Educational and Editorial Games

Lately I’ve played a few rounds of Electrocity, a simulation game by a New Zealand power company in which the player gets to manage the power supply for a young city. It’s designed to be played by school kids, so the interface is deliberately a bit simpler than for most sim games, but otherwise it basically works in a familiar way: you have various resources, and you can build things (mines, gas wells, airports, hydro-electric plants) and clean them up. At the end of the game, you’re scored on how well you did at building a large population, a clean environment, and a steady power supply.


It’s a pretty game, and it’s reasonably amusing, and I’ve learned a few things about the relative productivity of different power sources. The landscape varies from game to game just enough to keep things interesting but not so much that you ever get stuck with a totally unplayable territory. And there are encouragements to preserve some of your land as national forest, and to pay attention to the feelings of your citizens. (More about that in a minute.)

I do wonder a bit about some of the lessons it teaches, though, as the result of being a game. One of the most entertaining parts from my point of view is speculating on the fuel market: I usually prospect for and find some gas and/or coal on my patch of land, which I then extract but do not use. Using these nasty fossil fuels has an environmental impact I’d prefer to avoid. Instead, I watch the market carefully and sell the fuels at peak prices, investing the proceeds in wind farms and hydroelectric power for my city. Somewhere out beyond the edges of the game, I’m doing bad things to someone else’s environment. But since I’m living in a tiny little sandbox and don’t see the rest of the world, this doesn’t seem so bad. Another strategy is to build a gas plant for relatively cheap power early in the game, but close it later when better sources become affordable. Either way, the message seems to be that a stage of fossil fuel use, or at least trading, is necessary before you can move to better power sources; there’s never any lingering damage, as far as I can tell. After I’ve done with my gas wells and coal mines, I can always easily close them and clean them up, too, leaving my landscape in pristine condition.

The game also rewards a cycle of planting and clear-cutting forests: it costs money to plant a forest, but it earns (more) money to chop one down, so the financially sensible thing to do is to keep your forests constantly in a state of flux, unless maybe out of sentiment and for tourist reasons you set aside a little national forest land. This may be a reasonable simplification, given that it would be harder to present the idea of sustained forest farming.

But the most interesting thing, I find, is the role of nuclear power in the game. This is obviously problematic because the dangers of nuclear power are hard to represent in a small sandbox. There’s a very very very small chance (relative to the scope of the simulation) that a plant might ever melt down. I don’t know whether this is a possibility they’ve simulated in the game, but I strongly suspect that it isn’t. Certainly, I’ve never seen it happen. But rounding the tiny chance of catastrophe down to a *zero* chance of catastrophe makes a fairly major difference to one’s decisions. Electrocity allows players to save and share their finished cities, and the ones that show up at the top of the high score board are often heavily powered by nuclear plants.

Though there isn’t a meltdown, building a nuclear plant does provoke a reaction from the population, so it’s not completely without effects. Citizens may become unhappy with your policies, delay production on your projects by picketing and looting your construction sites, and drastically lower the happiness level of the city overall, which affects your final score. (If you’re rich enough, you can buy back their affections by building costly attractions like stadiums and amusement parks. This is a little cynical, I feel.) But the citizens’ unhappiness also tends to be short-lived; after a little time in their clean, well-powered, cheaply-taxed city, they all perk up again and go back about their business. And I can’t help feeling that there’s a little bit of a message in this: namely, nuclear power isn’t so bad; too bad people get so hysterical about it.

Now, I’m not really taking sides on the nuclear issue. I rather suspect that it is in fact necessary for us to rely on nuclear power more than I’d like, because other forms of power production are dirtier or just too low in production to do all our work for us yet. That’s one point that the simulation makes that is, as far as I can tell, accurate: you can build all these fascinating, expensive, experimental power generation plants — tidal generators, geothermal generators, farms recycling biomass, etc. — but when all is done, they are only producing a tiny trickle of the power you need to keep a city going. Sooner or later you need a couple of those big hydroelectric plants, or a nuclear stack. The reason I’m so interested in this is that FAQ section of the Electrocity website says,

Why has Genesis Energy funded this game?
Genesis Energy sees a wider public understanding of energy management – even at this simplified level – as crucial. The higher the public interest, the better the general understanding, the more informed the debate, the better for everyone.

