Games have been “predicting” the future of war since games were even a thing. From the early days of tabletop wargaming to the here and now, what the “conflicts of tomorrow” will look like seems to hold the interest of many, many people. As far as videogames are concerned, especially in recent memory, this sort of violent hypothesizing has been relegated to AAA multiplayer-focused first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield. The most recent (and timely) foray into this fraught milieu is Electronic Arts and DICE’s near-future eco-disaster war game, Battlefield 2042.
Climate change is very real. Just as real are the economic and governmental structures that insist on doing as little as possible to mitigate it while shifting the blame and calls to action onto the average person. What will using a metal straw do for anything when the Ford factory two counties over has poisoned the Earth for decades? Battlefield 2042 won’t answer that question but it will do its best to show you why warfare in this setting is “cool” and “plausible.” The main issue here is why? Using the dystopic wake of worldwide climate ruin for a setting was certainly a choice, a choice that the game never, ever reckons with beyond the reasoning that climate change is why a big tornado might roll through the map once or twice a match. (Got to have that One Big Thing that helps the bland multiplayer stand out). But once again, why? And more specifically, why right now?
We are living with the ramifications of climate change now. It isn’t some nebulous thing. Forest fires are more common than ever, as are flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, and almost every other natural disaster-like event. It is getting warmer year over year, the ice caps are melting, the ocean is dying—you name the catastrophe, it is probably happening. On top of that, gross income disparities continue to grow, access to common goods is more difficult than ever, and we are in the throes (even still) of a global pandemic. The time to hypothesize is long gone, now we just reckon with the sheer weight of it all. That isn't to say a game can’t reckon with this, that is one of the greatest aspects of art. Art helps us better understand or comprehend a moment, movement, or feeling. But it actually has to do the work of showcasing how horrifying climate change is in a tangible sense, it has to sell us on this world and why this choice matters. Battlefield 2042 doesn’t. It throws a red-dot sight on it all and asks us to start earning XP. There is no thematic work or critical thinking happening here. Why choose this setting then? Maybe to show off true “next-gen” graphics because nothing gets the gamers going like high-fidelity rain, fire, and wind. Battlefield 2042 has that in spades—when it works. And that’s the thing, you need multiple things that cost a lot of money to ensure that the game fits the check that it tries to cash—next-gen warfare.
A next-gen console (or powerful PC), a 4K display, and an internet connection are all highly encouraged, if not needed, to experience whatever it is Battlefield 2042 has to offer. That’s what the marketing has told us. So, in order to enjoy a game about fighting in a future lost to climate change, we need two things that are difficult to get due to supply chain shortages caused by labor disputes, a global pandemic, supply chain struggles, and climate change itself. Okay, fine. Next-Gen consoles and 4K displays are hard to get, but getting them is possible. You also need an internet connection to play. Internet is a privatized commodity that, over the past twenty years, has all but proved itself to be a necessary service for all people. But it isn’t seen that way by the U.S. government or businesses. So internet access is siloed. If you aren’t in a major metropolitan area, there is a decent chance you might have what some folks would say is an average-to-bad internet connection, and this is a connection that you still pay for. Well, Battlefield 2042 barely runs when using Fiber so how much better will it run on a slower, less-stable connection? We all know the answer. Battlefield 2042 is itself a byproduct of the very catalysts, in one way or another, that cause the future it hypothesizes. Producing gaming hardware and its ephemera isn’t great for the environment. Neither is the power over time needed to use these systems. The carbon footprint of gaming and internet use, both digitally and physically, is large. Games aren’t created in a vacuum but the environmental impact of gaming and our current climate reality is not new. When Battlefield 2042 was first going into development, these realities were known, and at the very least, the data and information were readily accessible. Yet, the game exists.
