With all the games I’ve designed so far, there has come a moment when all (or at least some) of the basic tenets of the game suddenly become utterly clear. This may sound suspiciously like an epiphany, but I would say that it is more of a decision, reached through hours and days of sifting information, listening to other’s ideas, and failed attempts at drawing up lists of the things I’d like to see in the game. Nor does it mean that I’ve drawn up a comprehensive plan, so that the rest of the process is simply a matter of putting in a number of hours of design and playtesting to make this grand idea into reality. On the contrary, I often find that what this stage of the process is mostly about is my brain catching up to what has been evident (to many others) all along. I suspect this is the case here, so please bear with me.

The game will be about negotiating the allocation of available energy in light of the fact that our supply of energy isn’t unlimited.

This very basic – and to be fair, even crude – statement is the sum of the realisations about the energy system and the world in general I’ve made over the past few weeks. I’ll list them below, not only for you to marvel at the size of the stone I’ve been living under for most of my life, but to clarify my thinking regarding the basic tenets for the game that I’ve put down at the end of this blog post.

The first realisation I made was that the real problem with the current energy system is that much of our current use of fossil fuels, and indeed some of the ‘renewable’ energy types as well, can in fact be compared to using our/the world’s savings to pay for an ever-increasing consumption of everyday products rather than investments meant to yield higher returns later on. The second was that the word ‘transition’ is mostly used (and thus understood) in the context of from which sources we will obtain our energy in the future, rather than addressing our use of energy in terms of scale of consumption and who is given access to energy. The third was that when we say that energy has been ‘saved’, this often means that we have managed to shift energy consumption from one part of the process to another, and that the amount of energy consumed is roughly the same on the whole.

The fourth realisation emerged from the combination of the facts that we expect our children to lead not just comparable but better lives than we do, and that most people consider a fair reward for a hard day’s work to be something that requires energy to make, such as a bag of crisps, a hot shower, a new sweater, or a weekend in a nearby city. This means that any vision of the future in which people are expected to work as much as we do and be rewarded (or even compensated) with access to less energy than we currently are appears utterly undesirable to most people’s minds – it simply doesn’t fit with our expectations on life. In my opinion, this isn’t extraordinary in any way, but part of being human: I imagine that, throughout history, people have been expecting more of life for both themselves and their children (call it hope, if you will) – what’s changed over the last hundred years or so is that quite a few of those people have been able to use Earth’s vast supply of fossil energy to get (some) of the things they were asking for. Being children of our time, the only thing that separates us from our pre-fossil-fuel-using ancestors is that we’re less used to being refused when we ask life (and society) for more than our parents had.

The implications for the game are these: when it begins (in the 2020s), the population has a lifestyle that consumes a certain amount of energy either directly (e.g. fuel for driving cars and heating houses) or indirectly (e.g. transportation of goods to the country/stores/houses, production of goods/food, building of housing, healthcare, community services). No actions can be taken in the game without allocation of energy – money is simply the grease to make the wheels go round, nothing more. This means that e.g. eliminating all private cars in the game without making any other changes will only force players to allocate more energy to public transportation and delivery services, as the distance people and goods/food must travel to be consumed has not changed. This also applies to shifting production of goods/food from global to local in order to avoid spending energy on long-distance transportation between production sites and stores/houses – this means more energy must instead be allocated to the sourcing and transporting of raw materials and powering of production facilities. At the end of the game, players will realise that their success should really be assessed based on their access to energy, which is not necessarily related to the amount of money they have.

To my mind, this game is meant to address what I refer to as the ‘slippery aspect’ of the problem that the energy system is set up to solve – unless players become aware of the assumption inherent in the game – i.e. that a perceived need for energy not automatically means that the world should produce more energy so that we can have what we want, which is to say more than our parents had – and actively attempt to change this, they will spend most of the game shifting the problem around rather than dealing with it. As for the strategy of relying on technological development and the possibility of solving the problem through increased energy efficiency without having to make any changes to consumption patterns, it will certainly be available in the game. Taking this path will, however, require spending energy on researching these new solutions and investments to make them available to the public, as well as running the risk of technology not being available when needed – in my view, expecting results from research the way one does from factory production is akin to gambling, however high the odds of failure are. Else, players are looking at a future that will either be considerably warmer (small or no changes in energy consumption patterns) or very restricted in terms of individual freedom (severe cuts in the use of non-renewable fuels).

Based on this, I’ve formulated some basic tenets for the game:

  • The primary currency in the game will be energy. Money will be used primarily to facilitate trade and may be useless to players in many situations.
  • The game will be based on a status-quo system, meaning that at the start of the game all energy will be allocated based on the current consumption pattern and during the game players will negotiate changes to the allocation rather than spend their time buying and selling energy.
  • Populations will be very sensitive to changes in lifestyle and, unless radical action is taken during the game, will expect to be able to consume more energy, i.e. have access to more energy and/or enjoy a higher energy-to-consumption ratio, at the end of the game.
  • Individuals’ desire for independence/personal freedom will be the main problem facing all attempts to increase energy efficiency based on them forming communities/collectives in order to share resources.
  • Populations will initially expect all deficiencies (of energy and otherwise) that they suffer to be handled by the local authorities to handle, which will involve allocation of energy.
  • Politicians will have the power to declare the direction society/populations should ideally be moving in, but are limited to persuading other players to do things, even their own agencies/authorities.
  • Businesses will be faced with the Fishbanks dilemma: if they make more money now, they may make no money later – however, if they do not cater to the needs of the population now, they may not be around to enjoy their profits later.

So far, so good – next I’ll go on to see what this means in terms of the three design directions I outlined in an earlier post.