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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.
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.
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.
Responding to the crisis of the World War I and II years, people planted Victory Gardens. By raising their own food, citizens cut the demand for outside food and saved the fuel that would otherwise be needed to bring food to them. More important, they increased the resilience of the economy (by decentralizing food production, by being able to make their own decisions about distribution, and so on). And most important of all, they thus became an active part of the war effort – “Food is Fighting!” as several government posters succinctly put it. One result: an extraordinarily unified country.
Now we fast-forward to 2008. Whether or not the government chooses to acknowledge it, there’s another crisis going on – or more precisely, a concatenating and synergistic series of crises with feet already in the door. And many people are responding appropriately: by planting the Victory Gardens of 2008, by riding bicycles and taking transit, by driving efficient cars and hybrids, by eating locally, by building green, by cutting waste, by building communities and debating solutions, and so on.
The differences between then and now are notable – and to my mind, ominous. Then, these citizen actions were actively encouraged by The Powers That Be, which tallied their contributions and recognized them as important. Then, the White House boasted its own Victory Garden. Today, however, these citizen actions are actively discouraged by the government in favor of Consumerism As Usual, and the contributions these citizens are making are not recognized or even tabulated. Instead, we hear the “drill!” mantra, even though the citizen conservation approach has the potential to produce (via saving) more than 10 times the energy that drilling would net, in a quarter of the time. And once again the potential to unify the country, not divide it further.
In the World Without Oil project, we simulated the first 32 weeks of an global oil shortage. In the simulation, the government did very little and it was up to the people to crowdsource their own solutions to the crisis. Unfortunately, as with many other revelations from World Without Oil, government inaction seems to be coming true. Will it be up to the people to crowdsource their way into a viable and better way of life? The good news is, we’ve already started.
The mainstream media is catching up to World Without Oil’s vision for an oil-challenged future. Experts are “shuddering at the inflation-fueled chaos” and “foreseeing fundamental shifts in the way we work, where we live and how we spend our free time.” “You’d have massive changes going on throughout the economy,” said Robert Wescott, president of Keybridge Research. “Some activities are just plain going to be shut down.” Push prices up fast enough, said Michael Woo, a Los Angeles Planning Commissioner, and “it would be the urban-planning equivalent of an earthquake.” And S. David Freeman, president of the L.A. Board of Harbor Commissioners, said “The purchasing power of the American people would be kicked in the teeth so darned hard that they won’t have the ability to buy much of anything.” Do you remember the abandoned cars in WWO? Experts support this and offer a rough number: 10 million abandoned cars.
Read all about it in this LA Times article by Martin Zimmerman. Graphic from the article.
“Games that center on realistic problems can help develop many important skills, ranging from teamwork to problem-solving to understanding relevant content,” says Eric Klopfer, the director of the Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the book Augmented Learning. “In many ways, these games are more scalable and classroom-friendly than other video games, in that they don’t require special technologies or even extensive training. World Without Oil is a great example of how this could be possible.” Nice article about Alternate Reality Games in Education by Katie Ash. Reminder: you can find WWO lesson plans for high school teachers at http://worldwithoutoil.org/teach
If you want to get a solid picture of what World Without Oil signified to the world, listen to WWO’s participation architect, Jane McGonigal, at the New Yorker conference earlier this month, “Stories from the Near Future.”
What Jane’s saying is that games have turned a corner from Escapism to Engagement (not just WWO, but it’s perhaps the most potent example) and… well, she tells it way better than I do, so check out the vid.
The World Without Oil game centered on a website (www.worldwithoutoil.org, now archived here) which gathered all the in-game ideas and expressions of the players. In the fiction of the game, the website had been put together by eight (eventually, 14) ordinary citizens who had reason to believe the oil crisis was coming. They called themselves the 8TSOC (8 To Save Our Country).
Like the game itself, the 8TSOC characters were fiction but just barely. WWO’s gamemasters (“puppetmasters”) played them, but for the most part they were alternate realities of who we are (or might have been). Like the game itself, they come across as pretty real.
So it’s fascinating, a year later, to read these characters’ Manifestos – the characters’ thoughts as the reality of the oil crisis loomed larger and larger. Take a moment and check them out.
(To learn who in real life played each character, go here and scroll down to Puppetmasters.)
Cherie Davis’ article about World Without Oil in the Turlock Journal brings up a point to ponder: the particular vulnerability of exurbs such as Turlock to an oil shortage. Turlock’s recent growth is largely due to people fleeing the housing pressure cooker of the San Francisco Bay Area, and an awful lot of people in Turlock need to get to someplace else pretty far away on a regular basis, and do so by putting fuel in their cars. What happens when the fuel becomes unaffordable or simply unavailable?
Today on The Story, the subject is “oil games.” It’s worth a listen: go here and click the “LISTEN HERE” icon at top right to grab the MP3.
The first segment of the radio show from American Public Media deals with a simulation called “Oil Shockwave” put on by SAFE (Securing America’s Future Energy) in early November. I think that WWO followers will find it very interesting – and eerily alarming in its familiarity. “We found that once the crisis has started, there’s not much that the government can do…” The second segment is all about World Without Oil, and it’s a good summary of what the game was all about. Featuring starring roles by Rocklobster and other players! Thanks to Cori Princell and host Dick Gordon of The Story, and to where the show is produced. And to bloggers like Annette in Anaheim who are already picking up on and amplifying the story.
Iowa Public Television hosts a premier event for TV and video production, technical and education professionals, and this year they invited WWO Creative Director Ken Eklund to speak about crowd-sourced storytelling. Listen to the MP3, or go here and scroll down to Tuesday, Oct. 2, 9:30 am to view his snappy presentation.