Even a ten-year-old could grasp that harvesting an entire forest at once is not as good as harvesting it in sections by simply comparing it to Chibi Robo's carefully balanced flower economy.
Nintendo's innovative new game Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol is an environmentally themed strategy game that teaches conservation concepts using the mechanics of the game itself. As a precursor to this review, it should be said that most of the comments in reviews by other websites such as IGN are fairly accurate. It's a great park simulator with a tendency to require too much dialogue clicking. There is little to contribute that has not already been said in this area, so this review will instead focus on the curious insights into environmentalism that the game mechanic creates.
You, a 4-inch robot, are in charge of rejuvenating a desolate park. To do this you must interact with several commodities that require not just management but balancing from the player. The two primary goods in the game are Happy Points and Watts. You generate Happy Points by dancing with flowers, selling them, or upgrading your park to attract more visitors. These, in turn, are converted into Watts. Watts are used to pay for upgrades to you and your park, and to power your day-to-day operations.
The complexity begins to arise when you become aware that merely growing flowers in the few nearby beds will not generate enough Happy points to pay the Wattage Bills. Although you'll be able to break even on the cost of just running around outside, paying for upgrades and expanding the park requires that you start selling flowers. This would be fine, except that flowers are what you use to get grass to grow and to improve the overall rank of the park. Take too many flowers and you destroy your rank; take too few and you grow too slowly.
What makes this game design so interesting is that it remarkably addresses the chief problem in explaining environmental issues to other people. Simply put, people have trouble thinking big. Stalin's often-quoted comment that if you kill a person it's a tragedy, kill a thousand and it's a statistic, is not just a standard for genocide. Explaining to a person that they need to recycle by showing them enormous landfills may be emotionally stirring, but actually getting a person to act on that is not necessarily a question of their morals. Rather, it's a question of their capacity to connect the small act (throwing away a plastic bottle) with the greater one (1,000,000 people throwing away plastic bottles). In application to Chibi-Robo, the game is presenting a unique method to instill the elements of conservation through game design. You can't just run around your park cutting down flowers and selling them to buy upgrades. If you do, the park's beauty drops and you lose on the main objective. The player must develop the land, take a precise harvest to make more Happy Points, and balance these activities with the overall goal of making the park a better place.
The impact that this gameplay creates does not just confine itself to land development. A ten-year-old could grasp that harvesting an entire forest is not as good as harvesting it in sections by simply comparing it to Chibi-Robo's carefully balanced flower economy. This can be expanded to a huge variety of conservation concepts once the initial hurdle of teaching someone the incentive of balancing costs with production. This is why you shouldn't strip mine. This is why alternative energy costs so much. This is why we need a broad energy economy that responds to the needs of individual regions. Maybe that last one is a bit of a stretch, but you might as well start young. It's a truly remarkable game design with the context of resource conservation as the ultimate goal. It takes the problem of thinking big and turns it into a smaller and easier to understand game.
Water those flowers, Chibi-Robo!
Which brings us to the chief complaint I have with this game: the villain. It's not that his goal is destroying your park, it's that he's doing it because he hates flowers and happiness. It's almost as bad as the days of 'Captain Planet' where the chief problem facing the Planeteers was a sex offender who loved putting toxic waste in people's yards. That's not really an accurate depiction of how resources get abused, nor does it do a good job of depicting people who consume them accurately. Why not make something a bit more realistic? What if the chief adversary was simply kids plucking your flowers? Or dogs crapping on the grass? Why not show the flower shop owner harvesting all the flowers in your park so he can make a living? The problem with the villain is that he undermines the great ethic of conservation that the game otherwise instills. No one chops down a forest because they hate trees. People don't blow up mountains for coal because they hate mountains. There are reasons for doing this, although not always good ones, and denying those people's humanity does a disservice to the goal of conservation itself: preserving the land for everyone.
There are other complaints worth airing. As noted earlier, the constant clicking through the same dialogue over and over gets old. Part of this comes from the fact that the game is designed to be played in quick five to ten minute bursts, an ideal setup for gaming on the go, but one that breaks down if you're not on the train. A better balance between these two conditions of playing could've been struck by just breaking up converting points, saving, and hearing the total tally of flowers into separate actions. The stylus is used brilliantly and the sound stayed unmuted for most of my playing. The eventual introduction of the multi-colored flower ends up generating too many Happy Points, such that it unbalances most resource issues in the later stages.
Despite these qualms, this is a pretty good game overall. It's not just good because it's fun or pretty, it's not just good because you keep playing it for that next upgrade, but rather because at the end of the day you feel like you're doing something more than just playing a game. You're solving a little problem that helps to deal with a bigger one.