Nina K. Simon, agent of change

Agent of Change: Nina K. Simon

Nina Simon’s crowdsourced search for a title for her upcoming book leads me to bring a fine word out of penultimate obscurity: particibility. By which I mean the amount or degree a thing is able to be participated in. To me particible gets at something that participatory glosses over, which is the quality of participation afforded. A key distinction where any game is concerned, but double-dog-especially for social (and socially relevant) games such as World Without Oil – which are notable for their very high quality of participation.

Nina is Museum 2.0, which is how we met – she wrote about WWO soon after it concluded (and coined one of the most apt descriptions of the game: WWO “was a huge growing, twisting network of news, strategy, activism, and personal expression”). She’s helped bring me into the world of museums, which has been a most fruitful introduction… Because, in a word, museums want to become more particible, and WWO-style open gameplay could be key to accomplishing that.

Getting back to that book title: I’m put off by Participatory Museums, because participatory is a tag museums assign themselves, and can I trust how the museum defines participation? Very often, no. I’m attracted to Particible Museums because to me the word particible speaks of openness to participation as defined by the visitor. And in the end it’s the visitor, and only the visitor, who decides; participation is a feeling she or he gets (or doesn’t get). Photo by Musebrarian via Flickr.

Jane is EducaRed

Jane is Serious about Games

WWO’s particular friend Jane McGonigal has announced a presentation at the EducaRed conference in Madrid, Spain beginning November 26. Her subject: serious games – i.e., games that are actually about something, that connect people to real-world problems, and that give its players useful knowledge and skills. What kind of games should young people be playing more of? What kinds of collaboration skills and collective intelligence will they learn by playing the right games? One of the serious games she cites is World Without Oil (the other is SuperStruct). Inspiring stuff. Watch her 7-min video.

The Last Oil Rig, by ccgd

The Last Oil Rig, by ccgd

Good news from Michael Lynch, appearing August 24 in an op-ed in the New York Times. This whole oil scarcity idea is really off – by a factor of 5, to be exact. Lynch says the consensus among geologists is that there are 10 trillion barrels of oil out there, not a mere 2 trillion, so – relax! Oil is abundant.

My relief is palpable. For a while there I thought oil rigs might appear off American coasts or invade ANWR. Or that we would continue to raze mountaintops to burn climate-ravaging coal. Or cause horrendous environmental damage by cooking tar sands. But now we can ease off on all that, because oil is abundant.

I do wish, however, that Lynch had settled a few issues he raised, such as why, if oil is so abundant, we keep having to dig deeper and deeper to find less and less of it. And why the advanced extraction technologies he mentions have failed to reverse the decline of even the world’s best managed oilfields. And when exactly our technology will advance to a point that makes “easy oil” out of fields miles down in deep ocean, because right now oil companies are finding it prohibitively expensive and risky.

Truth is of course that the “abundance” of oil is irrelevant if you can’t actually produce it when you need it, or get it for yourself when others produce it. The world has an abundance of food, yet something like 1 out of 6 people is hungry and 25,000 children die of hunger every day. And food is dead easy to make and transport compared with oil.

This article in the Financial Times says that the threat of an oil shortage is real: in their words: “we are now of the collective view that peak oil is a high-risk, high-consequence issue.” Read and decide for yourself what will happen to the price of oil in the next few years. Creative Commons photo by ccgd via Flickr.

Time's up

Time's almost up

A leading energy economist in the International Energy Agency reported today, in an interview with The Independent, that the world’s oil supply has been depleting almost twice as fast as their 2007 projection, and that an energy supply crisis is looming in the next five years that will choke off any economic recovery.

“We have to leave oil before oil leaves us,” said Dr. Fatih Birol of the IEA. “The earlier we start, the better, because all of our economic and social system is based on oil, so to change from that will take a lot of time and a lot of money and we should take this issue very seriously,” he said.

