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.