No winners or losers: how games misrepresent ecologies

August 26, 2016 by Mike Joffe

Fictional ecologies are quite common in videogames-- but the way games represent them doesn't usually reflect real life.

When I was working on my masters degree, focusing on science communication, my favorite stories came from the students and faculty doing work in animal behavior. Of those stories, my favorites tended to come from those studying crows. Crows are ridiculously smart, particularly in their ability to learn and communicate. Those doing experiments on crows at a related lab had to eventually start wearing masks to hide their faces, as the incensed crows would remember them and, once released, inform every crow within miles of the indignities those specific humans had inflicted on them. As a result, several researchers became persona non grata among the crows, and could not walk around town without being mobbed and pecked by furious, vengeful birds.

There are no shortage of games that draw on naturalist themes, or explicitly set out to duplicate aspects of the natural world, from classic old simulations such as SimEarth and SimAnt to the modern sprawling procedurally generated worlds of No Man's Sky. But the real world will always be more complicated than any current technology can simulate. As a result, games inevitably must make choices on what to simplify and what to ignore.

In most cases, especially with traditional AAA games, the parts that developers choose to simplify are those that exist outside of the simplistic winner/loser binary. As most traditional games revolve around the player trying to achieve a specific "win" state and avoid a "lose" state, most, if not all, aspects of the real world that are simulated will get put towards getting the player towards one of those two states. When more complex ecological interactions exist, it often gets relegated to "lore" with no bearing on actual gameplay. Games will often tell us about their complex natural worlds, yet show us merely a static mass of enemies with largely identical temperaments, all primarily interested in causing the player to lose the game. A natural world of endless competition and conflict, and with definitive winners and losers, is all too often the view people take away from cursory examinations of biology, and one that is particularly easy to feed into traditional game design.

Pokemon, for example, has always had an uneasy relationship with the natural world. The Pokemon themselves often reference some of the most obscure biological creatures and systems you can find in any media, and they’ve probably already inspired a generation of biologists. But ever since the first pair of games became a runaway hit, the official line has always moved away from depicting 'realistic' relationships between the 'mons. You won't find Ash or his companions even eating food made of real-world animals in the anime anymore, and official content guides for the franchise make it clear this is because they don't want the audience to think of Pokemon AS animals that must kill to survive. Pokemon has dark enough undertones to it without thinking about how the pokesausage gets made.

Alolan variant Sandshrew.

Ironically, this insistence on keeping consumers from thinking of Pokemon as real animals and the banning of overt food chains has lead to a burst of ecological creativity in the development of Pokemon Sun & Moon. Not only is the games' new region specifically built around showing relationships between humans and Pokemon, but the region-variants of existing Pokemon came about specifically because of anthropogenic factors on their environment. These factors may have been indirect, as climate change forced the Vulpix and Sandslash of the region to become ice types, or been more direct, as in the case of the recently revealed Meowth variant. Meowths were culturally regarded as royalty in Alola, and so Meowths that looked more regal and 'exotic' were selected by humans of the region. This also ended up changing the behavior of the Meowths, which in turn also selected for certain genetic traits, giving us a dark (which as always meant less 'shadow type' and more 'asshole type' in the Pokemon universe) Meowth.

This process of anthropogenic evolution is found in the real world. Collies were originally bred for their intelligence, as they were work dogs that needed to be able to carry out complex commands. When Lassie became popular in the 1950s, Americans began demanding collies with more angular features, more closely resembling the canine star, and breeders began selecting puppies with longer, and inevitably more compressed, skulls. As these dogs were then forced to breed and their even more angular offspring were selected, the brains became smaller and even more compressed. By the end of the century, the poor collie had gone from one of the most intelligent dog breeds to one with severe physical and mental problems, all because a media-addled populace wanted dogs that looked more like the smart dog on the TV. Anthropogenic evolution is not limited to domesticated animals either, as cultural perceptions of wild animals impact how we treat them as well, which in turn impacts on which individuals and species survive to reproduce.

Pokemon Sun and Moon’s Alola region focuses much more strongly on Pokemon ecosystems and cultural history than previous games in the series. Nevertheless, the actual gameplay is unlikely to change much from previous installments, and will remain alienated from this ecological lore. The world of Pokemon is a vehicle for its battling mechanics. All the interesting lore around the Alola Region's ecosystem and its more interconnected world are there to provide more ways to battle and make those battles compelling.

Ever since the original Ruby and Sapphire, the series has tried to create new ways of using and interacting with Pokemon outside of battling. Nonviolent Pokemon competitions, talent shows, Pokemon movie studios, even the virtual pet-esque Pokemon Amie from X and Y all allowed players ways to interact with favorite Pokemon, even when those Pokemon were not well suited for competitive battling. Yet, none of them have had the same staying power of the battle system, and as a result Pokemon introduced to fit an ecological niche, or shine in some non-battle capacity tend to be universally despised. Just try to find internet comments regarding Luvdisc in a positive light. People respond positively to lore that showcases a more interconnected Pokemon world, but not when that goes up against the mechanics of competitive battling.