It’s been over two years now since the World Without Oil game got people to collectively imagine our next oil crisis, and prepare for this day. For a video tour of your near future, try the official WWO videos by Kalwithoutoil. To see the full WWO archive, go here. Or for your own little refresher course in how to survive an oil crisis, review our WWO lesson plans? Photo by Napalm filled tires

Portugal plugs itself in

Portugal plugs itself in

Glad to read this article in the Global Post about Portugal’s commitment to electric cars. The government plans to have 100 electric-car stations operational by the end of the year and 1300 on line by the end of next year. As the article notes, Portugal is Western Europe’s poorest nation, which perhaps gives impetus to its quest to shake off the shackles of energy dependence. Photo by Seuss in NC

Okay, here’s the story on food. (“*” is this Economist story; “^” is this story in Santa Clara Magazine)

Food production is not a problem, because for the last 20 years we’ve produced more calories at a greater rate than we’ve produced more people.^ But still 1 in 6 people in the world is hungry.* Because they don’t have enough money to buy food.^ So the 2008 food crisis is good, because higher food prices = more money for poor farmers. Except that it didn’t, and isn’t.* And calories turns out not to be a good measure of human food energy or nutrition anymore, because the raw food calories increasingly go to animals and to fuel,* and in the US continue to be wasted en masse or converted into unhealthy, non-nutritious calories.^

You would think that we’d have collective agreement about the future of food, being that we do need it to live and all. But I haven’t found much agreement or straight story or people even doing the math. I see the population projection of “9 billion people by 2050″ everywhere, for example, but never accompanied by any explanation or even theory about how those people are going to be fed. With the loaves and fishes of superscience, I guess.

The supply of each is interlinked with the others

The supply of each is interlinked with the others

The problem with the Santa Clara Magazine story, and with a lot of what I read about food, is that it talks just about food. It fails to take into account what I call the Iron Triangle, the fact that food, water and oil are today locked in an ironclad fate with each other, and it makes no sense to talk about one without at least mentioning the others. Food supply, after all, was one of the most pressing concerns raised by the World Without Oil game.

The alarming thing, of course, is that all three are said to be heading toward crisis independent of the others. For food, the crisis is arable land: the Economist reports that the thing that lifted the world out of the 2008 food crisis was Europe’s decision to rush its fallow-land reserve back under the plow. Water faces a multitude of crises, the top two may be climate change (megadroughts) and pollution. And the oil crisis, as talked about all along in this blog, is its inevitable stricture combined with the lack of alternatives and the lack of time or will to create an oil-independent economy.

Taken as a triangle, the weakness of each feeds the crisis of the others. The 2008 food crisis is creeping back in 2009, the Economist reports, due largely to the upcreep in oil prices and droughts caused by climate change. Water in turn is a huge energy consumer, and obviously essential to any  food production. And as the price of oil creeps up, it sparks more food-to-fuel conversion and processes such as oil sands development, which is water-intensive and climate-changing.

The bottom line for food is that today, people are hungry – even in America, which produces so much food that as much as 40% of it goes to waste. If the system couldn’t take care of its hungry in the fat years, what will it do now that we’ve entered the lean years?

Alice in Wonderingland: Museums and alternate realities

Alice in Wonderingland: Museums and alternate realities

World Without Oil figured into a talk I gave earlier this month at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, as a guest lecturer for the UW Museology program. “Transforming Museums: Can Museums Learn From Games?” summarizes a lot of my philosophy about games and my outlook for the role of serious games in our common future. You can listen to the talk via this MP3 file and view the slides via this SlideShare presentation; the talk is about half an hour and there’s another half-hour of Q&A.

My thanks to Nina K. Simon for recommending me to the Museology program and to Whitney, Maya, Kylie and her sister Kari, and the other welcoming folks in Seattle.

Asilomar

Instigating a retreat

…at the Creativity and Collaboration retreat, coming up this weekend in Asilomar, CA. The retreat’s for the creatives that work in the museum and exhibit space, and even in this stressed economy (because of the stressed economy?) it sold out quickly.

C2 has brought in people from outside the exhibits field to act as “instigators,” a role I’m pretty happy to take on. I’m the games (or play) instigator, along with Harley DuBois of Burning Man, Kate Shaw of LucasArts, and storyteller Tierney Thys. Mike Petrich and Karen Wilkenson from the Exploratorium’s Learning Studio round out the field of presenters. Very nice company to be in.

I’m designing a new game to run during the retreat (the idea of 100 people coming for these reasons is certainly an inspiration) called Faces In The Crowd – a kindler, gentler version of my game Spy School from Come Out & Play 2006… with invaluable assistance from Nina Simon of Museum 2.0. And feeling strangely calm about it all. Photo by yuzu via Flickr and Creative Commons.

