Perhaps concealing some of the game data and making the remainder difficult to analyze bolsters the game’s environmentalist rhetoric. But does the game’s difficulty undermine its ability to inspire action? Are players learning to be hopeless?
In 2006 and in conjunction with the BBC, UK based Red Redemption launched Climate Change, a browser-based strategy game in which players takes on the fictional role of the President of the “European Nations” and try to impede global warming. The game is a clear predecessor to Red Redemption’s latest release, Fate of the World. A strategy game in a similar vein as Climate Change, players in Fate of the World lead the Global Environmental Organization (GEO), the fictional body that manages all the chaotic political economies of the planet. Overcoming the regional and global problems that beset mankind demands a heightened mastery of the game system and enough patience to withstand increasingly severe and widespread dilemmas. Fate of the World is far from easy, and its difficulty offers its own unique risks and rewards.
Each round of Fate of the World represents five years in the real world. Players purchase policy cards to use each round, some of which take effect immediately while others are completed over a span of turns or are simply ongoing. Large projects, such as transitioning a region towards the predominant use of electric cars, take a great deal of time and resources. Smaller initiatives, such as promoting increased education in a region, are cheaper but have less of a pronounced effect. For example, players can shape how regions grow and invest their resources, nurturing some areas towards technological advancements and others towards agricultural growth. As regions grow, policies change, and innovations arise, new cards become available.
Despite the seemingly facile card-based system of Fate of the World, the game is immensely complex. While the first mission tasks players with overseeing Africa’s economic growth, players spend the majority of the game managing twelve world regions from North America and Oceania to the Middle East and Southern Africa. Each region has its own set of problems and trends. The Middle East, for example, leans towards political instability, while China has an entrenched coal industry, and India wrestles with the burden of overpopulation. Meanwhile, global problems affect all regions (although some of these problems are worse for some than they are for others). Switching China’s energy production from coal to nuclear means little if the region is stricken by a global famine. The more GEO agents hired and active in a region, the more influence players can exercise over that territory. If regions become unsatisfied with the organization’s work, they can remove agents or kick out the GEO entirely. Thus, players must constantly juggle the needs and interests of particular regions and the world.
Fate of the World contains a staggering amount of information. An immensely complex game system shapes the world through a variety of visible and hidden factors. It behooves players to grasp how political stability, food and energy production/shortages, industrial and agricultural growth, employment rates, emissions, global temperatures, and technological innovations are all interrelated. Much of this data is made available in the game. However, accessing raw information and understanding it are two very different things. Players can crunch numbers in an assortment of ways. They can track the amount of coal produced over a given period of time or the changing percentage of industrial employment. The game even offers a heat map view of the world, revealing a visual representation of increasing global temperatures in certain regions. The game largely obscures exactly how this information will affect the likelihood a region suffers slow growth, droughts, or any other dilemma.
Perhaps concealing some of the game data and making the remainder difficult to analyze bolsters the game’s environmentalist rhetoric. Unlike the Civilization franchise with its similar scope, Fate of the World does not include advisers to dole out expert advice. Any summations about environmental and economic policies players must come to on their own. The raw data available in the game has real world equivalents. In fact, Red Redemption specifically incorporated scientists into the development process, including consultants and Hannah Rowlands, the team’s full time scientific advisor. Co-Founder Gobion Rowlands had this to say regarding their input:
The scientists we work with are fantastic. Where we find ourselves asking "what does highly technical thing X give to players?" they give us the encouragement and data to make good design decisions. That was one of the things that most surprised me about all our interactions with our academic partners. They want our games to do what games do best -- be entertaining personalised experiences that are challenging and fun for the players. (Interview by Kieron Gillen, “Set The World On Fire: Fate of the World”, Rock Paper Shotgun, 7 May 2010)
The “highly technical” elements of Fate of the World, if nothing else, give players perspective on the difficult task of managing global dilemmas. Understanding the real world systems that contribute to climate change is an incredibly difficult task that requires a great deal of effort. The difficulty of processing and confidently acting upon the information available in the game represents some of the actual effort that world leaders and individuals must exercise. After all, no one expects saving the world to be easy.
Yet perhaps the game’s unabashed complexity is counter-productive. The game sees a sharp difficultly spike after the tutorial mission and the task of wrestling with the onslaught of global problems becomes daunting. Efforts to maintain low-emissions are met with dissatisfaction, while at the same time protections against devastating storms, droughts, and other phenomena are quickly outstripped by climate change. Playing Fate of the World can feel like fighting a losing battle. The win condition for the Oil Crisis mission alone -- simply survive until the year 2120 -- is startlingly pessimistic.
Red Redemption’s intent was explicitly to make an entertaining and challenging experience, and they succeeded wholeheartedly. From the perspective of an environmental activist, however, does the game’s difficulty undermine its ability to inspire action? Are players learning to be hopeless? The answer depends on whether players are meaningfully attached to what is at stake. To this end, Fate of the World’s collection of real world information is invaluable. Actual endangered animals can become extinct, and their tragic portrait appears to notify players of their demise. The use of certain technologies are just as risky in reality as they are in the simulation. Presuming players are genuinely concerned about the fate of the real world, Red Redemption’s digital system overcomes its own pessimistic aesthetic, both motivating and entertaining in the process.