A Tree Planted In Cyberspace Grows In Real Life

It’s like gamification that actually means something.

Trophies were never good for much of anything, yet gamification is king. Now these useless pillars of plastic and gold paint have become tokens of the digital world–icon-based achievements for playing games and checking into restaurants–to ultimately mean very little.


One Man One Tree, by French studio Electronic Shadow, is a fascinating response to a culture obsessed with their virtual winnings. It’s an art installation, constructed from 15 kilometers of taut elastic wire meant to emulate a 3-D forest of light. When a user steps up, motion sensors follow them planting a tree in this forest, and it becomes a larger-than-life experience full of satisfying, glowing hyperbole.

But the genius is that, once this tree is planted in the “game,” a real tree is planted in real life, in the Amazon.

“There is an emotional connection and a story that begins with this experience. After the show, the viewer knows it continues and its presence continues to act, this is our idea of our electronic shadow, living in a parallel world,” explains multimedia artist Yacine Ait Kaci. “The virtual tree is the avatar of a coming real tree, we start from immaterial to create life.”

And it’s not just any old tree that you plant. The association Apiwtxa is managed by native Amazonians, who replant trees in deforested areas. Then a group called NatureRights actually tracks the progress of each person’s trees, keeping tabs on the newly formed forest up to a year after interacting with the installation.

“The trees are really physically planted and the link is created between the virtual tree of light and the real tree,” Kaci writes. “Making the visitors active through technology allows us to show that actions, even the most intangible ones have consequences (positive or negative). Our technologies are not necessarily contributing to develop a cold and abstract environment, it is somehow an extension of our mind, and can thus generate nature.”

It’s a lovely conceit, that the sometimes meaningless things we do in our virtual lives could impact the world in a tangible, positive way–especially as many of us forget that with every silly keyword we Google, we’re actually activating servers that guzzle electricity around the world. Thank goodness One Man One Tree only tracks the trees we plant, and not all of them that we’re cutting down.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.