Game Dev Rebellion: Jennifer Estaris and Joost Vervoort on activism in games

How can gaming inspire positive change in the world?

Game Dev Rebellion: Jennifer Estaris and Joost Vervoort on activism in games

People around the world are becoming increasingly concerned about the climate crisis, with issues such as carbon emissions, global warming, and alternative energy at the centre of many discussions about modern society. With the clock ticking in our global efforts to tackle climate change, more and more professionals across industries are doing their part to bring attention to important issues, and tackle them head on.

Game development has the unique opportunity to bring attention to these issues in an interactive, and even playful medium. We spoke to ustwo game director Jennifer Estaris and Utrecht University associate professor of transformative imagination Joost Vervoort about their work in the games industry, climate activism, and how game development can inspire positive change. Tell us a little bit about what you do?

Jennifer (she/her): I’m a Game Director at ustwo games, a B Corp studio. Certified B Corporations are companies that meet high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability – consider it for your studio!

ustwo games is known for the architectural illusion puzzle adventure Monument Valley and Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, which is an open world adventure game about a child who loves birds, photography, and taking down the evil capitalist hotelier who is trying to destroy the local nature preserve. Y’know, everyday life.

I’ve been in games for almost 20 years, in sustainability efforts for twice that (proud officer of the environmental science club growing up). I’ve always been gently including environmental elements in games, but it wasn’t until working at SYBO, known for Subway Surfers, where the CEO Mathias Gredal Nørvig admirably pushed sustainability further in games than I’ve ever seen first-hand, especially through Playing for the Planet.

Nowadays I’m an active member of Playing for the Planet and the IGDA Climate SIG, and constantly on the ground for Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion (big event April 21! Join us). Key topics for me are climate justice and climate reparations such as to the Global South, and degrowth.

Joost (he/him): I’m an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, in the heart of the Netherlands. I’ve worked with governments all around the world using future scenarios to help them think about how to deal with climate change. This has been very impactful work and meaningful to be involved in – but at the same time, policy is always limited by politics. So my interest started to shift more towards the politics of imagining the future, and to how cultural imaginations relate to action in the present.

At the same time, my interest in games as a way to help people open up their imaginations about possible futures was always a line of research and in recent years this has really become my main focus. My research team and I have shifted from pure ‘serious games’ to focusing more on how imagined futures are or are not part of the games sector.

I’m interested in how the sector might be changed to help unlock its potential as an imaginative motor of change that creates games that really inspire and empower people toward better futures. I’ve also become involved in activist movements in the Netherlands and I’ve been especially inspired by participating for a time in the campaign by Dutch activist group Fossielvrij that led one of the world’s biggest pension funds, ABP, to divest from fossil fuels. I think a deep, experiential understanding of effective activism has lots to offer for people working in creative sectors, and vice versa.

What kind of things can games do that perhaps they're not doing enough of right now?

Joost: I’ll speak to ‘serious’ climate games mostly – I think that people interested in using games for societal change have very limited ideas about what games can do; and what societal change looks like. Climate games don’t engage with the politics of climate change nearly enough – there’s so much heroism, challenge, darkness, tragedy and joy in the reality of climate change activism, for instance. The games currently being made are taking a didactic tone, thinking about awareness raising with individual players as consumers. Too often, it’s about hiding the ‘serious’ message in a ‘fun’ package - the reviled ‘chocolate covered broccoli’. I think games can and do resonate deeply with people in different ways, individually but also collectively through communal experiences, the building of solidarity, new identities, and new shared meanings. For instance, games like Dark Souls and Disco Elysium resonate with people in ways that ‘serious’ game developers can only dream of – and they don’t think about their work in terms of the impacts such games can have. I’ve written before about how I’m more interested in games having almost psychedelic effects rather than conveying some message.

Jennifer: Really good points, Joost (though don’t knock fair trade chocolate-covered broccoli ‘til you’ve tried it). For us in the … ‘non-serious’ side of game dev, it’s no walk in the park either. Due to tight schedules, engagement goals, and limited constraints, sometimes meaning and social impact can get deprioritised. It has happened to me. But we should keep trying, as these efforts increase game quality and appeal.

Consider questions like: How will my game touch someone’s heart? How will my game allow people to reflect deeply on our connection with the world and with each other? How can my game catalyse humans to change the world for the better?

These are economic questions. Economy comes from the Ancient Greek ‘oikos’ (household) and ‘nemein’ (manage). How are we managing our home – Earth – and the family who lives in it – humanity?

What would you like to see more of in games?

Jennifer: I look forward to seeing (mobile) game makers elevate their game in the way that works best for it, and following the footsteps of meaning-driven studios like ustwo games. More emotionally memorable. More inclusively approachable. More real world impact. I want game makers sharing knowledge and best practices with each other, inspiring and encouraging each other to do better.

Joost: I believe there is (still!) a lot of unrealised potential in location-based mobile games that encourage people to engage with real environments and people around them. Games that stimulate collective action in public spaces. We’ve built a game for our students that encourages them to re-imagine the spaces they live in in terms of better futures – to talk to people, do public performances. The coolest moments of that game are pure serendipitous magic that comes out of unexpected encounters. There’s a lot possible there, I think.

What leaders and pioneers in games do you find inspiring?

Jennifer: Everyone involved in Playing for the Planet and the IGDA Climate SIG.

