Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gaming the end of oil

What better way to breathe life into scenarios than to place life inside them? And what better way to explore and stretch our personal and collective capacity for coping with change than through games?
The freedom to engage in social experimentation and expression is surely the single most precious, fragile, and yet unrealised element of our democratic political mythos. Gaming the future, insofar as it implies the possibility of actually doing what we have for centuries only told ourselves we do, could be revolutionary.

~the sceptical futuryst, Gaming alternative futures (anything but text), June 02006

In our early 21st century stocktake of the global problematique, the ugly twin of climate change is peak oil. The former could be seen as the natural dimension of blowback from our foresight-free experiment in rapacious energy consumption from roughly the dawn of the industrial revolution onwards; the latter as its economic counterpart.

As readers of this blog are well aware, there are disturbing arguments in the wind about the potential for chaos arising from these tremendous forces (e.g. James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency), even if their plausibility is hotly disputed by some. Questions invariably arise in the course of this debate around the extent to which businesses, governments, and ordinary people are prepared for the magnitude of social disruption that could occur. I don't find it a difficult argument to swallow that our society is unprepared for any but the most sanguine, mild, and trivial of scenarios in this vein. To the extent the environmental doomsayers prove correct, in light of our individual psychological and collective political difficulties coping with risks of this type, social disruption would seem to follow with inexorable logic.

So to me it's interesting, and for obvious reasons encouraging, to see the emergence of popular simulations of the end of (cheap, readily available) oil.

One is the forthcoming video game, Frontlines: Fuel of War. Here's the trailer:

The narrative voiceover says (posted at Energy Bulletin, 27 August 02007):

Oil was running out.
It's what we grew up in.
Post middle east,
Post peak oil,
Post everything.
What they call the long emergency.
It started slow.
Little things at first.
Lines at the pump,
that hot summer of 2008 when the blackouts started lasting weeks.

They said it would get better.
Something would save us.

Biofuels, solar power, cleaner nuke plants, maybe.

The depression hit in 2012
Africa ran out of food, then we did too.

People stopped trying to do anything about the problem and just tried to survive.

We watched them starve for 40 years and it just didn't seem real. But pretty soon the scenes we used to watch on the news were happening just down the street.

It's been happening for years. Now we're at a tipping point.

I was 16 when the Chinese and the Russians figured out they'd rather fight us than each other. We didn't waste time forming the coalition.

Now, we're staring each other down over the last wells of the Caspian.

... This is where it's going to happen, in towns too small to have a name, built in two weeks by oil contractors.

It's 2024, the 21st century. People ask we how we let this happen. I tell them we always knew.

The storm is coming.

A pretty grim little poem.

This story serves as backdrop (or, if you prefer, pretext) for a military game of the shoot-em-up genre -- check out the game's website, complete with bombastic soundtrack that sounds just like a Hans Zimmer effort -- in short, it seems to be a thrilling Hollywood-style slice of apocalypse as entertainment.

Which begs the question, "what's the message players walk away with?", duly asked in a CNN article published yesterday about the new game:

While Frontlines: Fuel of War is one of the first video games to capitalize on the doom-and-gloom scenario of what might happen when the world runs out of oil, it's not the only video game focusing on energy as oil prices rise, developing nations use more and more crude, and the world grapples with global warming fears.
Most oil industry analysts say peak oil production is many decades, if not hundreds of years away, and a transition to other sources will likely be more orderly than the scenario depicted in Frontline.

But a small and growing number of experts -- some well-respected -- say peak oil production is close or has happened and the transition will be much more painful than mainstream analysts predict.

Either way, [Frank DeLise, general manager of Kaos Studios, the company behind the game] said he hopes people will get more out of the game than just an adrenaline rush.

"If they play this game they will walk away thinking 'wow, energy is a problem," he said.

Experts say video games can be fun as well as educational, although the outcome largely depends on the content.

"They could in fact lead to changes in attitudes, beliefs, and ultimately, changes in behavior," said Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University who studies the effects of video games on people.
But Anderson, the psychologist, is concerned about the message that violent games like Fuel of War may send to players.

"It may well change attitudes towards the use of these tactics as a political tool," he said. Players may think "of course we have to use military tactics to go take oil."

~"The end of oil is just a game",, 19 January 02008

I'm interested to know what others think about this kind of game: does it seem more likely to teach people to expect (and submit to) the worst case, or, as the general manager of Kaos claims, to recognise -- and, presumably, take actions to mitigate -- such a nightmare scenario?

There is an interesting comparison to be made here with the alternate reality game, "World Without Oil" (WWO), which ran in mid-02007 and sought to engage a broad audience in a collective simulation or scenario exercise:

It's a "what if?" game.
What if there was an oil crisis?
Because an oil crisis has deep and subtle effects, we asked everyone to help us imagine what an oil crisis would really be like. That's how people played the game - first they read the official news and what other players were saying. Then they told the story of how a shortfall of oil was affecting their own lives, and what they were doing to cope.
Over 1900 people signed up as players of World Without Oil, and submitted over 1500 stories from inside the "global oil crisis of 2007." Their work comprises a rich, complex, and eerily plausible collective imagining of such an event, complete with practical courses of action to help prevent such an event from actually happening.

