We’re gearing up again for the next part of our ‘massive open online course’ (MOOC). It’ll be Part 2 of our Water Supply and Sanitation Policy course, this time looking at which policy interventions have worked, having covered baseline water and sanitation conditions in Part 1. One of things that has come up again is working out exactly how Dale and I should talk about sanitation, in particular; it remains one of those things not really touched upon in polite conversation.

Generally it’s rare that we see water and sanitation talked about much more broadly, let alone realistically depicted, in much of our popular culture too. This point even takes us right back to one of our first gripes here at Waterstink, on how ‘period dramas’ often omit the harrowing sanitation conditions of their times.

This reflection back got me thinking further; these days games are a widespread and incredibly lucrative part of popular culture… so how do they represent water and sanitation conditions? Do they do it well? Or like costume dramas, do they omit or overly romanticise things?

Gaming is now a massive global industry with tens of billions of US Dollars annual revenue, and has eclipsed film industry in terms of economic scale (in the UK, in the US, and globally). Hollywood actors do voiceovers (LOTS of them!), cameos or full-blown roles for them. The biggest games sell millions of copies. In games it’s very common nowadays to interact with astonishingly detailed and/or realistic renderings of all kinds of past, current and future day settings. For example here’s a fairly recent take on an 18th century Caribbean environment from the game, Assassin’s Creed Black Flag:

Photo: Remarkable aesthetic beauty of water, captured in Assassin's Creed Black Flag.
Photo: Remarkable aesthetic beauty of water, captured in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag.

Pretty, isn’t it? And it’s got water in it too! But do games ever go further beyond this kind of aesthetic use of water, as a kind of attractive backdrop? Do we ever get to see more detail about these aspects that are basic to human survival? Are water and sanitation integrated into the working design of all the dynamic, high resolution detail that has become so common in the games we might play these days?

From my limited experience, I’ve found that typically the character you play – in most genres of games where you can interact with an environment – is capable of doing many things. You can walk, run, crouch or crawl, jump, shoot or hit stuff, and sometimes you might eat… or even drink (albeit to regain ‘health’)… but very rarely in a game do you ever go to the toilet. In fact you might even struggle to find a toilet depicted in your specific game environment.

Well, what does that matter? Should we change this status quo? Could we make water and sanitation more a talking point through this immensely popular medium?

With the scale and complexity of global challenges around water and sanitation that we all face, I think we should. Along that line of reasoning, as a bit of a diversion from ‘normal’ posts here at Waterstink, I’m going to imagine there are awards for realistic water and sanitation in games, and look at just a few recent, more or less high-profile games that I think deserve special mentions in this regard. So let’s start with the water-and-sanitation-realistic-depiction-award for…

Best rural water and sanitation in a game

Not in the vanguard, but doing reasonably well here is the quasi-realistic, Himalayan-y, rural-y setting of popular, cross-platform bestseller Far Cry 4 (with 7 million sales as of December 2014, and a 85/100 score on Metacritic). Here and there Far Cry 4 does depict some examples of rural drinking water infrastructure:

Photo: Water taps in the game Far Cry 4.
Photo: Water taps in the game Far Cry 4.

This choice of piped water infrastructure is admirably quite realistic for the game’s mountainous setting. You could image a gravity-fed, piped water system from mountain springs actually being used here. In fact it looks very similar to a system that Dale showed in-class to our students last week at the University of Manchester, taken some a few years ago, in Bolivia:

Photo: Water taps at the end of a gravity-fed piped system in Bolivia. Source: Dale Whittington.
Photo: Water taps at the end of a gravity-fed piped system in Bolivia. Source: Dale Whittington.

Far Cry doesn’t do quite so well with sanitation facilities though. The most you’ll see is some vague ‘huts’, sometimes accompanied with the sound of flies, that you can’t enter, and that are probably toilets. All in all they don’t really reveal anything at all about what are probably very basic sanitation conditions in this (stylised) part of the world:

Photo: A probable toilet in Far Cry 4.
Photo: A probable toilet in Far Cry 4.

Whatever they might look like inside, most likely these huts are not examples of improved sanitation facilities, such as a ventilated improved pit (VIP) latrine.

Best mega-city water and sanitation in a game

Now we move to modern day Hong Kong depicted in the remastered, Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition. Here there are toilets and sinks that you can use (albeit not pictured here in use for the sake of good taste, but the mere fact that you can use them causes my little one endless amusement – and led to much in-game handwashing afterwards for good practice!):

Photo: A toilet in a Hong Kong apartment, from Sleeping Dogs.
Photo: A toilet in a Hong Kong apartment, from Sleeping Dogs.

Good as this is, interactive toilets and sinks are about it though for Sleeping Dogs; no large-scale water or sanitation infrastructure in the actual city of Hong Kong seems to be shown.

Runner-up award: Sewers are not really for that kind of thing!

Sewers, oddly, have been a bit of a mainstay – almost obsession – for games for many years now. They are a popular game environment design choice in order to shortcut you from one game area to another, sometimes as subterranean living spaces for freakish characters, or simply a stealthy way to sneak you into some secure location. Sadly they are often shown unrealistically. Often they are laws-of-physics-defyingly large, like in the game Deadlight:

Photo: An impossible sewer structure in the game Deadlight.
Photo: An impossible sewer structure in the game Deadlight.

Let’s contrast this with a Thames Water picture of a typical sewer:

Photo: Three sewer flushers down a London sewer. Source: Thames Water.
Photo: Three sewer flushers down a London sewer. Source: Thames Water.

