In this post I’ll first deal with the three design directions that I outlined in an earlier post and then go on to an attempt at formulating the main real-world issue that I believe we’re trying to get at with the game. This is surely not the final wording, but it may be enough to actually complete the first version of the game, which we’re going to playtest this autumn (sign up here if you want to participate – the form is in Swedish, however, and in case this stops you from signing up, please let me know).
Over the past week, I’ve pursued the three design directions and tried to make a basic megagame out of each one of them. This endeavour has been less than successful, and the reason is that each one of them all failed to encompass the entirety of the issue we’re trying to get at with this game in a different way, which meant that each time I realised that I was indeed creating a whole new game. This in itself isn’t a problem (Wallman even mentioned in his series of blog posts this would be the case), and through this exploration I found that I was still struggling to define the main real-world issue on which I am to base the game.
In the case of the Power Grid board game, the definition of energy as ‘electricity’ and leaving out the need for/consumption of electricity/energy made the scaffolding provided by the game too narrow to make it useful – this isn’t a game primarily about producing and distributing electricity/energy in competition with other companies, but about a society trying to get to grips with its reliance on an unsustainable energy system. As for building a game directly on the model energy system created by a member of our team, this included both the production/transfer and consumption of multiple types of energy (electricity, various fuels/gas) connected to data on expected behaviours of individuals, which meant that the society that the energy system was set to provide for is invisible. The opposite was true for the Climate Change Megagame, which is primarily about deciding which parts of society that are to be changed in order to reach a carbon-free society by 2050, and thus leaves out the matter of energy or – more precisely – leaves it to be handled by invisible mechanisms such as the ‘market principle’ or ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ reasoning.
What dawned on me as I studied these three games was that the megagame we’re constructing needs to – in addition to making energy the main concern on which all other, environmental or otherwise, depend – take into account the whole of the energy system, not just the parts of that I – and likely most people – normally think about. Energy is so fundamental as to make it difficult to think of as a separate entity, and so in our everyday lives we very often do so only in terms of electricity, gas, and various types of fuels. This is one conception we should be challenging, so that players become aware of all the energy produced and expended by the role they are playing, wherever and however this takes place. Otherwise, players are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past and in so doing we risk perpetuating the misconceptions about the energy system on our planet that led to the situation we’re currently in rather than give people a chance to see it in a different light and get innovative about solving problems related to it after playing our game.
The problem became even more apparent as I attempted to create a game based on what I had learned. After sketching up the traditional parts of the energy system – transportation of people and goods, heating of houses and food, and powering industrial production processes – which are indeed very easily represented in a game (sourcing, production, distribution, consumption), and began working on consumption goods/food and building of vehicles/houses, I noticed that I automatically changed focus from energy to which raw materials were used, how much of a carbon footprint was created, and what kind of environmental impact would be involved. I found that I was unable to understand how to approach e.g. the purchase of a cheap flashlight from an energy point of view – the complexity of trying to figure out the steps in which to get to grips with how something as mundane as a one-dollar trinket came into being in terms of energy was simply baffling to my mind.
However, I understood that this was something I could not simply hand-wave and leave for later, as it stands at the very centre of the main real-world issue we’re trying to get at: a sustainable energy system – for the entire planet, not just the parts we arbitrarily select to look at. From a game-design perspective it would in my opinion be ridiculous to expect players of a game about the transition of the energy system to a sustainable one to not question the fact that consumption goods appear in stores each turn from outside the game, are sold by business players to satisfy the demands of population players, and are then incinerated to produce heat and electricity to be used by industrial players and population players. I found myself asking where this (almost magical) resource came from, where the energy required to create it was expended, and – perhaps more to the point – who were so kind as to supply it in endless amounts whenever we asked them to (by way of giving them money)? Was it part of an exchange of energy of some sort, so that we give them (or someone in a multi-partner trade deal) an equal amount of energy in return? These questions are crucial in understanding what we’re trying to do here:
Understanding the sustainability of the energy system in light of all of the energy imported, exported, produced, and consumed by the people represented by the different roles in the game.
This way of seeing the issue means that consumer goods and food cannot be treated as separate parts of the game, and that buying a car made abroad or building a house does not primarily mean expending ‘resources’ but energy. With this, the game will most likely move into disputed territory by making use of some rather broad generalisations that may not sit well with everybody – but this is one thing that I find that games are good at, i.e. help us traverse bridges that are too narrow for our everyday shoes or too weak to support the weight of our preconceptions of things. It will most likely involve (Swedish) players facing the fact that they are used to having at their command a vast amount of energy that they need not be overly concerned about spending as there is (very nearly) always more where it came from, all but free of charge.
For my next blog post, I’ll be going into how the talks I’ll have with my colleagues – who are far more knowledgeable in all things energy than I – will impacted the design of the game. Unless I’m simply too busy designing the first playtest session to write, in which case I’ll update you on that event and what was learned.