Rollercoaster time again

Rollercoaster time again

An article in the WSJ thinks maybe not, and I agree. As noted in a NYT article last month, OPEC has succeeded in cutting production and stabilizing prices. As the price of oil climbs steadily back up to the level that held when we played the World Without Oil game, even in the face of a global recession and shaky demand, one has to wonder if we played it and now it’s time to live it…

Faithful forwarder Laurel refers us to this article in the Boston Globe about happiness studies – will new data about what actually makes people happier change our policies as well as our thinking? This quote from it caught my eye:

Others have begun to think about how happiness data might change where people live. For example, the trade-off between house size and commute length is familiar to every suburbanite, but as Cornell economist Robert Frank has pointed out, the two things affect our mood in different ways. While we quickly adapt to a bigger house and start taking it for granted, research suggests that a long, trafficky commute is something we never adjust to, and that even grows more onerous with time. Work like this could give added heft to arguments for policy measures like higher gas taxes, and for zoning laws that concentrate housing and cut down on traffic and commuting distances – arguments that now tend to be cast chiefly in environmental terms, but which also might push people toward decisions that make them happier in the long term.

This echoes discoveries made in the World Without Oil game. People engaged in the game made similar discoveries: when the oil shock made their commutes more painful in the wallet, people began to rethink the exurban lifestyle. One wonders if serious alternate reality games might be a way for researchers to cross-check their happiness studies?

Chevy vs. Chery FTW

Chevy vs. Chery FTW

January was the “month in which, for the first time, more automobiles were sold in China than in the United States” (Harper’s Index, April 2009 issue). China passed the U.S. to become the second-largest automobile-manufacturing nation in 2008. Chevy-Chery photo by The Pocket.

For humans, narrative is an ineluctable part of life

For humans, narrative is an ineluctable part of life

The always-interesting James Surowiecki’s column in the Jan 26 isue of The New Yorker is, on the face of it, about Obama’s $100B tax-rebate stimulus package. But scratch the surface and you’ll see that it’s also about the key role that narrative plays in our lives, a lesson at the heart of the World Without Oil game.

Surowiecki describes how the context of a tax rebate shapes its actual use. The easy analogy is the difference between $20 you find on the street and $20 that you earn. From an economic (top-down) point of view, they are identical $20 bills – they are fungible, as economists say. But the actual boots-on-the-ground feel of the two is very different: the found $20 is a windfall, a lucky break, and apt to be spent in a celebratory way. So it is with tax rebates, Surowiecki says, and he marshals some great examples that indicate that Obama’s plan for the tax rebate (by reducing withholding) is a smart one.

Surowiecki mentions what happened when Bush the Elder reduced withholding in 1992: even though in this case there was no actual saving to the taxpayer (taxes due were the same, just the amount withheld was less) people felt that their incomes were greater and thus tended to spend the money.

I find this remarkable, as money derives its value precisely from its fungibility, its lack of narrative, if you will. If you can (verbing alert) narrativize money, you can narrativize anything. Just another example of the power that narrative has for us humans…  and an indicator of why games and “what if?” projects that get people to narrativize an issue, as World Without Oil did with oil dependency, can be a powerful force for actual real-world change.

You can read Surowiecki’s column here (may require registration). Photo by goldmember

everyone has a piece of the puzzle

Making public media future-relevant: everyone has a piece of the puzzle

The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard has a paper out on the future of public broadcasting (download the PDF). Among the trends and forecasts, authors Pat Aufderheide and Jessica Clark note “a few participatory media public broadcasting experiments gesture to a future in which audiences are treated as both trusted partners and engaged citizens.” One of these experiments is Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Network, whose members serve as sources, story suggesters, brainstorming allies, and volunteer interviewees for reporters. The other is the World Without Oil game:

“A web-based project of ITVS’s Independent Lens, World Without Oil not only demonstrated the potential of online role-playing games to spark participation around social issues, but foreshadowed public reactions to our current oil price crunch. More than 1900 gamers from 40-plus countries collaboratively imagined their reactions to a simulated 8-month energy crisis through submissions via blogs, Flickr, YouTube, and podcasts. Participants virtually carpooled and bought bikes, moved out of transportation-poor suburbs, and started backyard gardens—and then reported corresponding changes in their real lives.”

The report summarizes: “Such immersive, authentic engagement with both audiences and issues is what is needed to ensure public broadcasters’ relevance in an ever-more participatory media universe.” One exciting idea: Local stations could change what they define as their core task, becoming more like an electronic public library for the
community. Except that the “library” focuses on futures (and the local actions that choose among them) rather than the past? That’s a value proposition that’s relevant to our time.  Photo by Will Survive via Flickr.

