It’s another typical 70 degree January day in New York as I prepare to write this review of a game that unrepentantly glorifies and glamorizes the petroleum industry, and I can’t help wondering if the same minds at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the lobbying group who brought us ads celebrating carbon emissions (“They call it pollution. We call it life”), had a hand in designing Big Oil. (It reminds me of SCRAM, a game I had as a kid that simulated the operation of nuclear reactor, which seemed to say, “See, nuclear power is so safe, even a ten-year-old can manage it.”) Big Oil is a real-time simulation game that allows you to imagine yourself as the CEO of a oil company, rapaciously despoiling a coastal region (you can select from among 17 historical and contemporary scenarios) to extract and export its energy resources—yes, you can finally indulge your fantasy of fashioning virtual Nigerias of chaos and plunder, without burdening your conscience with the consequential environmental destruction or sufferings of the local population. After all, the situation this game abstracts from contemporary times looks something like this in reality:
For 50 years, foreign oil companies have conducted some of the world’s most sophisticated exploration and production operations, using millions of dollars’ worth of imported ultramodern equipment, against a backdrop of Stone Age squalor. They have extracted hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, which have sold on the international market for hundreds of billions of dollars, but the people of the Niger Delta have seen virtually none of the benefits. While successive military regimes have used oil proceeds to buy mansions in Mayfair or build castles in the sand in the faraway capital of Abuja, many in the Delta live as their ancestors would have done hundreds, even thousands of years ago—in hand-built huts of mud and straw. And though the Delta produces 100 percent of the nation’s oil and gas, its people survive with no electricity or clean running water.
—John Ghazvinian, “The Curse of Oil,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2007
Of course, there’s a long pedigree for computer tycoon games, which streamline the thrills of entrepreneurship for those of us who are unlikely ever to have the unrelenting drive, the surplus of capital, and the deficit of ethics you’d actually need to ruthlessly and remorselessly pursue profits on such a scale. A game like Big Oil seeks to cater to the fantasy that allows us to believe that we would naturally be capable of controlling vast resources (land, transoceanic tankers, a fleet of trucks, piles of cash, etc.) with the off-hand mastery of a longtime potentate—that if fate willed it, we could be a master of the universe. Simulation games put us in the God chair, where we transcend everything and pull the strings, where we give orders rather than take them.
Though they promise to indulge our fantasies of autonomy, the problem with these games is they constrict us with all sorts of arbitrary-seeming rules and restrictions we must follow before we can advance in them. The game will put a reasonably sophisticated economic model in motion, letting us dream of a world where such models actually can completely embrace all relevant phenomena. And, sure, there’s pleasure in sitting back and watching what a reasonably sophisticated model will spit out as you jigger with the inputs. But Big Oil doesn’t give you free rein to alter those as you please and see what happens. Instead, it foists on players a sequence of events involving the use of a “specialist”, whom you don’t control first-hand, to survey the land until he finds the chance spot where there’s oil. Then commences the pipe-laying and drilling, which takes a desultory period to complete, during which you simply sit and watch. Then you draw in roads on the landscape and build trucks and storage silos and so on, SimCity style, until your business is finally up and humming. Meanwhile, computer-controlled magnates (or your multiplayer opponents) busily build their empires nearby, as in Age of Empires, and the prices of oil fluctuate at the game’s whim, capable of dealing you a random windfall or setback. A radically simplified stock market is at work as well, allowing you to measure your company’s success and attempt hostile takeovers of other companies.
The intent of having to sort through these kinds of obstacles is obviously to make success within the world it simulates complicated enough that we’ll suspend disbelief for the remainder of the complications it leaves out, and of course, to hook us on a Pavlovian drip of small, steady rewards of mastery. (I’ll admit that I don’t have the patience for this; I usually head straight to the Internet for cheat codes if I don’t shut the game off altogether.) While playing Big Oil, I never once thought that I was gaining any inkling of what the oil business is like; instead I had the sense that the game’s subject could be changed from oil to, say, wheat and soybean farming, and all you would have to do is alter the design of a few icons to make the gameplay conform: Big Agra, it could be called.
Worse, though Big Oil promises the pleasures of being the boss, it ends up working us like we are just another wage slave. Games like these, which don’t wait for us to move on, require our complete attention, so that we end up feeling chained to the game, frantically managing and clicking all over the place lest we miss some crucial turning point. I’m not sure why this is supposed to be pleasurable; the experience of it is exhausting. Not that games need to be relaxing, but they shouldn’t seem like data processing. Big Oil’s real-time simulation also makes strategy much more contingent on luck, as you have no time to weigh options and plan a course of action, unless you abuse the pause function in order to orient yourself. And even then, should you patiently figure out how to manage your resources so that you can make some progress, the payoff is that you get to do more of the same thing that wasn’t all that much fun to begin with.
But the largest problem with any economic simulation game like Big Oil is that a much more interesting and exciting game of speculation that’s much richer in detail and realism is freely available to anyone with an Internet connection, particularly those willing to patiently digest financial data and bear down at the kind numerical minutia Big Oil proudly serves up for our consternation: the commodities market, where you can track the fluctuations of actual oil prices and weigh the effects that actual world events have had on it. In that game, at least, hard work and lucky guesses might actually earn you something.