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Business - Written by on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 16:37 - 5 Comments

As the world fights climate change, could games be part of the solution

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking to Ken Eklund, a freelance writer and game designer, and the creator of a fascinating Alternate Reality Game (ARG) called World Without Oil. As the world grapples with climate change and other global issues, we both agreed that interactive gaming experiences could play a vital role in engaging the world’s citizens in the process of finding solutions.

If you haven’t heard of or experienced an ARG, check out Wikipedia’s comprehensive entry. The essential nugget is that an ARG is an interactive, Internet-based narrative where large numbers of game players collaborate to solve plot-based challenges and puzzles. Unlike a tightly-scripted game or media production, the outcome of an ARG is determined almost entirely by the players and their interactions.

Most, though not all, ARGs to date have been tied to product promotions (e.g. I love bees was a promotion for Halo 2) and televisions productions like Lost (see the Lost Experience). World Without Oil is one of the exceptions.

The premise of World Without Oil was simple and provocative: What if an oil crisis started on April 30, 2007 – what would happen? How would the lives of ordinary people change? Players were invited to imagine how their lives and communities would be different and how they would cope if the world’s oil suddenly dried up. The “plot” unfolded dynamically. First, the players read the “official news” and what other players were saying. Then, using a combination of blog posts, videos, images and even voice mails, they told their own stories of the challenges they were facing.  As the crisis continued, players updated their stories with further thoughts, reactions and solutions.

The game ended after 32 days, having engaged thousands of players around world and woven the fabric of 1,500 stories into what Ken describes as “living breathing mega narrative that presented some eerily plausible scenarios, complete with practical courses of action to help prevent such an event from actually happening.”

Herein lies the key point. World Without Oil presented players with an engaging, interactive structure in which ordinary individuals could collectively imagine how the world would respond to what we all know is an inevitability: sometime in the near future (and perhaps sooner than we might expect) we will all live in a world in which we can no longer rely on fossil fuels to power our daily existence.

There is a tendency in public policy circles to assume that issues like climate change are sufficiently complex that the average citizen has little to contribute to the debate about appropriate solutions, so the job of coming up with solutions is therefore best left to the experts. To some extent it may be true that the “non-expert” might have little to say about the intricacies of a cap-and-trade system. But the average citizen is an authority on their daily lives. Ken points out that “When we were asking people to talk about what’s going on in their neighborhood, we were deliberately focusing on something which they are experts at.”

“With just a little bit of narrative structure,” says Ken, “people could post their story and say what they wanted to say without the fear of being kind of contradicted or shouted down. Because we’re talking about an alternate reality and in a way we’re kind of talking about the future.”

Ken notes that the narrative structure encourages “peer learning.” “The game becomes this incredibly enriching experience, with people learning from other people, joining a community, learning new skills, getting access to novel data and information and then using the game experience to make real changes in the way they conduct their lives.”

There is no doubt that fighting climate change will require a massive worldwide effort that could dramatically alter much about the world as we know it today. We need more than just smart public policy. And we need more than a comprehensive retooling of industry and our infrastructure. We all need to give up our oil addictions and that, in turn, will require us to make some pretty profound changes in our daily lives. Alternate reality games like World Without Oil could play a vital role in engaging the public in making those vital changes.


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Sep 11, 2008 19:15

As a way of sharing ideas, getting people interested and getting them thinking it’s good.

However, with nothing to keep it real, the hypothetical can go in any direction, and it is probably better described as a propaganda tool than an education tool. Even the starting presumption that the oil suddenly dried up is completely unrealistic. We know that oil will gradually get more expensive as it gets harder to find and the cost/value proposition of alternative options will shift relative to the oil.

Trying to invoke panic about widespread shortages striking overnight seems unlikely to produce meaningful answers.

I do agree though, that the top-down policy pushers should spend a lot more time involved with everyday people, about what is happening at the local level. Even just showing they understand what is already happening due to higher gas prices (forget about any hypothetical) would be a good start. Not sure if this game represents a better method of collecting information than the traditional concept of just asking people and listening to the answers.

Narrative Games that Envision the Future « Knowledge Futures
Sep 12, 2008 4:22

[...] theme? That’s ticked a lot of my buttons and it seems that this has already been done. Anthony Williams over at Wikinomics chronicles a conversation that he had with Ken Eklund, a freelance writer and game designer, and the creator of [...]

Global Voices Online » Environment: Maps, Online Communities & Carbon Footprint Calculators
Sep 26, 2008 20:46

[...] Williams of Wikinomics wrote about the game, saying There is no doubt that fighting climate change will require a massive worldwide effort [...]

Global Voices em Português » Meio-Ambiente: Mapas, comunidades e calculadores de carbono
Sep 28, 2008 12:27

[...] Williams do Wikinomics escreveu sobre o jogo, dizendo There is no doubt that fighting climate change will require a massive worldwide effort [...]

Wikinomics» Blog Archive » Games for Good: The Role Games May Play in Determining Our Future
Jun 30, 2009 11:43

[...] ‘citizens’ of that world to cope. If you’re interested in learning more about it, check out Anthony D. Williams’ great post about World Without Oil and the idea that games could be part of the solution to the climate change [...]

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Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William's latest collaboration, Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. Learn more.

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