"word"

"Don't leave anyone behind for the wolves to devour"

“The calls for food assistance to our Catholic Worker House have tripled this past month, but last Saturday we had only 1/3 our usual number of volunteers show up to deliver the food… In the meantime, besides delivery, we have another problem, and that is food to give out to the poor. Our delivery this month from the Regional Food Bank was half its usual amount. Instead of about 14 tons of food, we received 7 at the Dorothy Day Center… The Printable Flyers are online. They are basic how-to instructions for coping with severely challenging circumstances. We’re handing out the full set, since we don’t know how far down this is going to go… We’re suggesting that people combine households, move in with each other, especially small households with only one or two people. The way things are going, keeping a household going with only one or two people isn’t going to work well. Inflation is running up prices, rents are going up, we’re headed for a big spike in foreclosures. I’ve been getting calls from people I know are middle class and even upper middle class about assistance in meeting mortgage payments. We’ve had to turn all of those down. I tell them to move in with their parents, but there is a lot of denial…. I worry all this will be too little, too late… I wish all this had held off for a couple more years, but oh well, at least we are where we are now and aren’t starting from square one.” Sound like a report on what’s happening today? It’s actually an example of “isthisnotagame”: it comes from an excellent report submitted back in July by jpeaceokc for the alternate reality game World Without Oil. Happy holidays, everyone. Photo by bella love via Flickr.

Fear is a lack of imagination

Fear is a lack of imagination

Elizabeth Kolbert created an evocative image in a recent New Yorker editorial: she described the auto executives in Washington as men with explosives strapped to their chests, bringing nothing to the table but the promise that if forced to suffer, they won’t suffer alone.

Imagine, instead, that an auto executive had come to Washington armed with a vision – such as a new line of ultraefficient cars leveraging carbon-fiber technology a la Amory Lovins.

We are having a crisis – the Econaclypse, the Great Decession, call it what you will – and like the Great Depression it will define an entire generation. But it really is a crisis of imagination, not of economics. Wendell Berry:

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper, or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimmingpools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations. An excerpt from “In the Presence of Fear” by Wendell Berry

This is important, so I’m going to say it again: We are in a crisis because too many people have lacked a certain kind of imagination. We all know that everything exists in an ecosystem, but it’s possible to pretend that it doesn’t, or that the system will be able to suck up whatever abuse you happen to do to it. The people who made the sub-prime epidemic happen did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of credit. The people who made gas guzzlers did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of energy evolution.

Now, however, those connections have been made clear. Now the thing we cannot afford is for people to strap on their unimagination like bodybelts of explosives and demand that the unimagined consequences of their destructive actions be allowed to continue. What they are failing to see is that their terrorist demand – for life not to change – is impossible. And what they are failing to imagine is that change can create a better life, both for them and the entire ecosystem they live in.

This is why serious games such as World Without Oil and Superstruct are such an important development. These games get at the root of the problem: they encourage imagination and the massive building and sharing of future visions. They put our collective intelligence to work on figuring out what’s happening, what’s possible and what’s fair. And they open-source this vision so that anyone can understand and participate. Wouldn’t it be grand if the legacy of our current economic crisis is not survival, but leadership in imagining how we can all make the future better? Photo by brndnprkns via Flickr.

The change doesn't happen all at once

The change doesn't happen all at once

Jane McGonigal blogged recently about “experience grenades” – games like World Without Oil that can be worldview-changing for their players. Why “grenade”? Experiencing the game is like pulling the pin, she says. Playing the game isn’t necessarily any big thing. It’s sometime later that the “experience” goes off and your worldview gets changed.

This of course is nothing new: I think many of us have had a “grenade” experience with a really great book, movie or other work of art. But I believe the game experience inherently packs a more powerful explosion. Books and movies put a layer of abstraction between you and the experience that games don’t; in some sense you are always “in” a game in a way that you never are with a book or movie. And ARGs in particular really enhance being “in the game.” (There’s no avatar, for one thing; it’s really you.) When there’s no set narrative except the one being created by the players – a la Superstruct or SF0 or World Without Oil – the immersion gets stronger still.

This concept is important for decisionmakers to internalize as they ponder funding for a game. Traditional metric structures for assessing impact do not carry over well to the game sphere, precisely because of phenomena such as the experience grenade. Just as socially collaborative projects such as Wikipedia are revolutionizing how business gets done, alternate reality games are revolutionizing what activism is and what brands do – and yeah, that change is arriving right now, with explosive force. Photo by Stephen Poff via Flickr.

Lose the game, save the world

Lose the game, save the world?

