Slick way to address oil thirst
By Dean Takahashi
Oil is the oxygen of our economy. What would happen if oil supplies dried up?
That's the story behind a new computer game launching today, "World Without Oil" at www.worldwithoutoil.org. This game, which can be played for free over the Internet, isn't purely make believe. It's meant to draw attention to the real possibility of an oil shock and what our country and the world have to do to prepare for it. The ideas that people come up with for surviving in a post-oil world in the game could actually pay off in real life if they lead to less consumption and more alternative sources of energy.
The blurring of imaginary and real life is intentional. Players can affect the story and outcome of the game based on what they do in real life. The game is part of the increasingly popular "alternate reality game" genre, and its creators believe that they can use it as a serious vehicle to entertain people and, simultaneously, draw attention to a social issue.
Part of a so-called "serious games" movement, the creators hope to use the inherently entertaining nature of games as a medium to hook and educate mass audiences. It resembles other games such as "Re-Mission," which educates kids with cancer about how to fight the disease (a game funded by Pam Omidyar, who is married to eBay founder Pierre Omidyar).
"It's a serious game for the public good, but it's not necessarily sending a green message," said Ken Eklund, creative director and producer of the game. "We are saying there is an oil shock. It is an alternate reality that is not so far from where we are now."
The game is based on an ongoing debate about how much time we have before we hit the peak for oil production and consumption. Advocates of the "peak oil" theory argue that we've already tapped out the last of the world's oil supplies and that it's all downhill from here.
In the game, players are expected to band together by the thousands to tell their own fictionalized stories within the larger context of the oil shortage and how they plan to deal with it.
Over several weeks, the story will play out. But the game's designers, dubbed puppetmasters, will change the story based on reactions from the players. They can create the story, for instance, of the impact of the oil shock in Detroit's auto industry, or figure out the impact on people in rural areas such as Idaho.
"We don't know how it's going to turn out for sure," said Jane McGonigal, one of the puppetmasters and a rock star of the genre. "Our hope is that people will come up with their own creative solutions on how to live without oil. The game helps players prepare for a future and avoid it by thinking about the alternatives to it now."
In her previous job at 42 Entertainment, she helped create some award-winning alternate reality games, including "ilovebees.com," an alternate-reality game that served as a promotion for the launch of Microsoft's "Halo 2" video game. That game drew 600,000 serious players and more than a million casual observers who monitored its progress.
McGonigal estimates there are now about 20 alternative reality games being played at any one time, supported by groups of fans who play together such as the group Unfiction.
"World Without Oil" came about because ITVS Interactive, a public television production house in San Francisco that celebrates alternative voices, wanted to fund a video game that could help it further its aims and reach broader audiences. ITVS invited pitches and Eklund responded in June 2005. Eklund, a 49-year-old game writer in San Jose, says he pulled the idea "from the swamp of my brain" and started sketching out how it could unfold.
"We found the theme to be relevant," said Cathy Fischer, a senior producer at ITVS.
McGonigal, a developer of alternative reality games, reviewed the proposal. After she completed her doctoral thesis at the University of California-Berkeley, she left 42 Entertainment and took a position as a research associate at the Institute for the Future, a non-profit research group in Palo Alto, where she is helping the institute think about how these games can help prepare us all for the future. That's why she joined Eklund's team, which has grown to about a dozen people in addition to some volunteers.
There are already groups of fans forming in places such as Australia, Denmark and Russia to participate in "World Without Oil."
"There is something amazing about huge numbers of people banding together," McGonigal said. "It's like a human supercomputer."
Contact Dean Takahashi at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5739.