Erode Social License

Call out the corruption, deceit and propaganda of polluting industries, real or fictional, and help ruin their hard-won prestige in the real world!

The term Social License to Operate (SLO) is often used to describe a local community’s level of acceptance for mining operations. It has also been central to understanding some global industries’ downfall – most notably when social license was revoked from the tobacco industry, which now sees its products outlawed in more and more contexts each year. The goal is to speed up the fossil fuel’s inevitable journey along that same path.

For example: Portray fossil fuel infrastructure as dark and foreboding, and the people who profit from them as mustache-twirling villains.

Like any industry whose business model is under threat from litigation (see: tobacco, mining, social media), the fossil fuel industry is extremely dependent on public goodwill and they invest heavily in it. As the notion of fossil fuels as a benevolent force evaporates, the industry’s sway over politics slips and they open themselves up to protest, lawsuits, regulation, and ultimately bans. This is why a large part of the climate movement for decades has focused on drawing attention to the corruption and deceit of the industry, while pointing out all the ways it attempts to buy the necessary social acceptance using prestigious collaborations and greenwashing ads. Games provide many opportunities for players to not only learn about the industry’s decision-making – but act upon it.


Consider financial influence. A key aspect of this work in recent years is the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement, which targets prestigious investors such as universities and, with great success, lobbies them to reallocate their investments. This provides some financial pressure, but the main point is to eat away at the industry’s prestige and make them a pariah, loosening their grip on politicians and empowering people at all levels of society to fight against them. The industry itself has acknowledged SLO erosion as a threat against them.

Leverage the Metagame. A more direct approach: Greentrolling. Coined and championed by climate essayist Mary Annaise Heglar, this means following oil companies on social media and calling out their every piece of greenwashing, using irreverent humor to remind their followers of their crimes against humanity.

Expose systemic disinformation. Another key piece of action in this area comes from reporting, which has in recent years uncovered massive scandals behind the scenes of the oil and gas sector, especially regarding how oil companies were aware of the speed and scale of global heating in the 70’s (“Exxon knew”) but banded together to protect their business model by burying their own research and building a veritable disinformation industry to manufacture doubt about what was quickly becoming scientific certainties. In 2021, Greenpeace caught an Exxon executive on camera confessing to all sorts of underhanded, deceptive PR strategies to muddy the waters and delay climate action, which are still going on to this day.

This episode of the podcast Hot Take provides a great primer on the crimes of fossil fuel companies and the importance of social license:

Nuance is Optional. The industry itself is always going to exaggerate in the opposite direction, bending over backwards to portray themselves as environmental heroes, so if subtlety is not what makes you and your audience tick, feel free to balance the scales by being completely brutal, even unreasonable in your depictions. Don’t make things up – satire only works when it’s based in truth – but feel free to exaggerate. It’s true that some of these companies have started to transition, but that doesn’t mean that further pressure won’t speed them up. Fairness is not the point. This is not a battle of minds – that one is being fought elsewhere, by reporters, lawyers and politicians – but one of hearts, so it’s less about convincing people and more affecting the way they feel when they see an Exxon ad.

“But my game isn’t about oil…” You can still help! Maybe you have deplorable characters in your game that you can tie to fossil fuel interests in some way. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure isn’t about fossil fuels, but the villain Paco is subtly tied to it by a single gas canister placed in the environment, labelled “Paco Gas” – this also enriches the character and implies some of his motivations. Mario Kart 8 features ads for “Bowser Oil“. But as times change, maybe even your most deplorable characters will recoil from being associated with fossil fuels. Would Wario stoop to working with coal in the 2020’s? Probably not!