Via Philip Trippenbach’s blog, I found OILIGARCHY, a fun (and instructive) little flash game by WWO friend Molleindustria. Or should I say, “a playable commentary on the oil industry” as Molleindustria terms OILIGARCHY in their excellent dissection of their own game. OILIGARCHY, it seems to me, is a model for these types of games in that it’s transparent about its biases.

My own play result surprised me a bit, in that I did “good.” I dispossessed and killed relatively few people, and left ANWR and Iraq alone.  At game end, I weaned America off its oil addiction, set it on a course toward a better and sustainable quality of life, kept my board of directors happy (and if not happy, more perplexed than angry) and even made a killing (which Molleindustria points out is not hard) and retired happy. Instructively, the secret seemed to be (spoiler): I declined to spend cash to rig the U.S. political system. Hmmm….

Here’s a timely blog post by Philip Trippenbach of the BBC about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). Philip is responding to Dan Hon’s rousing closer at the Let’s Change The Game: ARGs For Charity And Education Conference in London (a conference I should have attended, considering all the Friends of WWO there are at the BBC). Dan’s key point was that ARG designers suck, but said in a very sympathetic and helpful way, and Philip has riffed on that with an eye towards the future of journalism.

ARGs that don't suck

Changing the game: ARGs that don't suck

What cheers me is that consensus says: World Without Oil didn’t suck. It’s the counterexample to Dan’s rant, and Philip derives five takeaways for journalists, things they can learn from games like WWO:

• Network effectively
• Focus your public with a challenge structure
• Be platform agnostic
• Tell stories collaboratively
• Interact

I think the upshot is going to be more and better ARGs: more democratic, more participatory, more relevant. Photo of SleeperCell volunteers by Adrian.

It's got a cup holder and everything

It's got a cup holder and everything

WWO fan Leslie and others alert me that an interview I did last year for NPR with Jim Fleming has been recycled as part of a To The Best Of Our Knowledge segment on going green. You might give it a listen – not for my segment necessarily (about 40 min in) but for the fascinating (and WWO-echoing) early segments with Colin Beavan and Jeff Ferrell and right after mine, the “kid’s future” segment by Anne Strainchamps.

Leslie notes, “The host asked about your favorite WWO posting. One of my favorites was from a pharmacist who worked out a delivery route to serve his customers who lived at a nearby retirement home. I also appreciated the folks who were digging up their lawns to put in vegetable gardens. We have a couple of beds and will probably add more in time. My mother-in-law’s neighbors in Dubuque landscape with vegetables tucked in and around the shrubs. Very pretty.” Photo by tofutti break via Flickr.

Revolution is in the air

Revolution: it's in the air

The world’s energy system is at a crossroads. Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable – environmentally, economically, socially. But that can – and must – be altered; there’s still time to change the road we’re on. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply. What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution. - World Energy Outlook 2008, IEA

Following up my earlier post, the IEA report came out on November 12, and the message is crystal clear: one way or another, we are about to have a revolution. We can choose a green energy revolution, or we can sleepwalk into a brown revolution of climatic cataclysms and energy shortages, of which the World Without Oil game is just the beginning. Energy Revolution Graphic by Ken Eklund

No one has epitomized our yo-yo economic thinking lately than Thomas Friedman, who followed a column urging let’s go shopping with another urging thrift. This is the dilemma du jour: which companies do we bail out, and which do we leave to drown?

Make every recession a smart one

Make every recession a smart one

Phrased another way, how do we have a smart recession?

The answer I think is pretty commonsensically clear: we bail out those things that lead to the future we want to have, and let the others paddle on their own.

Case in point: U.S. automakers. Are they leading us to the future? This is a no-brainer: one glance at their sales figures answers this question. If any question remains, consult The Economist, which states flatly that the future for automakers are how well they sell in India and China. Bad news, Ford and GM: China has fuel efficiency standards and India is implementing them. Turns out the years the Big Three spent opposing fuel efficiency standards in the U.S. were a bad career move and the argument that they needed low standards to be competitive was exactly wrong.

There’s a crowdsourced component to this as well. In these econocalyptic times, people are being more cautious with their money. There’s a commonsense logic at work, which is why people aren’t buying gas-guzzling American cars or cheap lead-encrusted Chinese cra- uh, goods. The econocalypse has forced people to begin thinking ahead and making the future part of their calculations. Now, if we can just extend this thinking into what sort of economy we stimulate going forward (and what kind we don’t waste our dollars on), the recession will not be another example of “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Photo by oxmour via Flickr.

