March 28, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Provocative politics in virtual games

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
SAN DIEGO--If you want to change the future, play with it first.

That could describe the philosophy of a new alternate-reality game called World Without Oil, which will launch April 30.

Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a backer of PBS, the game will essentially encourage people to envision a world in which the United States has been cut off from oil imports. Then, visitors will be urged to participate in the game by writing their own stories, creating videos or even by conjuring so-called flash mobs in U.S. cities.

Alternate-reality games (ARGs) are interactive story lines that draw on the real and virtual worlds--as well as players' actions--to unfurl the narrative. In recent years, the increasingly popular games have even been used in elaborate marketing campaigns, such as the recent launch of Microsoft's Windows Vista.

Jane McGonigal, a game designer for the research group Institute for the Future and one of the lead designers of the game, said at the ETech Emerging Technology Conference here Tuesday that World Without Oil is the first nonprofit-backed game designed for "social good."

"It's like: play before you live it," McGonigal said in an interview with CNET, following a talk on developing ARGs.

McGonigal said that although she has worked on several such games, World Without Oil is the first developed with nonprofit funding. She said the budget was roughly that of a major documentary work, or in the low six figures. The development team hopes the game will draw at least 100,000 players in the United States.

Jane McGonigal Jane McGonigal

McGonigal delivered a keynote speech on the first day of general sessions at ETech, a 6-year-old conference on emerging technology. Much of her talk was centered on developing games with a bent toward people's general happiness. She said that all technology developed today should pass the "deathbed test," or the idea that everyday tech should be judged beforehand for its value and contribution to people's quality of life.

"I predict by 2012 that technologists will become 'happiness hackers,' creating alternate realities we can live in: best-case scenarios that help people in their daily lives," she said.

The driver for this change? Recent scientific research has set a basis for happiness or positive psychology in humans. A number of books, such as Stumbling on Happiness and The Science of Happiness, lay out the scientific findings in the field, for example. That research, combined with growing public awareness on the subject, will create demand in game development, McGonigal said.

"The public expects technology companies to have a clear vision for a life worth living," she said. "Games improving quality of life should be a top priority."

She said game designers should be looking at three things: the pleasure people gain from a game; their engagement with it; and whether it brings meaning to their real world. Popular multiplayer environments such as Second Life are already showing how virtual worlds are affecting change in real life. For example, a newsletter in Second Life regularly discusses the relationship between a first and "second life," showing how experiences are trickling back to people's "first life," she said.

But there's still a long way to go before ubiquitous games are built to better people's lives.

McGonigal has developed several small ARGs. One, called the Ministry of Reshelving, was designed to play with so-called folksonomies, or user-generated taxonomies, on the Web to see how they worked in the real world. Developed in 2005, when McGonigal was concerned with the political climate in the U.S., the game called on players to re-shelve George Orwell's 1984 from the "fiction" section of the bookstore to "current affairs" and "politics." She said that roughly 40,000 people did this in bookstores around the country.

She's also developed a game called Cruel 2 Be Kind, which calls on players to "attack" strangers with random acts of kindness (in real life). Instructions are sent via cell phone.

McGonigal also has been evangelizing her ideas in the game community. She said she called on 11 game designers in the San Francisco Bay Area to get a sense of what they value in games. She compiled these thoughts in a "Cut-up Manifesto."

Some highlights from the designers: "games can improve the life that is boring or routine," "games can change someone who is work-obsessed," and they "can wake you up if you are sleepwalking through life and give you a shared social experience."

She ended the talk by asking the technologists in the room to invest a portion of their time to understanding and innovating products that promote happiness. "Make sure your technology is not only designed to feel good, but also to do good and expose good," she said. "Please hack happiness."

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to CNET, this story misidentified World Without Oil's financial backers. The game is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

See more CNET content tagged:
Jane McGonigal, Second Life, virtual worlds, designer, games


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All very interesting but..
I like the idea of people getting a view of an alternative reality. Especially one that could to some extent become a reality in our life time.

But, what always concerns me about these computer/web based initiatives is the fact that they go nowhere. They are just a talking shop. Like minded people communicating with like minded people all showing how great they are for caring to people who will pat them on the back for it.
Unless they have an impact on the real world it is just a game.
Posted by ahickey (177 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Stop wasting money PBS
I don't see how this game fits within the purpose of public BROADCASTING. If they want a public discussion, they should do what they always do: a fear mongering "documentary" and then open up some discussion forums. Plus, the premise is silly: US could never be cut off from ALL oil exports. Even if that were to happen, there's enough coal for liquification for generations to come and that's with technology that hasn't had much R&D since WWII. Not to mention all them trendy alternative energy sources.
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Reply Link Flag
pseudo documentary...
Actually, this is the sort of thing that PBS is best suited for. It would be nice if another government group did this but they would lack even the credibility that PBS has. As for the Premise... you are right, it would take a massive turn in world fortunes for a country to be able to refuse to supply oil to the U.S.A. without being immediately invaded on "humanitarian grounds".
As for coal liquifaction. The technology has production costs around $60 US/barrel, and the product itself is incompatible with existing U.S. refining capacity. (thats why refineries can only accept a limited (approx ~10% of feed)amount of oil from Canada's oil sands. It would take several years to retool to make use of this feed source properly. The new alternate energy options, (solar, wave, wind, geothermal) haven't had the development that they need to become mainstream technologies. while the old alternates (hydro, and nuclear) are already being used at full capacity and would take extensive amounts of time to ramp up. Add to that, vehicles that can't make effective use of these alternate energies and you have a recipe for social collapse.