But that alienation between Pokemon's ecological lore and the world it presents is not just tied to battles. Despite the wealth of insight the Pokedex provides each generation of monsters, the actual behavior of the monsters is identical. All Pokemon will jump at the chance to attack any kids who wander into the grass. All Pokemon are evidently bloodthirsty, regardless of what the Pokedex may tell you about their temperament. When caught, you can find descriptions of the unique nature of your Pokemon's personality, but all that does is provide a cute code for disguising what numbers are higher or lower than average, and your jolly Eevee and adamant Eevee will be identical in how they bounce up and down in their pokeball.

Pokemon's draw is in its simple, balanced battles, and throwing too much "real" behavior into its creatures could easily overwhelm that simplicity. But this same alienation between gameplay and the implied ecology is evident in other games, too -- even ones that don't have that same narrow focus on battling. Games that set out to create an experience that is dramatically removed from traditional ideas of competitive games can just as easily fall into the same trap of how they view ecology. Even games that seek to subvert our expectations as to what games are can end up ultimately conservative in their view of the natural world.

ABZU's lore may be a vehicle for mild environmental puzzles and a story of evil triangles and shark-redemption, just as Pokemon's is a vehicle for battling. On the other hand, those basic puzzles and forgettable story may instead be the vehicle to convey a wonder of the natural world. ABZU's gorgeous underwater world is filled with real-world creatures and clearly involved a great deal of thought and research. Its temples are filled with art describing the long-forgotten connection a now almost-nonexistent species of people/robots had with this natural world, either creating or maintaining it. Yet, there does not actually feel like there is any connection between this world and your diver. You can grab ahold of larger sea creatures, or meditate and let the camera focus on one of the smaller ones, but all that does is reveal the seams. The creatures basically ignore you, and while the larger ones occasionally eat the smaller ones, it is always in such a simple, mechanical way that it becomes impossible to lose yourself in this world. Animals don't hunt here; they simply swim in larger circles until a smaller animal gets within range and then an algorithm decides if it will eat it or not. Other than that, animals don't interact, period. The "natural" world your diver seeks to restore ends up feeling as artificial as the evil industrial triangle world it struggles against, only differing in color scheme and background music.

ABZU's choices on what to simplify end up highlighting how artificial its environments really are, a choice that seems at odds with its goal of keeping the player immersed beyond the original "wow factor" of its impressive visuals. The game routinely asks you to stop and meditate on its world, but provides no reason to stick around after you see your first fish get eaten.

When most people think of organisms interacting, they think of food chains and end there. They think of a dominant animal on top, and a linear chain going all the way down to weaker plants at the bottom. Usually, people think of this chain as going one direction and being extremely straightforward. This is largely due to the linguistic baggage that comes from any common descriptions of the natural world. When scientists say "survival of the fittest" or "selfish genes,” they often think that they are using neutral language, but language exists to be interpreted. We've all known creationists who misinterpreted "came from monkeys" to mean people literally transformed from a monkey in a single generation, but even people who are more scientifically aware can make the same kinds of mistakes. The eugenics movements that used a specific interpretation of Darwin's language, completely independent of his actual theories and research, to justify racism. Genocide was promoted by scientists who fell into just as dangerous a trap. The truth is, there is no such thing as neutral language. "Fittest" in the ecological concept does not mean stronger or better or even more evolved, but simply the ability to survive a niche. Even then, that ability isn't even a guarantee of survival, as any giant dinosaurs would tell you if they hadn't been wiped out by random chance and their chicken descendants enslaved to provide us with breakfast.

No one could argue that the struggle for survival doesn't include a plethora of violence, conflict and competition, but even those struggles can and often do take forms that defy our expectations. Do yourself a favor sometime and look up the reports on cows and sheep that accidentally eat a baby chick, develop a taste for blood, and then teach themselves to hunt and stalk other chickens on their farms. Those are examples of anomalous behavior, but even "natural" behavior can fly in the face of the shallow "all vs all" conception of natural selection. Vampire bats share blood with members of their communities that are "less fit" when it comes to hunting. Perfectly fit but lazy bats can learn to take advantage of this, and greedy bats can use it as a safety net when they have a bad night and then refuse to share when they have a successful one. This means that those communities must develop rules to make sure everyone is taken care of, but also ensuring that those who get caught exploiting the community's kindness go hungry until they begin contributing to those who need it again. In this case, "fittest" ends up selecting for honesty, altruism, and understanding social cues just as much as it does physical fitness and hunting ability.

When I was eight I visited Kakariko village for the first time. I swung my sword around recklessly, hoping to uncover rupees in the bushes or secrets in the walls. To my childish delight, I found that the chickens of the village reacted to my sword strikes in a comical, but decidedly non-violent way. I spent minutes just whacking a poor virtual chicken with my sword as it made synthesized calls and I laughed. The laughter died when a massive flock of chickens blotted out the sun and pecked me to death. No one will ever claim that Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is an example of a thriving, realistic ecosystem in a game, but for that moment, to a shocked and hysterically laughing 8 year old, it felt like the chickens were learning. The truth is, leaving room in your game for a 'natural' ecosystem does not require a bloated, overly complicated simulation. It only requires remembering the natural world's ability to surprise us.