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.