Fate of the World: An Epistemological Review

My work leads me to discover some very strange games. After Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus, I’d like to offer you another epistemological review of one such games. By epistemological, I mean that I won’t necessarily be following the traditional formalisms of game reviews. Rather, I’ll be focusing on the ways in which said game intersect and diverge from the established modes of meaning making surrounding particular topics.

This week’s topic will be climate change, and the game, Fate of the World.

**Warning: This review might only be valid for an older/bugged version of the game as my experience seems to vary greatly from the norm. See the comments for more details.**

I’ve taught about climate politics before. Every time, it’s a challenge because of the way the discourse has been polarized by the popular press. So, instead of teaching solely the controversy or the science behind climate change, I tend to try get to the foundational beliefs that undergirds the kinds of knowledges being produced by various climate change discourses.

It’s during one such moment that I discovered Fate of the World, an educational game focusing on the stakes of dealing with climate change. Quintin Smith over at Rock, paper, Shotgun did an excellent review of the game with which I largely agree, and I encourage everyone to give the game a try, whether as a game or as an educational tool.

The game is difficult, as any game that tackles the resolution of climate change should be, based on actual science, and full of interesting statistics and projections that really give players the feeling of being overwhelmed by the task at hand.

In this sense, it’s probably one of the best educational games focusing on climate change that I’ve seen. Actually, the game reminds me a lot of Conflict: Middle East Political Simulator. Much like the latter game, Fate of the World asks players to make choices and then models the consequences of said choices. And much like Conflict, Fate of the World is fiendishly difficult.

However, what I want to examine more closely today is some of the choices that Fate of the World asks players to make.

At its core, Fate of the World revolves around a simple question: what would happen if the fight against climate change was privatized? As such, Fate of the World isn’t so much an educational game focusing on climate change as it is a global neolibralization simulator (hence the comparisons to Conflict).

The game’s premise is that the player takes on the role of the CEO of a global organization (effectively a state-sanctioned corporation) that is tasked to save the world from destruction. On the surface, this is nothing new as far as game premises are concerned. Perhaps one of the best known game that features a similar context is X-COM where players take on the role of a global entity tasked to fight against invading aliens.

Given this premise, it’s perhaps not surprising that the game plays as it does. Key to winning the game is the management of various nations’ HDI, a measurement that relies heavily on Euro-American notions of progress, development, and technologization. In fact, many of the solutions presented by Fate of the World can be summed up by the slogan “Get better technology! Get Western technology!”

There have been many critiques (Appadurai 1996; Escobar 1995) of modern globalization and development discourses so I won’t bother delving too deeply into that particular discussion here. Rather, what I’d like to point out is that Fate of the World is very much involved in the solidification of a particular discourse. Whether intentional or not, Fate of the World is nonetheless a player is the normalization of the dominant discourse on global development that exists today, maybe even moreso because it purposefully advertises itself as an educational game.

Key here, therefore, are notions of authority and expertise. Fate of the World appears so convincing precisely because it is built upon two notions that feel so authoritative and laden with expertise: science and corporatism. Now, that isn’t bad in and of itself by any means. However, it becomes problematic when it’s accepted uncritically, when it’s accepted as normal, and sadly this is partially what Fate of the World asks us to do.

Perhaps the best representation of this situation is the way that Fate of the World classifies the various outlooks of the world’s regions. The game uses a scale that goes from materialist on one end to consumerist on the other, with regions such as North America and Europe being classified as consumerist while regions such as North and South Africa classified as materialist.

Notwithstanding the fact that the division made between consumerism and materialism is dubious at best, Fate of the World only provides ways to move the scale towards consumerism, the assumption being that this outlook goes hand-in-hand with an increased HDI, and therefore a better world.

It’s within this particular framework that players are asked to make their choices. Fate of the World asks players to make many, ranging from health policies to educational ones. However, I’d like to now focus on two specific ones: energy and politics.

I’ve mentioned that Fate of the World relies on the dual authority of science and corporatism, and nowhere is this more evident than in the energy policy cards available to players. While the type of cards provided rely on the authority of science, the consequences of player said cards rely on the authority of corporatism.

For example, one possible card allows players to switch to a coal-free industry. However, unless coal is already removed from a region’s industry, this card switches the power production from coal burning to coal-produced electricity. As such, we’re only a small step removed from largely corporate discourses surrounding clean coal.

