(Image: Strange Loop Games)
Bad news, avoiding global disaster is not going to be easy.
“Even among friends, I expect fatal disagreements to sometimes destroy worlds,” says John Krajewski, founder of Strange Loop Games in Seattle, Washington.
Many games are about surviving an apocalypse. Krajewski’s new project, Eco – which finishedearlier this month – is about preventing one. The only way to succeed is to work together. The first of a new breed of game, Eco is a society simulator.
“I want success to be difficult,” says Krajewski. “Failure is a very valuable thing for players as it encourages self-reflection.” That’s especially true when everything you have built can be lost.
The game drops you into an ecosystem, modelled with the help of a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in which thousands of individual plants and animals interact. The goal is to not destroy it.
Damage the ecosystem
Doing nothing is not an option, however. At the start of each game, you learn that a catastrophic event, such as a massive meteorite strike, is on the horizon. Players then have a month to advance the technological capabilities of their group – stripping the world of resources to develop industries – to a point that lets them avoid that disaster.
“You have to damage the ecosystem in order to prevent this catastrophe happening,” says Krajewski. The challenge will be to avoid one apocalypse without bringing about another in the process.
Winning will be impossible without cooperation.”Players will have to grow their social system as they grow their technology,” says Krajewski. His aim is to make a game that simulates not only a realistic ecosystem but also what’s known as the tragedy of the commons, where rational individuals acting in self-interest do so at the expense of the group, depleting shared resources.
OK, we’re screwed
That’s how games such as Eco can act as dry runs for real life. “You can build something and see what it does,” says Ken Karakotsios, an independent software developer based in San Francisco, California. Karakotsios co-designed the influential 1992 game SimLife: The Genetic Playground, in which players toy with evolution. He was surprised to find that schoolchildren and researchers alike could learn valuable lessons by tinkering with the game.
In Fate of the World, a single-player game with similar themes to Eco, you steer a UN-like organisation through global warming, disease outbreaks and international terrorism.
Its gloomy outlook was reportedly based on real-world data. “It was one of those games where you couldn’t win and you felt depressed losing,” says London-based games journalist. “You just felt, ‘Ok, we’re screwed, aren’t we?’”
Such games are also good at capturing realistic human interactions. A Tale in the Desert is an online game set in ancient Egypt in which players work together to build a civilisation. If you marry another player in the game, your in-game spouse will be able to log in to your account and access all of the items and wealth you have accrued.
In the run-up to the UK general election earlier this year, Griliopoulos wrote a series of articles forthat analysed the manifestos of five political parties by simulating their policies in a game called Democracy 3. Most parties make promises they don’t have to keep, he says. So he decided to see what would happen if all those promises were kept.
Keeping people happy
In Democracy 3, players take on the role of a politician. The aim is to earn enough support from the electorate to win a second term in government. But it is hard to keep everyone happy. The game simulates the often complex knock-on effects of each decision. For example, raising the price of fuel will annoy motorists but might lead to fewer cars on the road.
Plugging the party manifestos into the game highlighted their holes. “A lot of the time the things they promised you couldn’t really do,” he says. “That really came across in the way they costed their policies. It was just PR marketing speak.”
In Eco, players have to set up their own governments to control the behaviour of individuals and protect the interests of the group. Players will be able to monitor data on the ecosystem in their game, discuss issues and vote on new laws via a website much like ones designed to support
Players can choose a political system – direct democracy, elected representation or dictatorship, for example. “You could have two identical worlds and run each with a different type of government,” says Krajewski.
Eco is partly funded by the US Department of Education and its educational aspect is no accident. Krajewski believes that games such as Eco provide a new way to address complicated social questions. “It’s a game you could play as homework and then discuss what happened in class next day.”
Griliopoulos sees similar potential. At their best, games are social science Petri dishes, he says. Researchers have used the in-game economy of the large multiplayer game EVE Online as a model of how an economy can be affected by war or shortages. And Greece’s former Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, was previously the economist-in-residence at US game company Valve. “Smart people on the cutting edge are looking at games,” says Griliopoulos.
Since developing SimLife, Karakotsios has built several other simulations, including MarketSim, which models consumer behaviour, and ActivChemistry, a virtual lab. His most recent project was Footprint USA, an app that simulates the impact of everyday environmental choices.
His long-term aim is to build simulations that can be used by any group of people to work through social problems together. “We should be able to put our assumptions on the table and think about the way things could go and what kinds of futures are possible,” he adds.
Of course, not everyone is a team player. Dealing with people who are not in it for the common good will be a big part of Eco, says Krajewski. Players will have the option to punish those who break a group’s laws and ultimately ban them from a game.
But it wouldn’t be a realistic simulation if it were always that simple. “What if the goons gain political power and control of the laws?” he asks. “Well just like in real life, that usually doesn’t end well.”
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