Does the game have a political agenda or bias?
No. ElectroCity was developed by gamers with a love of SimCity, Civilization, the Sims and other popular ‘civic simulation’ computer games, rather than a political think-tank! The goal has been to represent reality as best we can, in a simplified and fun world. It’s a game of pros and cons, trade-offs and balances. For example, you can build a nuclear power plant in your city. There are benefits, but there is also a downside and the decision to go nuclear is a tough one with no right or wrong answer. This game neither promotes nor ignores nuclear power, but instead provides a great sandbox to learn about the issue. Of course before you make the decision, you are shown all the in-game pros and cons.

While I can believe that they wanted to make this an unbiased educational game, I don’t think they succeeded. There are biases built into the scoring system, if nothing else. They do let you decide you don’t care about maximizing your population and to establish a No Growth cap when you like, but the underlying message is that bigger is better — and to afford the power demands of a big city, you need big power sources.

Ah well. I’m thinking about these issues partly because I recently saw the announcement of Newsgames — games being included in the New York Times online editorial section to demonstrate some point or other. This is a cool idea — but it’s entirely right to label such games as editorials. Playing a game may teach the player that he can optimize the game only in certain ways (or that the game is impossible to win, like Global Thermonuclear War); but it’s open to question whether the optimal game strategy corresponds to an optimal real-life strategy.

As we see more of this kind of thing (and I think we will), we as consumers of educational and editorial games are going to need to stay alert and savvy, conscious of the way a game’s rules can look like they emulate real life constraints without actually doing so. A case in point is the way Electrocity lets me participate in a fuel market without experiencing any repercussions at all from the fossil fuel burning by the people in the next town over. Would it be better all around if I just kept it in the ground? Maybe, maybe not — but within the game there’s no incentive to think about that.

Nonetheless, I find all this kind of thing very exciting. I just think we should remain thoughtfully critical of what goes into a simulation like Electrocity.

7 thoughts on “Educational and Editorial Games

  1. Great review, Emily. Sim City lets the player place a coal plant in corners of the map, so that much of the pollution falls off-screen. If the map wrapped around, or players were randomly assigned to receive the negative effects of other players’ off-screen fallout, the game would have a different message.

    All simulations simplify and exaggerate to some extent, but so do textbooks for school kids and other media , like theater or oral narrative. I use IF in order to get my students to think outside of the GUI box, asking them to examine an unfamiliar medium, in which they are conscious of the constraints, so that they can become more aware of the constraints associated with more familiar media.

  2. Timely review considering that two of the three entries into this year’s IF art show (mine included) were overtly political/editorial. When making any kind-of overtly poitical art, there is always the trade-off between whether the art or the politics is pushed to the forefront, it is a rare piece indeed that can do both masterfully. When making a “game” the question becomes how to balance the entertainment and editorial functions of the piece (The art show leaves a little more wiggle room here since the pieces have no expectations of being fun games).

    Tying this entry and your last entry together, I think there is a lot of room to explore to what degree ambiguity and player moral choices in games can tie into an overtly political message and strengthen it or weaken it.

    I do think it is interesting to see games, both graphical and text-based, pushing their boundaries as works of art/literature/performance and as editorial modes of expression. And I say that not as a lifelong gamer who is glad to see games are coming into their own, but as an artist and activist who has recently rediscovered both text and graphics based computer games.

  3. Also I find this statement:


    Does the game have a political agenda or bias?

    No. ElectroCity was developed by gamers with a love of SimCity, Civilization, the Sims and other popular ‘civic simulation’ computer games, rather than a political think-tank!

    to be a little bit of a deliberate (?) non-sequitor. Just because something is developed by gamers rather than a political think-tank has no bearing on whether it carries an overt political message or not.

  4. “Tying this entry and your last entry together, I think there is a lot of room to explore to what degree ambiguity and player moral choices in games can tie into an overtly political message and strengthen it or weaken it.”

    One of the things I think is effective about simulation games is that they allow the player to choose a strategy (often ideologically-based in some way) and then pursue it to see whether it is pragmatically effective within the terms of the simulation. So I have played Electrocity several times with different agendas — sometimes to maximize the population that I can cleanly support, at other times concerned to preserve as much forest and park land as possible, even if that meant capping the town growth at a very low level; and then I have also tried nuclear and non-nuclear experiments. The flexibility of a simulation game allows the player to push the boundaries of the model; the model might not give any feedback at all about whether a given ideological strategy is morally *right*, but it might still effectively present an argument based on pragmatic implications. For that matter, the fine-grained nature of a simulation means that the player can change policies mid-game, and that a choice need not be an irrevocable commitment. I started one game in which I cynically decided to test the boundaries of the simulation and pollute heavily, but I found as I played that this was so unsatisfying that I reformed and started cleaning up.