I only wonder if the game will let those outside the U.S. participate. It would be interesting to see the Canadian response to the U.S. acting to "secure" is supply of oil from Western Canada.
Posted by firebate (15 comments )
Link Flag
Missing the point of the game
Perhaps the game should have been tweaked from "oil supplies to the U.S. have been cutoff" to "oil has run out." This would redirect the efforts of players from securing/taking oil from other sources to actually living without oil, which I believe is the point of the game (or could be). To that end, it wouldn't be hard at all to do without oil - more expensive, yes, but not hard, as alternative solutions that already exist but are not price-competitive with oil would simply slide to the forefront and then become cheaper with mass adoption and more focused (by necessity) development. Sounds good to me.
Posted by tomworth (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nice idea, but...
...the answer is already obvious.

I don't care how many people scream and demand that we withdrawl from Iraq, or how many shout that somehow we should stop using oil... now!

The month oil stops flowing, damned near ever American would suddenly start screaming for the President to "warm up the missile silos if you have to and get us some oil, damnit!" (esp. once everything that relies on transport starts getting really, really expensive...)

c'mon - we already know the scenario. How about a game that has players discover and implement unique ways to transition away from fossil fuels, like a Sim-City sort of game?

Posted by Penguinisto (5042 comments )
Reply Link Flag
a better world
eventually "a world without oil" would probably
be better one. Already there are electric cars
and solar power improvements.

One small solar generator could eventually power
and rechrarge itself....

And besides there are people living primitive
out there. So do we really need it?

Take the refrigerator for example.
Can't people just live on dried goods?
Luke warm water.
Posted by Mulinello (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
except that food doesn't really transport itself...
Food, medicine, clean and disease-free water... basically human sustenance itself today requires transportation, which in turn requires fuel.

After all, it would be rather hard to get hold of even dried food in the city, if there were no way to transport it from the farm.

Also, a sustainable primitive existence for 6 billion people would require more land and natural resources (read: animals + plants) to support them than ten Planet Earths would have available, let alone the one we do have.

Basically, we would have to kill 5.5 billion people, in order to sustain the other 500 million globally. Anyone care to volunteer to be among the 5.5 bn?

Posted by Penguinisto (5042 comments )
Link Flag
Great idea!
We could all go back to when the average human life span was
something like 40 years and child mortality rates were around 50%.

That would solve ALL of the problems on earth in about 1 to 2

Welcome to the "Eco-Religious" Garden of Eden.
Posted by K.P.C. (227 comments )
Link Flag
Oil It makes the world go!
Sorry, but 1. The planet has plenty of oil left. 2. If you want to see the US without oil, watch Americathon. 3. Why would any country stop selling oil to the US? They love those petrol dollars! 4. Funding CPB is a waste of our tax money.
Posted by bkedersha (66 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"1. The planet has plenty of oil left."


"3. Why would any country stop selling oil to the US? They love those petrol dollars!"

Double yep. It'd hurt them in the end more than us, as their economies ALSO depend on the relationship.
Posted by LuvThatCO2 (187 comments )
Link Flag
This 'game' sounds retarded
Ignoring, if you will, that a significant amount of oil is domestic, and that most of our imported oil comes from Canada and Mexico, and NOT the middle east...

Well, dont ignore that. The whole thing is a retarded. Even if every other country that sells us oil stopped - we'd still have it. It'd be more expensive, certainly, but we'd adapt pretty quickly by increasing domestic production and other means. We'd be far, far better off than a lot of other countries would be in a similar circumstance (China, for ex).
Posted by LuvThatCO2 (187 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Wouldn't even have to invade to get it, either...
I'm very sure that a US gov't cutting off all food exports and foreign aid money would put enough pressure on the global economy to change recalcitrant minds.

Nothing like an empty belly to break an ideology, no?

Posted by Penguinisto (5042 comments )
Link Flag
I've got an idea for a game, too
Lets imagine we lived in a world where journalists still had standards, and the mass media didnt promote fear and doomsday scenarios to get ratings, and one where the news outlets didnt filter everything through their personal political agendas.

We'll call the game 'Utopia'.

Coming to PC and Playstation 3 this fall. Rated 'B' for 'must have a brain to play'.
Posted by LuvThatCO2 (187 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Amen brother
lol, lol. No, wait, I've got an idea for a game. A world without earthday-birthday-green-weenies. Think of all the gasses that wouldn't be constantly released. We'd all be happy!!!
Posted by suyts (824 comments )
Link Flag
I agree
Too many media outlets are pure garbage. I get all of my news from the internet now.
Posted by Millerboy (104 comments )
Link Flag
World without corn
Let them eat cake!
Posted by tommorrison1 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
no doubt.
I just wish the powers to be had the intestinal fortitude to doing something akin to that. Sadly, being spineless seems to be a prerequisite to being elected to congress.
Posted by suyts (824 comments )
Reply Link Flag
oops, was replying to penguin
clicked on the wrong link.
Posted by suyts (824 comments )
Link Flag
The world is drowning in oil
All this talk about global warming and alternative energy is nonsense. Currently there is about 100 years of KNOWN reserves of oil. And oil is not a limited resource. It is CONSTANTLY being created by heat and pressure in the Earth. Calling it a fossil fuel is like calling Darwinism truth.

All this fearmongering is to get control of people's minds so they will sell out their country for global government and false sense of "security", before Christ comes and wipes the devil, and all his works, off the planet.
Posted by GOoD_dEVIL (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I dont care if we are about to run out. Solar is progress. Making your own power is progress. Do you plan to take millions of galons of diesel to Mars, another galaxy? GoodDevil and others like him have probably never left their state but they are so convinced that there is ENOUGH oil.. and there are enough trees, clean water and room to bary all of our garbage...
Now that i have the ability i bought a hybrid, and am saving for solar panels for the house.... This makes me think that i am part of the solution. At least through funding, support.
Posted by iamarcin (36 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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