The depo man does the job

The Petro Razor imposes, the depo man disposes

Signal of the times: Malia Wollan of the AP posted a story this weekend about the growing epidemic of abandoned boats. More and more pleasure boat owners are no longer able to afford slip fees, and more and more commercial boaters are being driven out of business by the double whammy of fuel costs and a sinking economy. Just as I reported earlier about hot SUVs, the solution seems to be depo men – paying people that take your vehicle out and burn it or sink it for you.

Wollan quotes Buck Bennett, a natural resources manager in Georgia: “I’m not an economist, but when putting 500 gallons of fuel in a shrimp boat costs more than the boat is worth, that is a sad thing.” Bennett knows of over 150 scuttled boats on Georgia’s coast, and guesses that’s only a fraction of the actual count.

The credit crisis dominates the news today, but invisibly for most people. What we can see, however, is how the credit crisis is concatenating with others, especially the oil crisis of 2008, and self-exposed industries are going under. US auto industries insist on making big cars right up to the end, and now their bailout is (rightly) looking less and less likely; with hulks littering the waterways, the marine industry is effectively dead.

When hulks littered the streets in the World Without Oil game, after the Petro Razor made its cuts and people walked away from cars, boats and houses, it seemed unreal – such was our mindset in 2007. In 2008 it not only seems more real, it is really happening. Photo by sunface13 via Flickr.

5 questions in 5 min = 50 points

5 questions in 5 min = a big +1 for Jane

WWO’s own Participation Architect, Jane McGonigal, continues her business-of-ARGs evangelism in this article in Businessweek, and answers five questions posed by Businessweek about Alternate Reality Games in this 6-min video. As Jane notes, it’s important for businesses to take note of and get involved with the sort of massively peer-peer learning, collaborative brainstorming, and shaping of win-win futures that alternate reality games can spark – not just for their own business success but for the improvement of quality of life in general. Or as Jane puts it, “increasing the odds of us collaboratively inventing a future that we all want to live in.” Go Jane!

Real play, not roleplay

Immersive real play, not roleplay

I’ve been aware for some time that I play games differently from some other people. I like immersion reality. What does that mean? It means games which try to construct a fully realized simulation of a situation, and value play that is “in game.”

This is different from immersive meaning “engrossing.” I find basketball and chess engrossing, for example, but they are not immersive; they don’t simulate anything, they are constructed specifically to be games.

When I play non-immersive games, I am constantly thinking about the rules. When I play immersion reality games, however, I am hardly aware of rules. When I play chess, narrative is distracting; it doesn’t help to know that the rook once was called “rukh” and was a warrior instead of a castle. If I play an immersive reality game such as World Without Oil, however, narrative is key; it’s central to the game; it’s the best narratives that drive the game forward.

In my view, various Alternate Reality Games score variously on the “immersion reality index” or IRI, and this doesn’t necessarily depend on the relative “reality” of the game scenario. In the ILoveBees ARG, the character of Melissa was an Artificial Intelligence from the 26th century that had been damaged and spun back in time to crash-land on the website of a Napa Valley beekeeper in 2004. As realities go, that’s pretty far out there. But as written by 42 Entertainment and portrayed by actress Kristen Rutherford, Melissa was very plausible, and led to immersive player interactions such as this one.

There’s nothing wrong with a game that scores low on the IRI. People are very comfortable playing games that are essentially outside themselves, where there’s a level of abstraction between them and the game action (as there is in most video games). In low-IRI games, it’s fine to leave your morals and your emotions off the playing field. But for me and for a lot of people, games that score high on the IRI are the easiest and most satisfying games to play, because they give me a full-mind workout.

The lack of abstraction means something more: immersion reality games are effective learning experiences. They simulate life, after all, which is the most effective learning experience of all. It’s this aspect of high-IRI games, simulations and “thought experiments” that is attracting so much attention to games such as World Without Oil, and the prospect of extending games like it into civic, social, and cultural arenas. Photo by -Kj. via Flickr.

As gas prices dip below $2 a gallon in parts of the U.S., the question arises: will Americans be fooled? Not if they actually pay attention to the forecasts: “Although prices may stay low for a time, ‘it is becoming increasingly apparent that the era of cheap oil is over,’” says the Financial Times about a report to be released this week by the International Energy Agency, according to this report from IEEE Spectrum. The IEA forecasts oil back to $100 a barrel and up as soon as the recession-caused glut passes.

