Friday, August 20, 2010

Call to Power…

Okay, I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here today and talk about…a computer game.

No, seriously. This is a game I got about 10 years ago and for a few months I was fairly addicted to it. If you’ve never played it, it’s one of those ongoing empire-building games. You start with a little “Settler” guy in a couple thousand BC, and you build him a city, and you set the city to build more things, and eventually you get more settlers who go out and build more cities. Most people choose to have a “mayor” for each city, because otherwise you have to scroll through every single city every single turn to figure out what needs to build something new, and it takes forever. So you tell the “mayor” that you want to maximize this city for making money, or production, or food, or happiness, or what have you.

You build more guys for each city, to defend it from other empires or wandering marauders, and eventually (if you’re bloodthirsty enough or tired of waiting for your own cities to generate enough settlers to build new ones…or if you’re a guy) go out and start conquering other empires. You build up a good army, go attack someone else’s city, and if you win that city becomes yours. You set up a mayor there and leave some troops stationed there so no one conquers it back. All the while you are studying to gain “advances” in civilization: first it’s things like iron working and horseback riding…eventually you progress to things like gunpowder and advanced shipbuilding and all kinds of things.

So you keep playing.

And somewhere along about the mid 20th century, if your cities have been producing well and you haven’t been conquered into oblivion, you start to notice that some of your lovely green farm squares on the game board have turned the dark brown of cracked dead earth. Suddenly…you’ve hit upon Pollution.

You keep studying your advances, and realize that you can work for the “Conservation” advance. It takes a bunch of turns, and in the meantime your cities are losing more and more of those squares. You start getting pop-up messages that say things like, “The citizens of Rio de Janiero are not producing enough food to survive” or “the people of Edinburgh are revolting!” (er…as in having a revolution, not that they’re gross or anything. I happen to think the Scots accent is highly sexy, myself…) and then your Diplomacy Manager starts coming up with messages like “The queen of the Aztecs demands that you reduce your pollution by 25% or her people will declare war on your empire!” and you’re getting more and more frustrated with every turn, because until you’ve gotten to the point where “Conservation” can kick in, you can’t really do a damn thing except tell your cities to stop producing. (Only if you do that, the people starve even more and the Conservation advance takes even longer.)

So finally it happens: “You have discovered a new Advance! Your civilization has discovered Conservation.”

You go into every city and immediately have it build a recycling plant and public transit. You buy every conservation-related advance you can possibly find, and figure you’ve solved your problem. Right?

Well, no. Not really. Because your cities have to keep producing, and you’ve probably got 25 or so by now and you can’t quite keep track of all of them, and it seems like every time you turn around one of them has built another factory when you weren’t paying attention. And even so, with everything already built, you can’t build enough recycling centers to really solve the problem. You keep working for more conservation-related advances: solar power, terraforming, matter decompilers, and such.

Eventually you are able to get things more under control. Eventually you get rid of those dead tiles. And eventually you may even be able to build the “eco-ranger,” a deadly terrorist whom you can sneak into enemy territory, send up to your enemies’ most polluted cities, and just blow them up so they are beautiful pristine greenness once again.

Okay, so this is not necessarily the plan we want to follow in real life. But it’s gotten me thinking…aside from the whole “eco-ranger” thing, and the fact that we don’t have matter decompilers yet, this game seems to actually take a fairly realistic approach to how pollution and lack of planet care sneaks up on us. (And I’m told that if you completely ignore the pollution problem long enough, global warming will kick in, ocean levels will rise, and you lose all your coastal cities.) And how even once you see it, once you know it’s there and it’s a problem, it’s not something you can press a button and just sort of solve. It’s a long process, it’s discouraging, and at times it really feels like one step forward and two steps back—knowing that without that step forward you’d now be three steps back doesn’t make you feel much better, you know?

And yet it’s not realistic enough. Because in a game, you can take control of everyone else at least on your side of the board, and force them to do what you know is necessary. You can un-click that “mayor” box and manage it all yourself. You can harass other empires to no end if they are polluting too much, until they give in or you conquer them. You can even, if you don’t want to deal with it, go to the Options box in the beginning of the game and click “Pollution Off” and poof! You don’t have to deal with it.

In Call to Power II, there are no dialogue boxes that pop up and say, “The people of Shangri-La believe you are a socialist because you planted an organic garden!” Once you click a box in a city telling it to build a recycling plant, there’s no one who’s going to go in there and say “no! build another oil refinery instead!” or veto your spending plan with a partisan filibuster. You don’t need to elect anyone to a congressional seat so they will create a climate bill that then gets dumped. And when you get tired or need to concentrate on something else, you hit "save" and go do something else for a while and come back when you feel like it. You actually have control—and even then it’s bloody hard to solve the problem.

And we don’t live in a game. This is our planet, and it’s all we’ve got. And we have way too much to lose.

--Jenn the Greenmom


Kathryn Grace said...

I've never been into shoot-em-up games, but you got my attention and I'm glad I read to the end. Excellent writing. Got the message across. Left me sitting back, breathless. Do you know about Four Years. Go.? ( They're pulling a world of individuals and organizations together to solve the massive problems we face. Fascinating work.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Wouldn't it be so nice if there were a "save" button and we could come back to it after a rest? I've been feeling frustrated lately that I've been involved with my local green movement for two years, and in that time, nothing has changed. We've been working on the exact same issues for two years! Real life is so much harder than a game.


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