world without oil: democratic imagination? 03.27.2007, 6:57 AM
posted by sebastian mary
I've written a couple of times recently about alternate reality gaming as an emergent genre of Web-native storytelling. But one of the things that's puzzled and frustrated me is the fact that the stories played out in most of these games tend to revolve around sinister cults, reborn gods, out-of-control AIs, government conspiracies and suchlike: the bread-and-butter paranoias that permeate the Web. No criticism here, I should add. Asking 'What if all this were true?' can kick-start a very entertaining daydream.
But in exploring these games, and reading around them, it becomes clear that the way these stories are told is as interesting as their content. In particular, there is a tendency (see this paper by academic and game designer Jane McGonigal for example) for ARG-style collaborative problem-solving to escape the boundaries of gaming and become a real-world way for distributed groups of people to address a problem they cannot fix by themselves.
In addition, the founding dramatic convention is "This Is Not A Game." That is, the games are supposed to leak out into players' lives. And this, combined with a chance to practice widespread collaborative problem-solving, is a phenomenally powerful and intriguingly democratic artistic form. So why, I wanted to know, is no-one using it to address contemporary politics?
No sooner do I formulate the thought than I discover that McGonigal's latest project, trailed in a talk she gave at the 2007 San Francisco game developers' conference , is an ARG called World Without Oil. Its central characters believe that an oil crisis is approaching on April 30 - the game's launch date - and are trying to spread the word. Or are they...? Who is trying to stop them...? And we're off.
I'll be following this one closely. Rather than taking a fantastical theme, it invites players to think seriously about a situation which is increasingly imaginable in the near future. And it seems that people are ready to engage: since its appearance yesterday, the the Unfiction discussion thread about the game is already many pages long, and mixes discussion of the game with serious musings about the very real possibility of a world without oil.
It also looks as though it's going to go way beyond asking its players to solve ROT-13 encryption for the next clue. In this Gamasutra interview McGonigal explains her ideas about collective intelligence and gaming, and outlines the way in which World Without Oil will be not just a game but a collaborative storytelling process. Along with the narrative of the main fictional characters, players will be invited to create blogs detailing - as if it were happening - the problems they would face in a (so far) fictional world without oil. And the game will respond. So, in effect, it will invite players to take part in a huge collaborative exercise in imagining a very possible future.
Looking at this game, I was reminded of the RSA's response to the Stern report on climate change, where it was pointed out that reactions to climate change and the like often lurch between optimism and pessimism without progressing beyond high emotion to imaginative or practical engagement with the situation. On a similar tack, Dougald Hine wrote an article recently for opendemocracy discussing climate change as a challenge to the democratic imagination: "Whether or not we succeed technically in mitigating its effects, it is all too easy to envisage the result as a more or less unpleasant authoritarian future. The task is to imagine and bring about a future which can accommodate both austerity and autonomy."
It may be too soon to tell. But if it goes well, I have some hope that World Without Oil may manage to engage not just collective fear but a collective and collaborative imagination to address some increasingly urgent questions.
Corrina McFarlane on April 23, 2007 6:31 PM:
I too have been acutely aware that the potential of focusing and harnessing the collective passion/energy of gaming and gamers for shifting worldviews and paradigms is phenomenal. Discovering what Jane McGonigal is designing and launching in the gamers world is truly heartening to me.