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The world is on fire

The world is on fire
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First Published: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 09 19 PM IST

Battlefield earth: Fate of the World requires players to make difficult decisions about the future of the planet.
Battlefield earth: Fate of the World requires players to make difficult decisions about the future of the planet.
Updated: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 09 19 PM IST
Time is running out.
You have 200 years to find a way to protect the earth’s depleting resources and climate, while reconciling the needs of a growing world population which demands more food, power and living space.
That’s the compelling premise for an unlikely new video game called Fate of the World, a dramatic, sweeping strategy title that covers the next two centuries of the real world.
Battlefield earth: Fate of the World requires players to make difficult decisions about the future of the planet.
Unlike most other games, Fate of the World doesn’t put armies and missiles at your disposal. Instead, you have the steely power of energy efficiency policies and organic farming subsidies.
Powered under the hood with tomes of real world data and climate prediction models based on the research of the department of physics at Oxford University, the game attempts to simulate the real social and environmental impact of global climate change.
Lead designer Ian Roberts says developers Red Redemption didn’t “set out to make an educational product”.
“This is a video game that became education because its content (is) related to the real world,” he says. In a phone interview, Roberts spoke about the game’s pedagogical potential, fusion power and the advantages of being journalistic. Edited excerpts:
You’ve mentioned in interviews that the “old media” frequently mistakes correlation for causation in reporting climate change, and comes off as being alarmist. You say games are better, in certain circumstances, in explaining complicated systems.
Absolutely. What I find is that conversation about climate change is too simplistic. People talk about individual issues without considering the combinatorial, whole picture that arises. Games, I think, give them the ability to try out their assumptions, to see scale and the inter-relatedness between issues.
This changes the conversation. By experiencing a system, you get a better sense of it than a newspaper article. You gain an understanding you’d never have had without reading large amounts of research.
Games give you that. They’re an experience rather than a lecture.
Most strategy games have a “winning strategy”, a set of steps that lead to victory. How did you approach the dangers of a magic solution in a game that’s rooted to real world concerns?
I think “magic solutions” are about compromise. You choose one path to the detriment of another. When you care about “winning”, as you do in most strategy games, that’s not a problem. Take a game like Civilization, for instance. You can either build up your armies to aim for a victory via military might, or downplay that factor to focus on a peaceful cultural victory.
In our game, these choices are always difficult. If you focus on propping up standard of living, like many governments around the world do on GDP and growth, that will cause a major problem with emissions, which in turn leads to GDP hits later. On the other hand, lower emissions right away means lower growth, and the inability of economies to commit to emissions cuts. The connectedness of the world makes it hard to find a sweet spot.
We do, however, have silver bullets. Like fusion power. It’s a real lifesaver in the game and solves a lot of problems, but it’s the result of a major technological commitment that may or may not pay off.
The so-called “social change” games have a strong simulation bias, in the sense that there’s a sense of “preachiness” to what the simulation is trying to teach you. How did you avoid that?
We try and make it about balancing and managing multiple risks, rather than a “good vs bad” dichotomy. You can, for example, early in the game, completely ban oil. Entirely. You can do that, but you run the risk of economic collapse if you don’t prepare the world to shift to a post-oil scenario.
We didn’t want to be preachy in the sense of ramming “obvious” solutions down players’ throats. We wanted to set up as realistic a world as people are currently describing. We’ve put in all this available real world data on fuel production, and reserves and recoverable resources. The results coming out of the game closely match real world situations. We’ve seen that if players maintain growth at current levels, and push unconventional oil and fossil fuel use, they start having problems with supply around 2065. That’s in agreement with real world data.
It’s not an easy game. It’s hard because the subject is hard. It’s difficult to come up with a set of policy decisions that will solve this complex knot of problems.
Were there a set of literary influences on how situations develop out in the game? Did you look at science fiction books to extrapolate what might happen in the future?
The problem with research is that it’s focused on specific aspects. If you have a study on the hypothetical collapse of the Amazon rainforest, it will tell you what circumstances would lead to that happening. We used a lot of studies like that to inform how that situation might come about in our game. But if you want to know what consequences that will have, research ends up short.
We try and talk about combinations of effects. A good example is Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees, which tries to examine what the world might look like if we raise the earth’s temperature by 1-6 degrees (Celsius). But a lot of journalism talks about tipping points—this is what would happen if the permafrost melted—but the game is like a chaos engine—what would happen if the permafrost melted AND the Amazon collapsed AND something else happened?
We hope that these combinatorial and stacking effects give players an understanding of how crippling these effects can be, and I hope we never have to confirm these hypotheses in the real world.
Fate of the World is designed for ages 12 and above and can be downloaded from www.fateoftheworld.net or from online game stores such as Steam for $9.99 (around Rs450).
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First Published: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 09 19 PM IST