The Polar Retrospective – Playfully into the Polar Regions | Polarjournal
Investigating the effects of climate change as an Antarctic explorer in 2035 is the aim of the video game “Metaverso Antártico”, developed in Chile. Video: XR-Labs at the University of Chile

The Polar Retrospective looks back at events of the past week that are related to the Arctic and Antarctic and focuses on one or more aspects. This time, a video game launched last week serves as an opportunity to look at the fusion of video games and polar regions.

Working as a polar researcher in Antarctica, collecting and analyzing samples and helping to protect the white wilderness is a dream shared by many. A step closer to this dream can be taken by immersing oneself in the Metaverso Antártico, developed by the XR-LABS team at the University of Chile’s transdisciplinary laboratory for virtual reality and video games. Together with the Instituto Milenio BASE, the Chilean Antarctic Institute INACH and other Chilean institutions, Victor Fajnzylber’s team developed the video game and has now launched it.

Your task: In 2035, climate change has taken hold of the Antarctic region and, as a polar researcher, you are to collect samples, take pictures and analyze data in seven Antarctic ecosystems on land and under water, thus helping to gain a better understanding of the effects of climate change. The game is set on a futuristic base on the imaginary island of Molinari and the nearby “Rivera Glacier Bay”. The base and the region are part of a larger metaverse: “We are creating a futuristic and flexible narrative universe in which all researchers can formulate their own hypotheses about the world they have discovered,” explains Victor Fajnzylber. “The game invites them to make their own personal reflections on biodiversity and respect for all living things in times of climate change.”

A screenshot from the game “Metaverso Antártico”, in which the imaginary base on Molinari Island plays an important role. Image: XR-Labs

The game features 26 different species, whose exploration has been made as realistic as possible in collaboration with 14 scientists. “Over the past few months, our scientific committee has shared its work on microorganisms, invertebrates, birds, fish, plants, whales, oceanography and Antarctic law – which has been so present in the public debate – with the aim of contributing to the construction of this educational and scientific metaverse,” explains Dr. Elie Poulin, head of BASE.

In addition to scientific topics, the game also deals with social issues such as gender equality, an issue that is constantly being discussed in the video game industry and has recently been addressed in polar research . “The development team has also done important work to highlight the Antarctic science that we women and logistics experts at INACH are doing,” says Dr. Julieta Orlando, Vice Director of BASE. The game is available for free on the itch.io platform and can be downloaded from the game’s website (at the end of the article).

Just the tip of the iceberg

Metaverso Antártico is just the tip of the iceberg, however, and one of many video games with polar themes that have been announced, released or are still in development over the past few years. The gaming industry, which last year generated global sales of around 184 billion US dollars, is looking for new areas, themes and approaches to video games, as are many other industries. And it finds them in the icy expanses of the Arctic and Antarctic. Indeed, this industry also seeks to profit from society’s growing interest in the polar regions. However, the days when polar bears were simply tossing around penguins in two-dimensional space with simple graphics are over. Nowadays, professional games developers are delving much deeper into the polar regions and devoting themselves to topics such as the history of polar research, the cultures of Arctic peoples and survival in the Arctic wilderness. In doing so, teams are aiming for the most realistic scenarios and backgrounds possible.

For example, the Polish development team Unseen Silence has explored the story of the Franklin expedition and, in the game “Terror – Endless Night”, put players on board a rescue mission for the two vessels “Terror” and “Erebus”. But, as in reality, the rescue mission gets caught in the pack ice and the crew has to fight for survival. Initially, resource and crew management are the main priorities, but later on, very difficult decisions have to be taken, such as how far to go to get the food situation under control, which brings up the issue of cannibalism. In order to bring the players as close as possible to the reality of the Arctic environment and the psychology of extreme situations, the development team has been in close contact with experts from a wide range of fields. The game is currently still in development, but a release date is to be announced soon.

Playful immersion in the cultures of Arctic peoples

In the award-winning game “Never alone”, players are immersed in the world of the Iñupiat , the indigenous people of Alaska, and must save their world from an eternal snowstorm as Nuna and Fox, either alone or in cooperation. The game was developed by Upper One Games together with representatives of the Iñupiat and has won several awards. A second part is currently in development. Images: Upper One Games

But video games are not just about research, survival and history; they are also a way of conveying the cultural values and thoughts of indigenous Arctic peoples. One example of this is the game Never Alone, developed by the US company Upper One Games. Its special feature is that they are the first indigenous-owned game development company in the US, having been founded by a subsidiary of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. In the game, players take on the roles of Nuna, an Iñupiat girl, and her companion Fox, a polar fox. The objective of the game, which can be played alone or with a friend, is to uncover the reasons behind an eternal snowstorm and save the world from eternal cold. The developers drew on traditional stories and figures from the Iñupiat culture and worked with around 40 tribal elders and storytellers, thus conveying the thoughts and values of the Alaskan indigenous people. Their efforts have been quite successful, as the game was widely praised by the press worldwide after its release in 2015 and won, among other things, the British Academy Games Award, a subcategory of the British “Oscar” equivalent BAFTA (British Academy Film Award). The game was released on numerous platforms and proved so successful that a second part is now in development. The first part is still available for purchase on a wide range of platforms.

Polar game themes equal big business

But it is not only small development teams and companies that recognize the value of polar themes in games. Even more well-known development companies are jumping on the “polar theme express”. Take Ubisoft, for example, which added a polar theme to its very popular and commercially successful 2019 strategy and management game “Anno 1800”. In the expansion “The Passage”, players can embark on a quest to find the Northwest Passage. To do so, they will need the help of newly developed airships to not only find the legendary passage, but also to unravel the fate of the Franklin expedition and to build Arctic bases, where they can mine raw materials, open up trade routes and drive the economic development of their own nation in the course of the industrial revolution.

These kinds of expansions, which are usually sold with so-called Season Passes, are very profitable for game developers and keep the gaming community playing. That’s important, since developing a video game is a costly affair these days. Countless licenses for technology and content, plus personnel and infrastructure costs, soon push the costs of a game into millions, especially if it is to be graphically appealing and physically realistic, while at the same time offering exciting gameplay and long-term motivation. Indeed, global sales figures for such games show that the gaming community is willing to pay the prices demanded by the development companies for thrilling games that also include polar topics. Although the companies usually keep detailed sales figures under wraps, the fact that they continue to invest in development clearly indicates this is big business.

In the end, it turns out that polar topics and regions not only fascinate and inspire people in the real world, but also in its virtual counterpart. As a result, development teams and scientists are hopeful that this is also a way to raise awareness of issues that threaten the Arctic and Antarctic.

Dr. Michael Wenger, Polar Journal AG

Links to the websites of the games mentioned above (without Anno 1800)

Metaverso Antártico (in Spanish)

Never alone (in English)

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