Playing for the Planet is a UN Environment Programme (UNEP)-facilitated alliance with over 45 members from the game industry. Members include E-Line Media, Humble Bundle, Microsoft, Rovio, Sony, Space Ape, Supercell, Sybo, Ubisoft, ukie, Unity, and ustwo games. Sam, Deb, Lisa, Siiri, and crew, hats off!

As a group and in their respective studios, they (we!) are working on decarbonisation efforts as well as green activations in their games.

The IGDA Climate SIG is a grassroots effort consisting of individuals interested in climate action in the game industry, in games, and in general. It’s open to anyone – please join. The monthly Discord meetings are an inspiring joy! The members are also amazing expert climate speakers; check out co-founder Paula Escuadra as well as Arnaud Fayolle, Trevin York, Grant Shonkwiler, Chance Glasco – all of whom run an excellent workshop at GDC called “Climate Crisis Workshop: Use Your Game Developer Superpowers to Fight The Climate Crisis”.

Joost: I really agree with Jennifer. The IDGA Climate SIG is such an inspiring community with lots of energy behind it. I’ve also been inspired by game writer Meghna Jayanth’s (Sable, 80 Days, and Horizon Zero Dawn) perspectives on capitalism and colonialism in games, and ways to resist and rebel joyfully. Also, some time ago I heard Gareth Damian Martin speak about their game Citizen Sleeper and how the game draws inspiration from Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World, a profound ethnographic reflection on the economies around the matsutake mushroom, capitalism, ecology and precarious living. The influence of the book really shines through in Citizen Sleeper, and I think it’s amazing how the game offers hope, a sense of community and resistance in its setting of the ruins of capitalism.

And what can game developers do about the climate crisis?

Jennifer: At my Pocket Gamer Connects London talk, I noted that almost all non-violent protests achieve their goals once they reach a participation threshold of 3.5%. This research is from Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy, and naturally there are exceptions to this rule. However, it’s a useful benchmark – in the UK, that’s only 2.3M people. For game devs, that’s achievable. So what can game makers do to help spread a positive influence and achieve this number? Joost is leading the call to action, and I’m here to drum up some noise for it.

Joost: This is our Call to Action: Join the Game Dev Rebellion!
What happens when game developers, publishers, researchers and journalists join climate activism - actually and directly, by being part of activist actions? Time is running out on the climate. Activism works. The climate movement needs imaginative, creative people. The Game Dev Rebellion believes that we as game developers and others in the industry can gain important experiences and insights from being directly involved in climate activism, as we live and breathe the climate struggle. We build new connections and communities. We become different people. And as a result, we make different games.

When not making, selling, or playing games, what do you do to relax?

Jennifer: Outside of my work and home life responsibilities, raising my 9 year old daughter, I participate in climate activist movements. The bulk of that time has been at Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. I’m not sure if you would categorise these activities as relaxation - though there are subgroups within these organisations that nurture community, such as the XR Families group, which has many kid-friendly activities throughout the year.

Perhaps the ultimate long-term goal is to allow humanity to relax from no longer being in a climate crisis, from no longer being victim to systematic racism, from being a regeneratively abundant economy rather than an extractive growth-maximising one, from finally becoming a globally-focused community.

That is the dream: to relax.

Joost: I’m moving into Jennifer’s direction – participating in activist moments as a ‘leisure’ activity. Besides that, I sing in a black metal band, Terzij de Horde, that also offers wild, energetic takes on the planetary crisis and the politics of worldmaking. Nice and chill!

What are you working on at the moment?

Joost: My team and I are working on All Rise, a game inspired by Phoenix Wright and the Ace Attorney series that puts you in the role of an activist taking fossil fuel companies to court. The game will offer a wild, playful take on climate court cases – a dramatic and politically charged phenomenon. As researchers, we are in close contact with the actual activist heroes leading real life court cases. We also have some of the best people in games on the game development side: Meghna Jayanth who I’ve already mentioned is actually writing on the game! We also have Niels Monshouwer (producer for Horizon Forbidden West); Enora Mercier (artist for League of Legends and Legends of Runeterra) and Curran Gregory aka Megalithic (artist for Paradise Killer).

Jennifer: At ustwo games, my team and I are working on the next Monument Valley. No explicit details yet, only implied ones. But there are wonderful, surprising, transformational implications.

Otherwise, as mentioned before, I’m continuing my efforts at Playing for the Planet, IGDA Climate SIG, Just Stop Oil, and Extinction Rebellion – especially the big event on April 21! I give talks at conferences on climate action and the game industry. I educate myself via training (XR has some good ones here), as well as good books (currently reading Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by Jason Hickel). Key for me is to not spread myself thin – climate activism requires wellness and proper management of activism fatigue – but I’ve always been yearning for an organisation or subgroup that was about the intersection of climate activism and game development. I’ve always wondered if there were others out there like me, already marching. And then wow, Joost reached out to me, and my hope has since been blossoming!

Are you interested in joining your fellow games folks in supporting local and international climate protests, campaigns and actions? Are you interested in sharing how your experiences in activism influence your thinking about game development? Get in touch with Joost and Jennifer!

Read more about what inspired the Game Dev Rebellion here:

Staff Writer

Lewis Rees is a journalist, author, and escape room enthusiast based in South Wales. He got his degree in Film and Video from the University of Glamorgan. He's been a gamer all his life.