For example, HRCFS's own Jake Dunagan posted this contribution to help flesh out the story for the Hawaii region.

A very effective approach, according to the organisers of WWO:
For [participants] and over 50,000 active observers, the process of collectively imagining and collaboratively chronicling the oil shock brought strong insight about oil dependency and energy policy. More than mere "raising awareness," WWO made the issues real, and this in turn led to real engagement and real change in people's lives.

I wonder in which ways the two approaches are most effective in activating political concern, and beyond that, behaviour change: on the one hand, sophisticated imagery that, although interactive, is basically constrained to a pre-defined narrative; and on the other hand, a less richly pre-imagined, but more reality-integrated simulation?

Of course I don't presume that these types are pure, let alone necessarily or intrinsically separate. Indeed, it seems to me that elements of both types of game -- immersive narratives with an escapist, entertainment objective, and collective scenario-building with a broader social goal in mind -- will shortly be integrated in pursuit of greater effectiveness in bringing scenarios to life, and life to scenarios.

Assuming, of course, that peak oil doesn't get us first.

(Thanks to Ira Rohter for the CNN link. See an introductory QuickTime video about the WWO game here.)


WriTerGuy said...

I think a game such as Fuel of War can be thought-provoking, in much the way that "Children of Men" is thought-provoking. The key question is: does the work bring the viewer to believe, even a little bit, that the future vision has validity? Are there moments in the future vision that just "ring true"? I haven't played FFOW, so I don't know if it has any such moments.

I'm the guy behind WORLD WITHOUT OIL, so you've already published my views about it. A key thing to emphasize, I think, is the "role play vs. real play" aspect to WWO that Jane McGonigal talks about in our video. In a FPS, you are playing an avatar, someone vastly different from you yourself. In WWO, you play yourself, and it's the unique combination of ideas and skills that you possess in real life that makes the game go.

Found this comment on WWO by TS on Matt Locke's TEST blog, and think it's germaine to the questions you're raising:

The great, simple thing about WWO is that it placed its community of players into the game right from the call to action. It made all its players into heroes by asking them to imagine the small steps they would personally take to help avert this crisis. But it was crucial that its narrative of a World Without Oil was one which when it happens in the real world will only meaningfully be tackled by the same small heroic actions by a community of people. So really the great thing about WWO was the perfect synergy between its narrative and event structures...

WWO is just a beginning, however, and I expect we'll see more imaginative and effective mashups of game and simulation as time goes on.

stuart said...

Aloha Ken,

Thanks for stopping by.

I really like these points you made:

The key question is: does the work bring the viewer to believe, even a little bit, that the future vision has validity?

The expansion of our sense of the possible is, to me, probably the most profound offer of a well-built, effectively communicated scenario -- expressed in any medium.

A key thing to emphasize, I think, is the "role play vs. real play" aspect... In WWO, you play yourself, and it's the unique combination of ideas and skills that you possess in real life that makes the game go.

Even in the most basic, no-frills alternative futures workshop, we (at HRCFS) have people spend time in whichever of the (usually four) futures they've selected, or been allocated. The fact that they are asked to project themselves into the scenario as given ("it's your life -- love it, because you can't leave it") echoes precisely the principle you're describing. A text scenario may be a pretty basic setting for a game, and may seem at first more like a thought experiment (in philosophical language), or a group work exercise (through a pedagogical lens), but I think it can clearly be plotted on the same continuum of simulation as more media-rich gameplay.

WWO is just a beginning, however, and I expect we'll see more imaginative and effective mashups of game and simulation as time goes on.

That's the plan! The work we did producing experiential scenarios for 550 participants in "Hawaii 2050" was another variation (related posts can be found on this blog). I certainly like the online and electronically mediated approaches, however, because you can harness the energies of folks distributed geographically as well as temporally. And archive it more easily, which helps us share and progress on methodology and design, as a community of practitioners.

WriTerGuy said...

To my mind, the thing that separates a "thought experiment" from a game is ego involvement, or to use a game term, immersion. In a thought experiment, I am imagining an alternative outcome, but am not invested in that outcome. It doesn't change me. I can spend a good deal of time imagining a realistic life with zombies, for example, then laugh and get on with other things.

But if I get caught up in the experiment, such that the outcome matters to me, then it turns into a game.

WORLD WITHOUT OIL supplies many excellent examples of this. For some players, WWO was a thought experiment. For many others, it started out that way - but you can see, over the course of their storytelling, the game aspect begin to take hold.

Becoming a game, by this definition, was important to us at WWO, because we wanted to show how a game of this sort could bring a player to change his or her life. And that's the remarkable outcome we got. You can raise awareness with a thought experiment, but if you want to change a life, use a game.