When I am not working to protect nature, being outside or reading books, I like to play video games. They offer a necessary escape from the constant knowledge and understanding of just how badly we have damaged – and continue to damage – the Earth’s environment. Throw in a daily dose of constant news cycles covering war, refugees, famine and geopolitical tensions, a half hour escape into a virtual world is refreshing if not mandatory. Now that I have a bit of time on my hands, I have decided to dive back into the virtual world of The Last of Us. Developed by Naughty Dog, the game follows two individuals who are navigating their way through a dystopian America that has been devastated by an infectious fungus. The pockets of humanity that survive do so behind dysfunctional quarantine zones, wrecked vehicles, crumbling buildings and armed militias.
Playing through this unique story made me realise how powerful videogames can be as a tool for helping people imagine a world where nature thrives. One of the most striking scenes in The Last of Us is when Ellie and Joel find a herd of giraffes in the middle of a crumbling city. They let their guard down and interact with one of the giraffes. And through this, so does the player.
After the encounter, Ellie and Joel take a moment to look at the city. In amongst the crumbling, grey and depressing buildings and bridges are pockets of green trees, shrubs, grasses and vines. In reflecting over the entire game, I realised that the most tense, dangerous places were built environments where the violent infected were present. By contrast, the scenes that took place outdoors were serene, peaceful and safe.
The Last of Us made me wonder what a city would look like if planners and government officials paid attention to the role of nature. A city that was built in such a way that wetlands, rivers, meadows and native forests were left untouched. One that took account of the movement of animals so that we could look out our office windows and see them. Sadly, nature is still treated as an afterthought when we build cities and suburbs. Even in the greenest cities around the world, the nature that exists is often tamed and manicured to conform to our needs.
The Last of Us is not the only game where the natural world has been so wonderfully imagined. I remember having similar experiences when playing through games like Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games) and Uncharted: Lost Legacy (Naughty Dog). While each of the games told a different story, the underlying themes were the same. Both featured ancient civilisations that had fallen while nature slowly reclaimed the built environments.
As a conservationist, these games reinforce the message that nature will thrive without people. It is us who cannot thrive without nature. Playing these types of games is one of the reason why I like being outdoors so much. They help me imagine the possibilities of a world where nature is allowed to thrive. I think that these video games are a powerful tool for fueling the imagination and we should learn from them when it comes to telling stories about conservation.