    So on the one hand the player has a great deal of freedom to make what we might consider to be moral choices, but on the other hand, the game does not necessarily comment on their moral content. Well — let me revise that. In Electrocity, I felt that the question of whether to use nuclear power or not was a moral choice that the game attempted to leave open (though, as I’ve said, there may be some implicit aspects of the simulation that push the player in one direction). On the other hand, there is *not* a moral question about whether or not it is good to pollute: it is understood in the fabric of the game that environmental destruction is bad. This is clear from the scoring; from the way the game becomes harder if you play it in too polluting a way (severe polluting makes all your citizens unhappy); from the flavor text; and from the aesthetics of the game. Electrocity is quite attractively drawn, with clean, bright colors, and pleasant illustrations of the forests, parks, seasides, etc. If you pollute too much, however, your landscape becomes littered with less attractive structures and the air over your city grows black and hazy. This is all reasonable, but it amounts a kind of meta-game manipulation of the player: it does not affect the scoring of the game if the landscape is uglier, but the player’s pleasure in playing is diminished as the screen becomes less beautiful to look at. I found that this was actually a more powerful incentive to environmental virtue than were the in-game penalties.

    I am a sucker for pretty games, though. I’ve quite enjoyed some of the casual-game offerings of Orisinal Games (http://www.ferryhalim.com/orisinal/), even though the game-play as such is often very simple and rapidly grows tedious. So I may be reacting more strongly to the image feedback than someone else might.

    In any case, in Electrocity we have a game which is explicitly pushing the environmental-friendliness agenda (but I think this is something that most of its players will not argue with) while attempting (maybe unsuccessfully) to leave the nuclear choice open to the player, with only the pragmatic outcome of playing one way or another to present an argument. And paradoxically I think that this apparently hands-off way of arguing (“I’m not telling you what to do! I’m just showing you what happens if you do this!”) can be more effective than a moralizing commentary would be; it allows the player to imagine that he has discovered a truth about the way things have to be, even if that discovery is based on rigged experiments. I’m not saying Electrocity is intended to be rigged this way. Only that the potential is there. Of course, it could backfire, as well — a game in which nuclear plants melted down, say, fifty percent of the time would be transparently at odds with reality, and instead of presenting a persuasive lesson, it would likely alienate people who did not already share a hard-core anti-nuclear stance.

    I’m not sure that IF is the right medium for simulation games of this type. For one thing, a text-based medium is not ideal for presenting mostly-quantitative data (about, e.g., how much money you’ve earned, how many citizens you have, how much pollution you’ve introduced to the environment). A textual description of each turn of Electrocity (or most other sim-type games) would be dull to read, and it would be nearly impossible to extract an overall sense of how well things were going. A graphical representation is much better at this kind of thing. Conversely, sim games yield relatively little in the way of narrative. They tend to be good (I think) for exploring large issues involving the choices of lots of people: for games about politics and management and infrastructure; they’re like interactive (pseudo-)history books, rather than interactive stories.

    An IF take on similar issues would have to be quite different, I think; it would need to focus on one character, on that character’s reasons for acting one way or another, on the small human choices that shape large outcomes. In an IF game it would not be ridiculous to have the player character, say, start out staunchly anti-nuclear power; succumb to financial pressures over a period of time, and weaken on this position; build a nuclear plant as the only viable way to support the needs of a large city; and then have an accident result at the plant. Here we’re not trying to persuade the player that we have a legimate model for all reality, but rather a legitimate model for one single case, and thus the statistically improbable is still acceptable.

    I think the moral question would also feel differently-shaped, and be more painful, because framed in terms of individual suffering rather than in terms of abstract numbers. In Electrocity, the worst that can happen to the “people” is that some of the yellow smily-faces on my population graph convert to grey frowny-faces. As a representation of human misery, this lacks punch. In the IF narrative version, both the motivations and the outcomes would need to be less numerical; the risk, on the other hand, is that it may seem too manipulative, too blatant in its arrangement of emotional arguments. While there is a greater capacity to engage the player’s feelings, there’s also less chance of convincing him (perhaps fraudulently) that he has seen an intellectually compelling scientific case for your position.

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