Transition Computer Games

Ever since the Transition Conference, I’ve been meaning to write a post about it.  Well, here’s one, and perhaps there will be more later!

During open space on the Saturday afternoon of the Transition Network Conference, I was a bit of a butterfly and attended several sessions which caught my interest, without settling down for too long at each.  One such session, which I was probably at for no more than 5 minutes, was Transition Video Games.  I wanted to let the people there know about Jane McGonigal, whose TEDTalk asserts that “Gaming can make a better world”, but I was also interested in what they said on the subject and whether there were any computer games that they thought relevant to Transition.

I’m not much of a gamer myself, but ever since high school, I’ve been great friends with a guy who’s hobby is computer games.  He collects classic and rare computer games and consoles, raves about the latest technology and innovations, and, of course, plays them.  Through him, I get to see pretty much all the variety of video games that exist, and play games from time to time.  I’ve always been disappointed at quite how many of the computer games include violence.  Many of them are centred around war, or at least defeating your enemies in one way or another.  As a pacifist, I’ve constantly been on the look-out for games that turn this around, and make diplomacy the enduring quality of the best player.

So, when at the conference someone mentioned a game called Anno 2070, I was interested to hear how it was different, and what it could teach of Transition principles.  It was a game about resources, apparently, set in 2070, when sea levels have risen as a result of global warming, and several factions are competing to make the best use of the remaining resources. One of those factions is decidedly environmental in its focus, harbouring energy from wind, improving the quality of soil and replanting forests. I was intrigued, and decided that I would see this game for myself. So I bought it, and took a look.

Anno 2070 Screenshot

The game is indeed about resources.  Each “mission” requires you to settle an island (its always an island because of the raised sea levels of the future), create a city, and then use the island’s natural resources to complete an objective.  In one mission, the objective is to research the technology to save an existing city from the effects of poisoned fish, but they vary greatly.  The missions require you to mine resources, build factories, trade with other factions and (in a just a few cases) battle against factions with conflicting interests.

I was disappointed.  On several counts.

Firstly, there are two basic factions, one representing corporations that is only out for profit, and another representing environmental groups.  Apart from this not being a realistic model of a potential future political scenario, the differences are minimal, simplistic, and arbitrary.  The eco organisation still mines coal and ores, both consume huge tracts of virgin land in the building of their cities, and hydro-electric power (one of the best forms of renewable energy) is only available to the corporation.

Secondly, there is no real concern about the balance of resources, of the production and disposal of waste, or the effects that this has on the environment (except, again, in a rather arbitrary way).  The amount of resources on each island is plentiful, and therefore efficiency in the use of resources is not generally a concern, as long as you can process them fast enough, which you can, just by building more mines and factories.  It’s not a game designed with education about eco-issues in mind at all, but it jumps on the bandwagon of being a game about climate change to get a few extra sales (from people like me… whoops).

Thirdly, there did end up being war in it, and although it’s not the focus of the game in any way, nor is there any advantage to trying to avoid war.  In fact, it is sometimes part of the mission that you must attack some enemy facility to prevent them from causing damage to the environment.  Well, what about the damage to the environment caused by your military? That’s what I want to know.

So, if you want to teach your kids about resources using a computer game, don’t buy them Anno 2070.  Buy them Minecraft.

Minecraft Screenshot

Minecraft is an indie game (this means its produced by a small, independent software house, rather than the huge game powerhouses), where you wander around a virtual world made of one metre square blocks, moving them about and using the resources you find to build things.  Although there is an end objective (that of defeating the Ender Dragon), it’s much more fun, in my opinion, to just create a virtual town with friends (it is a multiplayer game) and show off your creative talents.

How does it teach about resources? Well, the name comes from the fact that you have to dig out materials and can then use them to craft things.  If you find iron, for example, you can smelt it, using coal or charcoal, and use it to make an axe, which you can then use to cut down a tree, which can then be crafted into timber to build your house.  The thing is that all these resources are limited.  When you’ve spent ten minutes digging underground to find a seam of coal, you don’t want to waste it by crafting something that you’re not going to use.  And once you’ve mined all the resources from a particular area, they’re gone for good, and you must go further and further afield to find the resources you require. Wood, on the other hand, is renewable, and as long as you remember to plant saplings to regrow trees that you chop down, you can have a continuous supply of timber, and therefore charcoal.  Resources have a real value to the player, because of their rarity, or the time and effort that it requires to get them.

OK, it’s not perfect as a Transition game.  It wasn’t designed as one, and it does still have enemies (monsters that appear at night), but at least you can choose your focus, and appreciate the challenges for what they are, rather than because they are imposed on you as “missions”.

Still, an actual Transition game would be quite cool.  One that taught the challenges of resource allocation, the politics of change, the rewards of doing things differently.  Does anyone know of any existing games that fit the bill?