Second is the game’s nuclear energy policies. Here the game offers two options: 1) Commit to Nuclear, which pushes a region towards nuclear energy, and 2) Decline Nuclear Power, which pushes a region towards electrical power. However, corporatism joins science again when the only negative consequence the first choice is that you might run out of uranium, while the second possesses no negative consequence whatsoever. A strange representation given the historical issues surrounding nuclear power, especially in the wake of such disasters as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and more recently, Fukushima.

However, perhaps most perplexing of all, and Fate of the World‘s most extreme treatment of neoliberalism let loose, is the treatment reserved to politics.

In an educational game focusing on climate change, one would expect politics to reflect some of the contemporary political efforts aimed at rectifying the situation. However, it’s important to remember that Fate of the World focuses on a privatized solution. Therefore, it’s perhaps not surprising that global cooperation and trans-national treaties are completely off the table.

Rather, Fate of the World reduces politics to a strange concoction that one would expect in the deepest, darkest pits of corporate policies gone wild.

To Fate of the World, politics is equated almost exclusively to militarization and national security. As such politics are primarily deployed in the least stable regions, which in the game is largely equated with the African continent. Once regional support goes down, funding and the efficiency of enacted measures also drop. Therefore, controlling a region’s support for the organization is key.

Therefore, in a strange situation mirroring our own world’s history, Africa as a whole often becomes the target of increasingly restrictive military measures. A player’s first reaction might be to play a card to increase the organization’s assistance to a region’s security forces, but if that fails a plethora of options ranging from deep black ops, funding insurgencies, fomenting regime changes, and campaigns of covert sterilization. One might be outraged at such options, but sadly, they too often reflect real-world events.

Despite these rather puzzling things, Fate of the World remains nonetheless a first-rate educational game, if only because it can potentially expose players to the consequences of the sometimes problematic solutions proposed to rectify the climactic disorders we’re experiencing. Despite its reliance on scientism and corporatism, Fate of the World offers players inherently moral and ethical propositions. No, the game doesn’t have a morality scale. Rather, it takes a page from Starflight by locating morality beyond any reductionist definition of the game, in the embodied reality of the player by silently asking: would you do it?

Sadly, however, too often, we would. And that probably revealed much more about ourselves than it does about the game itself.

About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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9 Responses to Fate of the World: An Epistemological Review

  1. Again, fabulous review. It’s amazing all of the hidden lessons that can be embedded in a video game! Not to mention other popular consumer products, for that matter. It makes you wonder how much “free choice” we really have, when games like this rest on such deeply-embedded (in America, at least) assumptions about power, politics, & energy.

    “Fate of the World is very much involved in the solidification of a particular discourse. Whether intentional or not, Fate of the World is nonetheless a player is the normalization of the dominant discourse on global development that exists today, maybe even moreso because it purposefully advertises itself as an educational game.”
    –> Great paragraph. And your observation about the supposed divide between “materialism” and “consumerism” made me chuckle, if sadly. It’s yet another step in the “normalization” process of corporatism (and all other “isms”) that you mentioned in your comment about Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus. This may seem like it’s coming out of left field, but have you ever read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell? You might find it satisfying like I did.

    • Erik Bigras says:

      Glad you enjoyed the review. I’ll probably be stepping back from reviews for my next few posts to tackle a different subject, but I’ll likely be back to them in the future.

      I wasn’t aware of David Mitchell. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. I don’t mean to be rude, but what game did you play. I find myself scratching my head wondering where a lot of your assertions regarding the choices come from. I don’t wish to say you didn’t play the game fully enough or actually move out of bounds of a very narrow band of option to fulfill a prescriptive critique of the game, but I can’t think where else a lot of your misrepresentation of your evidence came from.

    For starters, you can move the regions’ Outlook in any direction you wish with the right cards. In fact Consumerist and Materialist aren’t on opposite ends of the scale, they’re very close to one another near the middle. Consumerism has a value of -2 and Materialist a value of -1. The scale goes from -5 to +5. As for HDI, it doesn’t go hand in hand with a Consumerism outlook. I’ve had much greater success by pushing it towards Communal and Altruistic. In reality the system is served by the situation you find yourself in. Going to far into the Green side of the scale has come back to bite me in the ass in the some playthroughs and I’ve only found Consumerism useful in temporary situations before the HDI falls of the map.

    As for pursuing nuclear power, in some regions doing so causes a number of problems. Not the least of which in my games was the proliferation of WMDs and a destabilization of political states in some regions. I don’t recall any accidents occurring, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did happen. I never pushed for nuclear that much in my playthroughs.

