Playing with sustainability: Using video games to simulate futures of scarcity


  • Shawna Kelly Oregon State University
  • Bonnie Nardi University of California, Irvine



civilization, complex systems, post-apocalypse, social interaction, survival horror, sustainability, video games, global futures


Many popular video games sustain compelling storylines that narrativize scarce resources, promote competitive and collaborative social interaction, and foreground survival goals — all necessary skills for making sense of a changed and changing global environment. In this article, we analyze representative commercial video games in four categories: civilization simulations, post–apocalypse first–person shooters, multiplayer survivor horror games, and historical recreations. We examine the ways their game mechanics and game scenarios represent social, economic and environmental interdependencies. We contrast these representations with future scenarios of gradually increasing scarcity of resources, climate change, and other human–environment interactions which can be influenced by transitioning to sustainable practices. Because good game mechanics can cultivate imaginative visions of situational potentials and solutions to problems, a key objective of the paper is to suggest game mechanics and scenarios that simulate and model sustainable practices. This agenda includes shifting away from growth as a game goal; strategizing with depletable resources; emphasizing scavenging versus combat for resource acquisition; and, developing more complex avenues for social interaction and collaboration among players. Incorporating more sustainability science concepts into commercial video games can offer a public outlet for exploring the complex interdependencies of a changing world.

Author Biographies

Shawna Kelly, Oregon State University

New Media Communications

School of Arts and Communication

Oregon State University

Bonnie Nardi, University of California, Irvine

Department of Informatics

Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences




How to Cite

Kelly, S., & Nardi, B. (2014). Playing with sustainability: Using video games to simulate futures of scarcity. First Monday, 19(5).