said we’d do more with Wolfenstein, but for now I’m going to call a halt. I’ve run out of steam. I’ve written fifteen posts on Wolfenstein II, and another eight on Wolfenstein: New Order. Twenty-three posts – that’s almost six months’ worth of content. I haven’t written everything I want to, but – frankly, I wrote the bulk of the Wolfenstein posts in the week or two leading up to my wedding, and I haven’t had the same energy since. I think it was probably nerves that got me that far in the first place. So I’m happy to let it lie, at least for now. We return to our regular scramble of games depending on what I’m playing each week. I gave a talk in November on Don’t Starve and Block’hood as games focused on environmentalism. It’s the sort of thing I’ve talked about before, albeit this time in a more formal academic setting. I was talking with a lecturer about the idea shortly before I gave the talk, and she said something like ‘Oh, I wonder how effective it is at making people change their behaviour.’ Let’s talk more about that.

So if you’re not familiar with Don’t Starve et al as focused on environmentalism, the basic idea is that the mechanics of the game teach you about real world concepts. The example I used in my talk was about berries and carrots – so at the start of Don’t Starve, you can scrounge berries and carrots, and they’re all just sort of lying around. With the carrots, you pick it up and eat it and it’s gone – it doesn’t exist any more. With the berries, you pick it off the bush, and then you can come back in a few days and there’s another batch of berries. So on the most basic level, berries are renewable and carrots are not. If you’ve actually played Don’t Starve, you’ll know that you technically can propagate carrots if you feed them to a captured bird and sow the seeds in a farm – but on a basic level, right at the start of the game, there’s a clear distinction between renewable and non-renewable sources. Even the point about farming really just illustrates the argument – normally carrots are non-renewable, but by introducing new technologies you can integrate them into a renewable cycle.

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So Don’t Starve teaches you about the basic distinction between renewable and non-renewable food sources. You’re always getting hungry, and you’ll eventually twig to the fact that you need to set up some renewable food – otherwise you’ll eat all the carrots and just starve. It’s all pretty crude, but there’s a parallel to how food works in the real world. If we don’t have enough renewable food sources, people starve and die. We need those renewable cycles set up on a global level so that everyone gets the food they need to survive. And that’s a function of the game structure. Understanding how the game mechanics work is actually parallel to understanding something about food processes in the real world.

That’s the basic argument, anyway. Playing Don’t Starve teaches you about the importance of renewable food. I was explaining it to this lecturer as the premise of my talk, and she said ‘Oh, I wonder if there’s any research on how effective it all is.’ She said something like that, anyway. And it’s stuck with me for a while. I think it’s possibly a slight confusion about the nature of video games – it’s the distinction between games as tools, and as stories.

Obviously there’s a whole bunch of poems and songs or whatever that are supposed to be sort of eco-texts – they’re all about being critical about the environment and how we’re treating it and making more sustainable practices and so on. You get people doing poems about whale songs and that sort of thing. And you know, it’s fine – it’s not always my sort of thing, but it’s fine. But it would seem weird to ask how effective those poems were at making people more eco-friendly. You wouldn’t go out and try and quantify the reduced carbon footprint of audiences after they listen to a whale song – it just feels like an odd question to ask. It’s not necessarily wrong to look at the real impact of art on people’s behaviours, but also, like, art is art. It’s not meant to be like an argument that’s supposed to change someone’s mind like a debate or a think-piece or something. That would be kinda reductive, treating the thing as more science communication than actual legitimate art.

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And I guess my instinct here is that if it’s reductive to treat other art forms purely in terms of their quantifiable impact on environmental behaviour, then it’s probably reductive to do that to video games. Again: video games aren’t just arguments or debates or think-pieces. They’re art. They have a wider artistic function – it’s reductive to purely consider them in terms of their effects on real-world attitudes to the environment.

This whole argument opens up a bunch of other interesting related avenues, and I don’t really have the time to go into them today. I’ll note a couple down quickly: first, it’s quite possible that I’m over-reading into the lecturer’s point. But what struck me was the implication that if these games don’t somehow result in real-world effects, they’re pointless or somehow lessened. To me, that attitude indicates that people aren’t treating games as actual art. They’re treating them as tools, and trying to quantify their effectiveness as tools. Crucially, it’s not a question that would ever be asked about whale song poetry. Nobody asks whether your interpretive nature dance has any special effectiveness at making people more eco-friendly. It’s also worth noting that in the actual conference, the same question came up again: someone asked how effective the games were at actually teaching people about environmental issues. Nobody else got asked that question. I definitely could be over-reading, but I also suspect there’s a reason why people keep asking me the same thing.

The other, possibly more interesting issue is the point about science communication. If you’ve got some scientist, and they have this agenda to communicate a bunch of science facts to kids, and they make a TV show as a vehicle, is that show art or not? It’s probably art in some sense, but it’s also probably worth noting that maybe the scientists aren’t really that invested in the artistic quality of the overall work. They’re not trying to make any grand artistic statements, they’re communicating science. So from that perspective, it’s possible that some scientists might also create games to communicate a bunch of science facts. In that situation, those scientists probably wouldn’t care much about the artistic value of their game. They would probably have all those same metrics as for the TV show: does this format communicate the science? Is it memorable? Do people make changes based on what they see? Do they learn? Do they become more interested in learning about science? But Don’t Starve isn’t one of those games. It’s not made by science communicators, it’s made by game developers. It’s art. There’s nothing inherently wrong with applying the metrics of effectiveness – in fact there’s probably interesting questions about those metrics as compared to other media forms like poetry or song. But they aren’t the only questions, and they’re not even necessarily the central questions about the game as a whole.

2 comments

  1. Definitely reading too much into a passing comment 😁

    But seriously, great article! Really interesting to think about what different media are ‘for’.

    Thoughts, in no apparent order:

    1) Maths often gets pigeonholed in the same way – unless it has a direct material impact on human life, why do we do it? Very frustrating to have such a narrow view of why things are valuable.
    2) I wonder if part of the responsibility is how games (and maths) position themselves. I know Maths often tries to market itself – ‘no really, we are useful!’ I wonder if video games have sometimes done the same, promoting themselves as for education, or for science research etc.
    3) Its not always a bad thing to be ‘for’ something other than simply being, right? Like, obviously things can have multiple teleogical purposes, but even art often has a purpose other than just existing. It might be there to draw attention to an aspect of life that is overlooked, or to evoke an emotional or even political response.
    4) I thought your example of science communication was a little harsh. I think there’s a spectrum of sci comm, from pure communication of facts, to real art trying to connect people to bigger ideas, or evoke an emotional response to big ideas like climate change. I think there’s lots of science communicators who really want to create good art.
    5) all this aside, it’s definitely problematic to say a video game is only good or effective if it has a purely practical impact on people. Surely there are so many more good reasons for things to exist – like entertainment! No one asks whether playing a game of football changes behaviour. You just play because it’s fun, or to compete, or to exercise or any number of reasons.

    Really interesting to reflect on all the different possible purposes for these diverse media and fields. Thank you for a thought provoking piece as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • bro so many thoughts, that’s basically a whole article’s length right there 😀 take the plunge, join us! nah I know what you mean about sci-com, definitely not trying to bag them – even just aware that there’s this doubled purpose with sci-com that’s not gonna be present in the same way in like Wagner or whatever

      Like

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