Now I know some storm drains and sewers are a bit larger than this one shown, but still Deadlight’s liberty with structures doesn’t exactly educate and inform younger people about the scale and extent of our underground sanitation infrastructure, does it?!?

An example of a gaming depiction of sewers as labyrinthian sneaking and traversal mechanisms is found in fungal-zombie, post-apocalyptic, character- and story-driven, bestseller The Last of Us (about 8 million copies sold up to 2014). Here are some shots of this part of the game in action:

Photo: Storm drain outflow in The Last Of Us (possibly a combined sewer outflow?).
Photo: Storm drain outflow in The Last Of Us (possibly a combined sewer outflow?).
Photo: The Last Of Us game character Joel here is scratching his head... he will need to in a few moments when he sees the size of the sewer structures just in front of him!
Photo: The Last Of Us game character Joel here is scratching his head… he will be doing a lot more of that in a few moments when he sees the remarkable size of the sewer structures in front of him!
Photo: Some kind of giant underground storm drain/sewer chamber in The Last Of Us.
Photo: Joel then enters some kind of giant underground storm drain/sewer chamber in The Last Of Us.

Both The Last Of Us and Deadlight feature the ‘eccentric’ (to say the least!) character(s) using sewers/storm drains as places to live. Here’s an example note left behind by one such sewer ‘resident’ in The Last Of Us:

Photo: Even given there's been an apocalyptic event, I still doubt Ish is enjoying the sewers THAT much!
Photo: Even given there’s been an apocalyptic event, I still doubt incidental game character, Ish will be enjoying his life much as a ‘mole-man’ in these sewers!

Best representation of water and sanitation in a game

The best-picture ‘award’, if there were such a thing, for overall ‘most realistic representation of water and sanitation issues in a video game’ (technically, sub-category ‘urban’) would undoubtedly go to epic, sweeping, open-world, grime-n’-crime ‘simulator’ Grand Theft Auto V. It’s oddly heartening for me to find that probably the biggest selling games of all time (1 billion USD in sales in its first three days45 million copies distributed to retailers so far) takes a comprehensive view of (urban) water and sanitation infrastructure. Even more than that, it hints at some global water challenge issues here and there.

First of all, there are toilets in GTA V:

Photo: A toilet in GTA V. Not usable directly, but at least it's there...
Photo: A toilet in GTA V. Not usable directly, but at least it’s there…

There are also reservoirs and dams:

Photo: A reservoir in the game, with valve tower to the right and some possible recreational infrastructure to the left. In the background is the 'Vinewood' sign - GTA's take on Hollywood!
Photo: An in-game reservoir; valve tower to the right and some recreational platform to the left. Just visible in the background is the game’s ‘Vinewood’ sign – that’s GTA’s take on Hollywood…
Photo: A reservoir in GTA V.
Photo: Another large reservoir depicted in GTA V.
Photo: The dam holding back this reservoir in GTA V.
Photo: The dam holding back this reservoir in GTA V.

Some areas of GTA seem to indicate the raw water supply is under stress, such as in the drying up waterways leading away from the above dam:

Photo: Water flow drying up in GTA V; dam in the background.
Photo: Water flow seemingly drying up in GTA V; dam shown in the background. I get a sense here that the artistic design is suggesting that the river flow here may have been far more substantial in the past…

If you look you’ll also find rubbish discarded around the above river bed (presumably a take on the Los Angeles River) hinting at pollution issues.

Most impressive of all – and now I say this realising that you may find the actual content and gameplay of the whole GTA series quite objectionable – there’s a large wastewater treatment plant in-game that you can fully walk around and explore:

Photo: Wastewater treatment works in GTA V.
Photo: A wastewater treatment plant in GTA V.
Photo: You can climb up and dive right in some of the wastewater assets... not that you'd want to!
Photo: You can even climb up and dive right into these wastewater treatment assets… not that you’d want to!
Photo: Treatment lanes at the wastewater plant in GTA V.
Photo: Treatment lanes at the wastewater plant in GTA V.

The city storm drain system is also referenced directly in GTA’s stylised take on LA, ‘Los Santos’:

Photo: GTA's stylisation of the Los Angeles River and associated storm drain systems.
Photo: GTA’s stylisation of the canalised Los Angeles River and associated storm drain systems.
Photo: More iconic landmarks re-imagined in GTA's stylised 'Los Santos'.
Photo: More iconic scenery along the Los Angeles River as re-imagined in GTA’s stylised city of ‘Los Santos’.
Photo: Some social commentary in GTA too around this infrastructure...
Photo: Some scope for social commentary in GTA around this area too…

Frankly this level of attention to the actual workings of a city, and to bring out of the shadows the typically flush-and-forget, out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind aspects of urban life, is really commendable. What your average gamer thinks of these inclusions in GTA’s virtual take on Los Angeles, I’m not sure. But I think there’s potential here for participatory discussion and education about planning water and sanitation infrastructure, and about it and we need to adapt to and mitigate climate change factors (I could even see this kind of gamification of water and sanitation participatory planning, of sorts, as a prime candidate for MOOC-related materials!).

Overall I’m happy that gaming, as big and popular as it now is, does sometimes show water and sanitation infrastructure. The level of representation at the moment is a start only, of course. Many people may also shrug and ignore these admirably detailed efforts. But for me I think games have come a long way – and even show a positive way forward of sorts – by not overtly hiding and explicitly overlooking these assets that after all are so vital to our shared life and future together on this planet.

Duncan Thomas

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