Oil is fleeting, but wind is forever

Oil is fleeting, but wind is forever

Long-term, the IEA forecasts oil rising to $200 a barrel by 2030 – or it would forecast such a future, except that, in their words, “current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable.” As Bill Sweet of IEEE goes on to explain, “ultimately the IEA is saying that what it is predicting to happen will not actually happen because it cannot happen.” The IEA is acknowledging that you cannot just extend the graph out for another 20 years, that the reality the graph depicts derails the graph’s own underlying assumptions about prices, economic and population growth, and so on.

This is a remarkable statement, and worth repeating: the world’s energy “business as usual” will not survive for two more decades, and the energy infrastructure as we know it will be changed by the turmoil caused by market pressures on oil supply. This of course is not news to those familiar with the World Without Oil game. But it is news to see it openly said by as august an agency as the IEA. Lesson: it’s not a moment too soon for the U.S. to embark on radical reconsiderations of its energy future (pdf). Photo by maistora via Flickr.

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What if the whole world could vote? The American election via The Economist

The Economist magazine ran a cool democratic experiment in which they created a Global Electoral College online and allowed the world to vote on the American election. The result: Obama sweeps the world, capturing 9,115 out of a total of 9,875 electoral votes. Which explains my inbox, crammed with election excitement and good wishes from friends outside the U.S.

Curious to see the McCain-leaning red states around the world: Iraq, predictably, but Algeria? The Congo? Cuba? Click on through to check out the interactive map.

More and more people interested in serious games for the public good

More and more people interested in serious games for the public good

A fortnight ago I had further occasion to speak about the World Without Oil game, first at The Conversation, a very cool conference focused on independent filmmaking and storytelling, and then at WebbyConnect, the also cool Webby conference. One was in Berkeley, and the other in a Ritz-Carlton hotel right on the beach… you can probably guess which was which.

Scott Kirsner, a prime mover at The Conversation, has a great summary of it here. WebbyConnect doesn’t seem to have a good online record, but Shira Lazar’s video interviews capture some of the vibe; none with me (pout) but a nice one with Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment covers the Alternate Reality Game space.

I spun my message different ways for the different audiences, but at core it’s always the same these days: serious alternate reality games like World Without Oil tap into the power of questions. “What if an oil shock came?” The beauty is that you don’t have to know the answer. With a serious alternate reality game, all you have to do is frame the question in the right way, and let the people answer.

This is so important for people who are keyed to issues (like the indie filmmakers at The Conversation) but also to people who are trying to figure out how to really leverage the web (the WebbyConnect peeps). They shy away from the big, hard, unanswerable question that’s at the heart of their message, when they now have a tool in hand that can make that question’s apparent unanswerability work for them. Like judo, the serious alternate reality game uses the question’s weight against it.

Over and over again at these conferences, people brought up the word “authentic” as a goal. It’s a strange thing to say about a fictional adventure, but it’s true nevertheless: World Without Oil was authentic, in the aggregate one of the most authentic things I’ve ever experienced. But we are so used to storytelling now, as opposed to storymaking, that the idea of a storyteller giving up their admittedly inauthentic narrative never even sees the light of day.

Big props out to the great people I met at these conferences: good to see Peggy Weil and Lance Weiler again, great to meet people like Scott Kirsner, Wendy Levy, Elina Shcop, Christina Schroeder, Chris Armijo, Chet Gulland, to name just a few. I had a great time sitting in the grass at The Conversation and talking games with a circle of interesting people over lunch, and sitting with Nadine Bartz and Horst Liebetrau on a perfect balmy oceanside evening. The word about games is getting out there: maybe games will save the world sooner than I thought. Photo of The Conversation by jdlasica via Flickr.

It’s probably unfair to finger Rocky Twyman as the architect of the global recession, for a variety of reasons. All Twyman did was lead a mass movement to pray for lower oil prices. But as Ian Ayres asks so succinctly, “Did God reduce prices on the demand side or the supply side?” Apparently Twyman and his followers didn’t specify, and God in his wisdom chose the demand side, in the form of a global recession.

It takes a village (in recession)

It takes a village (in recession)

Out of the many lessons to be learned here, let’s focus on this: Twyman’s blithe request illustrates the danger we’re in if we don’t look at the full relationship of oil prices, supply, demand, and the oil production pipeline. This was taught really well by players in the World Without Oil game: at game’s end, when the crisis was apparently “over” and gas prices had stabilized once again (at $5.50/gal US), many players were horrified to see their neighbors fall right back into their old fuel-dependent habits. Which is what I see now all around: people believing that after a period of “false high prices” driven by “speculation,” fuel prices are now declining to their “natural levels” where they will remain, apparently, until the Second Coming.