    As for cooperation and international treaties, there is some of that with regards to trade and the interconnectedness of technology across regions.

    You say that the game has a very corporatist focus, but you never mention the vast detrimental effect you can have on the world economy. It is very easy to make a few errors and cause a worldwide financial meltdown.

    Fate of the World is a very complicated simulation of subtly interlocking parts. Yet your presentation makes it seem like each system of numbers are separated, when if fact the obstacle causing the player problems may be caused by an unrelated system interacted with other factors in such a way to create it.

    These are factual errors in your evidence. The simulation is far bigger and more complex than you present. I looked through the wiki on the game and found out there are more event cards than I knew existed because I never achieved the starting conditions for them. I also feel that some of your assertions and pronouncements are a rather limited reading of the game’s elements, but I stuck to only things I knew were factually incorrect.

    • Erik Bigras says:

      After reading your comment, I had to go back and look at what I wrote, and I’m forced to conclude that I either 1) didn’t play the same game, 2) played an older/bugged version of the game, or 3) just got it plain wrong. It turns out it might be a combination of 1 and 2 that leads to 3. That would explain why the game I played seems to behave very differently from what you describe. I hadn’t seen any major bug reports online, and the developer’s website is down for me, so I didn’t really have any reason to conclude that I wasn’t playing the latest version or an unbugged one. My version is even called Tipping Point (I don’t remember if it was called that when I purchased it some years ago), which, from what I’ve read, is supposed to be the newer rebalanced version of the game.

      After you mentioned cards that you had never seen, I took a closer look at the wiki, and I notice that several of my cards aren’t as described. The biggest example of this are the office cards that allow you to unlock more cards. In my version, most are locked at $1000 (even past the first scenario) instead of the $25 described in the wiki, so I never managed to unlock them until later in the game, when the outcome was more or less already decided. The only two that I have that aren’t $1000 are the one about social issues and the one about politics.

      As a result, I mostly relied on nuclear power. At this point, I wouldn’t doubt that it would cause accidents, but when I played it never really did anything bad no matter how hard I pushed it (and at times I pushed it hard). I never experienced any of the troubles you mentioned. I never got a meltdown either, and the wiki doesn’t seem to describe any form of accident, but at this rate, I’m willing to accept that they might be present.

      Again, looking for in depth at the wiki, I see the -5/+5 scale you mention for outlook. However, the situation for me seems to be as I described it. No matter how hard I push to one side, there’s little to no change in the category. I can go fully green and communal, and the region remains consumerist. I can push consumption as much as I want, and the region remains materialist. The only three options I always have are “Balanced,” “Consumerist,” and “Materialist.”

      Similarly, one of the only ways available to me to raise the HDI and a region’s acceptance was through dubious political means, or highly corporatist ones, which didn’t seem to have any negative repercussions as far as world events go. At one point, even improving health care and education barely caused the HDI to move at all. Again, the issues you described just never happened for me, which leads me to believe that something’s not quite right with my version of the game.

      I do agree with you completely that Fate of the World is a very complex simulation. However, it seems that, given the circumstances, I’m just unable to experience exactly how complex it actually is. It does appear that any kinda of social or cultural impact, or even international politics, are inactive in the game available to me. However, I’m really happy that the actual game seems to work as you describe it. It also makes me wonder what, exactly, was changed when the game went from Fate of the World to Tipping Point, and why said changes were made, but that’s something I can’t really answer right now.

      Given this situation, I thought about pulling the post down, but decided against it. Critical conversation is always a good thing, and I do believe that some of the more general critiques I mentioned are valid (some of the political cards still puzzle me) even if my interpretation as to their representation within game would likely have been different if things had been otherwise. However, I’ll definitely include a caveat to that effect at the start of the post.

      Thanks for pointing that out!

      • I downloaded, installed and played the game again. I have Tipping Point and the game works as it did before. I have no idea what is wrong with your version. Not a single thing is a $1000 in my game. Maybe uninstall, redownload and try again?

        • Erik Bigras says:

          Now that I know that something was wrong for sure, I’ll definitely need to. After reading your comment, I saw some Let’s Plays of the pre-Tipping Point game with some offices locked at $1000 for the first scenario. Was that what I played? Was there some corrupted code/files for some reason that caused what I experienced? No idea, but I’ll definitely need to revisit it at some point to do it justice, when my schedule allows me to spend a decent amount of time with a new install.

          I liked the game before, and I want to like it even more. I suspect I will once I can experience it anew.