Battlefield 2042 asks players to fight over land and natural resources. The future of warfare just might be wading through the waters of a once landlocked city as we scramble for raw materials, but the way it is portrayed in this game is neither cynical or even just tone-deaf. Huge storms sweep across and ruin landscapes. Cities are drowned in the sands of an endless desert. Shorelines are receding. Battlefield 2042 fits the bill in nearly all aspects of post-climate change dystopic fiction, but unlike the majority of that fiction that reckons with the how’s and why’s of a new hellish world, it isn’t even worried about characters or stories that ground and give a purpose to using this fictional setting. The closest we’ve gotten to that is a terrible short film that I really, really hope doesn’t turn out to be Michael K. Williams’ last performance, but that short film uses the violence of climate change as a means to tee up what could be a unique take on military fiction. Instead, we just get yelling, explosions, and lens flare galore. Military fiction is often bad, but it is at its worse when it uses real-world violence to generate fictional “Cool Factor”. Battlefield 2042 makes that mistake at every turn. It is just dumb. Lazy. The setting exists to feature cool effects and interesting map designs, and nothing more. But a setting like this demands more. The game doesn’t give that to us.
Battlefield 2042 isn’t a game you should play. It has nothing to say, and what is there to parse through is just military simulation fantasy. But Battlefield 2042 is also an ephemeral experience that isn’t even easily accessible for many people—whether because they live an internet desert or due to the fact that gaming is just increasingly expensive due to scalpers, supply issues, and everything in between. It is also ephemeral due to its very structural limits as an online-only shooter.
Online-only experiences don’t last forever, just ask The Matrix: Online. Whether due to business woes or aging hardware, online-only games die a unique and permanent death once their servers go down and they can no longer be played. Battlefield 2042 will one day be such a game—a game that can no longer be played due to the withering effects of climate change, effects that could be stopped, could at least be mitigated, but are not being taken seriously enough. Or at the very least, that’s just my honest prediction. There are plenty of flooded maps in the game. That is probably the reality of climate change that we’ll grapple with the most in the coming decade. Where other long-running, popular online-only games eventually die due to the reality of time itself, I fear that the online-only games of today won’t even get the chance to age into becoming nothing. As the powers to enact true change remain idle, the physical violence of climate change will evolve, grow stronger, and occur at an increasing rate.
Gaming is the last thing on my mind when I think of the decades to come, but Battlefield 2042 has led me to think about such futures—more out of anger at the game than any sort of critical introspection that the game asks me to do. If you have the electricity, then you can likely put a physical disk in a console and play a single-player/not online-only video game. Those are safe, for now. As for online gaming, what will happen when the server farms flood? What will happen when internet data provider centers are caught in a tornado, in a forest fire, in a hurricane?
Those are questions I now find myself asking. Battlefield 2042 might’ve led me to think about those questions a bit more. But it did so in a loathsome way. This game is a miserable experience—a gross endeavor in exploiting the many violences of today to create a fun war game of tomorrow. And it fails at being fun so all we’re left with is a cruel multi-million dollar exercise in what the world may well one day look like. Who wants to see this through the lens of a Battlefield game? Why this? Why now?
This game broke something within me. It made me despair about gaming for numerous reasons. AAA games have nothing left to say, (if they ever had much to say at all), and we should probably be spending our days doing anything else with the increasingly fraught life we have left than spending our time playing them. The generations before us may have dug our graves, but that doesn’t mean we have to think of and engage in play with the same tools and ideas that they left us with. Quasi-realistic military simulation is a method of imaginative play that dates in popularity back to post-war America. We don’t have to continue with it. Games can be more than that. They are more than that. Battlefield 2042 is not more than that and it leaves me with nothing left to say. Its aesthetics are what made me feel something and nothing else, and what it did make me feel was barely related to the experience of playing the game. It won’t ask anything of you so don’t expect anything of it. Climate change is a terrifying reality and the game all but makes a mockery of it by using it as a means of creating visually impressive “hype moments” to showcase its Earth-killing tech. Do something else, anything else.
Cole Henry writes about games sometimes. He used to write about them more. He has a blog that can be found here where the majority of his recent games writing lives, and you can follow him on Twitter @food_enjoyer.