What has actually happened is that the credit crisis has removed uncertainty from the oil market. Earlier this year, the oil market didn’t know if the oil coming out of the ground would be able to satisfy demand, so prices for oil futures went up. Now, however, it’s clear to the market that a global recession is here, and since the recession will precipitate a sudden drop in demand, it’s also clear that for the short term oil suppliers have too much oil in the pipeline. Thus the tumble in prices.

What this does NOT mean is that we have a lot of oil, or that uncertainty is gone from our oil future. Uncertainty is an indelible part of oil – for one thing, the people who control certainty are the same people that profit from uncertainty. Add to that the tendency for oil to create and maintain non-democratic nations, and the growing strategic importance of energy, and you’ve got an enduring situation where the only certainty is uncertainty.

Plus… as I’ve noted before, success in energy independence means lower oil prices. The people who buy hybrids and use alternate transit drive down the demand for oil, which drives down its price for a while. But the only way to keep the price down long term is to actively pursue alternatives, and not to be seduced by a low price today. As we all know all too well by now, that can change, and astonishingly quickly. Photo by ursonate via Flickr.

No Gas 4 U

No Gas 4 U: A World of hurt Without Oil

I learned a new WWO statistic, thanks to Krystyn: 3 mph.

That’s the speed that gasoline moves through a pipeline, apparently, and it’s one of the reasons that a full-on WWO experience has erupted for real in the Southeast. Have you heard about this? It’s been largely swallowed up, newswise, in the mortgage meltdown, the credit crisis, the bailout and other fiascoes.

Krystyn points me to this AP story about the gas shortage, which details how the disruption to the gasoline supply in the Southeast U.S. has led to gas lines, suspended business and school operations, price gouging, panic buying and hoarding, and so on. And even violence, as this Biz Week story relates how the area is abuzz with stories about “fistfights and fender benders among drivers jockeying for position before the gas runs out.”

The root cause is Hurricane Ike and its effect on the power grid. The hurricane disrupted refinery operations in Louisiana and Texas, but that was fairly brief. The power disruption lasted much longer, and without power, the oil companies were unable to move the gasoline through the pipelines and thus, a gas shortage on the other end that’s lasting much longer than experts realized it would.

I’m reminded of a discussion I had with an authority on the fuel system prior to launching the World Without Oil game. I asked him if the U.S. had any contingency plans in place to guard gas stations in the event of a crisis (as the UK does, for one), and he seemed to think I was crazy. “There won’t be any trouble at gas stations,” he said. “Why would there be?”

WWO players understood the street reality of the situation far better, and everything we’re seeing in the Southeast now was successfully foreseen by the collective imagination of WWO players back in May 2007. If this is what happens when a transitory shortage passes through a region, what will happen when a permanent national shortage comes to stay? And what can we do to prevent that from being a disaster? That’s what the World Without Oil project was all about, to “play it  – before we live it.”

Photo by B Rosen via Flickr. The Atlanta Gas Crisis photo pool is here.

Krystyn Wells is now seeing the serious challenges and expectations from World Without Oil come to reality over the past couple of weeks. Serious game, indeed.

The Facebook tweet above by Krystyn (who was Pachinko_Chance in WWO) made me realize something new about the World Without Oil game: it was a kind of Rorschach Test about the health of the country. The game did a lot to lay open the extent to which oil and petroleum-fueled energy has oozed its way into the fabric of our lives, and I’ve written about that extensively in past blog posts, and about how this oozing has become painfully clear in the year since the game ended.

The sign of things to come

The sign of things to come

But as Krystyn indicates, maybe the game also laid open the extent to which trouble was brewing, not directly petroleum-related. Commentators on the game noted how it tapped into the subconscious or the mythological. When you read stories like this one, which is full of foreclosures and belt-tightening and slipping-down lives, it reads like today – and remember, mind you, it was written back in May 2007, when there was no credit crisis, no mortgage crisis, no foreclosures, just sunny skies and prosperity forever and people thought $3 a gallon was some sort of dark fantasy.

Maybe we need to have a crisis game like WWO every year – and build something that we can pick apart at the end, and trace its various narrative threads back to the real-life cracks in the infrastructure that inspired them. And then see what we can do to fix those cracks before they spread and threaten to bring everything crashing down. Photo by respres via Flickr.

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.
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