          • Oh I see the problem. The Africa situation is a tutorial situation. It is meant to introduce you to certain elements and how the game works. Those $1000 prices existed for certain offices because the objectives didn’t concern them. Beat that scenario and it unlocks the next one with everything available for in game prices. Try the next one. Be warned I have yet to get past the second scenario I keep failing.

            • Erik Bigras says:

              That’s what I figured after watching the Let’s Play, but on my original playthrough even the second scenario was like that (I managed to get past the tutorial with difficulty back then). I obviously never got past that second scenario either, given what I’ve described in the post.

              I just re-installed the game, and got past the tutorial. It wasn’t as much of a struggle as what I remember experiencing the first time (I remember trying several times because nothing I did seemed to raise my HDI beyond the threshold and the regions’ confidence in me just dropped like crazy). The prices are also correct in the second scenario, so it seems that whatever issues I had are gone. I’ll be able to give it another go at some point.

  3. Richard Catarcio says:

    Hi Erik. Absolutely love hearing your take on Fate of The World. As a 16 yr old high schooler learning on subjects like economics, international relations, and environmental science, I feel that Fate of The World has had a marked effect on my outlook on life and my positions on these subjects, although, not for the intended effect. You see, having played the game for at least 2 years now, I have only been successful at producing a high growth economy and a very high standard of living within every region (Yes, even Africa has a .95 at some point) by playing the “Cornucopia” mission, in which fossil fuels are unlimited (Or by exploiting wildlife reserves) . I had made numerous attempts to stop climate change and the damage done to the Earth in various different missions, yet all were in vain. Ultimately the only form of producing a very high GDP and saving the developing world from poverty and instability was BY taking on a consumerist, economically orientated approach. It should also be noted that this approach is portrayed as one dimensional compared to the diversity in actions that can be taken against climate change i.e red card, red card, red card. I noticed just as you had said that FOTW over simplifies not only the political aspect i.e only stability and border/security of the geopolitical realm but also that of economic development. It seems that the human aspect is largely ignored when attempting to illustrate the subject of climate change in such a manner. The problems that arose from climate change in this scenario such as storms, flooding, drought, and wildfires are mitigated by defenses financed by the burgeoning economy. By the end of the mission, I have found myself not discouraging but encouraging Consumerism in order to gain support by deploying aerosols. The end result is that most if not all regional outlooks are well beyond Consumerist and are actually Hedonist. The economy is so large that by the time I am unable to further (easily) mitigate against climate disasters, the Star Ark is ready to finance and whisk humanity away from the problems on Earth in a “Wall-E” like manner. By the end of the game, the world is barren, drought stricken, flooded, and dirty, but its a world where poverty and illness are non existent, the population has naturally stabilized and is even in slow decline, and an unprecedented amount of wealth has been produced and everyone is too busy watching TV pop stars in the comfort of their AI protected and well adapted cities and homes to worry about the extinction of some orangutans, sheltered from the revenge Mother nature attempts to exact upon humanity. I have frankly been persuaded by FOTW and its developers that Environmentalism is an empty ideology, one bent on the complete destruction of any form of economic well being on the planet, that it is a lost cause in the grand scheme of things, and that a more consumerist lifestyle verging on Hedonism itself is a surefire way to a world of plenty. I would like to give environmentalism some recognition, but I simply cannot view it in the same manner. Besides, lavish over consumption, pleasure seeking, and a “cornucopia” for all doesn’t sound too bad now does it?

    P.S after looking over your comment on the outlook scale, I definitely believe that there’s something wrong with the version you have. There should be about 11 different outlooks, giving the game a bit more depth. It should also be noted that the type of outlook that you shift to changes the way in which you approach the game (encourage consumption = disinformation card, red cards.) See here’s the thing: Materialist and Consumerist are both on the ” Consumerist” end of the spectrum. What the intended difference between the two that the developers tried to make is that a “Consumerist” outlook is just a more extreme form of Materialism. You See in poorer regions where money cannot be spent at “The Mall” i.e Africa, material goods and economic well being are still glorified. Consumerism simply implies that the people of the region not only glorify material well being, but pursue it through ritualistic spending and shopping.Hedonism is another good example because Consumerism is no longer simply a characteristic of a society, it is now an all encompassing philosophy that centers around rabid pleasure seeking. On the other end of the spectrum the outlooks shift from communal (care for your local ecology and neighborhood), Altruistic ( Care for the world’s well being at large), to full on “Green” and even anti-globalization Eco-maniacs.

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