Thursday, October 13, 2016

The three-legged stool of sustainability in game design: economic, environmental, and social elements

As I mentioned earlier, I am in the first semester of a year-long immersive learning project, and my students this semester are prototyping board and card games on themes of environmentalism and sustainability. My friend and colleague Joshua Gruver gave a guest presentation to the students, during which he presented some formal models of sustainability and chilling stories about what happens without it. One of the memorable models was the three-legged stool, which defines sustainability as having three legs: environmental, economic, and social. That is, to be sustainable, you have to have all three in balance.

A moment's reflection will reveal that the economic leg is the one that seems never short-changed in business decisions, and so dedicated effort is required for the other two. This feels inevitable if we describe businesses' role as being that of economic drivers. I think it is much less common to frame businesses as engines of environmental and social welfare. A modern accounting framework like triple bottom line gives some tools for how environmental and social aspects could—perhaps, should—be considered. However, I cannot feel a bit pessimistic, since these kinds of models only seem fair if everyone plays by the same rules, and you cannot make everyone play by the same rules.

All the more reasons to have some educational games to teach people about it!

I've been starting to sketch out some game designs based around the three-legged stool model, and it's making me look more critically at how the three elements of economic, social, and environmental are dealt with in contemporary games. Power Grid is a great example, as it provides both a compelling, modern theme along with a convincing economic model of resource scarcity. Scarcity drives up prices for fuel, at which point clean energy sources—which are initially very expensive—begin to give better return on investment. Notice that this treatment is still entirely economic! There is no consideration of environmental impact of pollution: only the price of fuel matters. Similarly, there is no consideration of the human cost of any of this activity: if some people don't get power, it doesn't matter. The fact that people are involved in the gathering and processing of fuel is completely absent. Of course, Power Grid is not about these thing: it's about efficient German boardgaming. However, it provides a good example of how only the economic side is modeled.

I had to stretch to find any games that consider social aspects. One good example is Above and Below: in this game, when you have workers exploring the caves, you can elect to injure them in order to get better results. When they are injured, it takes them longer to recover. Your faithful workers never consider rebellion or revolt, however: you can, and probably should, hire lots of workers so that you are free to injure them and still have ready workers the next round. Village has a different spin, where workers "age", and over time, your oldest workers must die. There's a beautiful little system around this that models generations of families in a medieval village. Puerto Rico famously avoids social issues by encouraging you to bring more and more little brown interchangeable "colonists" to work on your plantations. I know some people find this offensive, but I lean toward seeing it as a learning opportunity: by choosing the play the game, you get caught up in an economy that dehumanizes your workers, and the only way to win that game is to bring in more and more colonists to keep up with others who do so. Stepping outside the game, the only way to stop the sale of African slaves to plantations was for a critical mass of people to decide not to play that game.

My favorite representation of social elements in game design is in the short-form roleplaying game, Dog Eat Dog. There's so much brilliance in that design, but let me share my favorite aspect. The game models colonialism in the Pacific islands. All the players but one are natives, and one player represents the colonial forces. When the natives are together, they are individuals, with names, roles, and identities, but when the colonial forces are in a scene, the natives become homogeneous—they become all the same, interchangeable, merely pieces of someone else's game.

[EDIT] In my original draft, I forgot to mention Archipelago, but it merits some special attention. It deals with the difficult economic+social theme of colonialism in the Pacific islands as well. It is a semi-cooperative game in which each player tries to win individually, but all can lose collectively if the natives revolt. By growing the economy, players contribute to the population's general unrest. This unrest is a shared resource and always visible. In the games I have played, the most common way to reduce unrest is to hire natives, reducing the number of available workers. Once you hire the natives, they become indistinguishable from the colonists you brought with you, and fewer available workers means less unrest is generated. This is a very interesting spin on the theme. Like many games for entertainment, the game does not challenge you to consider what this means: you simply take the actions afforded by the game in order to move closer to victory. [/EDIT]

Turning to environmental matters in games, it's hard to find any good representations at all. In 4X games like Civilization, there are always limited resources, but these are really just economic models: you get the resources when you can, and when you cannot, you trade for them or fight over them. There is no consideration of conservation: natural resources are to be taken and used as quickly and efficiently as possible. Resource management games like Stone Age or Settlers of Catan provide essentially limitless resources, sometimes of varying scarcity, but there is no consideration of policy or land management. I enjoy Dominant Species for how it handles the evolution of species' dependencies around a changing environment, but the decisions about environmental resources are entirely tactical and selfish. Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me like there is a great opportunity here, a potentially untapped design space to model something like environmental policy. The cynical designer may even make it a hidden traitor game.

Let me bring this back to my initial design explorations. My sketches were looking at a system inspired by Tigris & Euphrates, where one would collect different kinds of points—economic, social, and environmental, naturally—and the winner would be the one with the most balanced system at the end of the game. I love this aspect of Tigris & Euphrates, that it doesn't matter who has the most of anything, but rather, you try not to be the one with the least of anything. As I started sketching out some systems, it's pretty clear that there are lots of economic systems that could be deployed, and a player could earn points for good economic choices. Then, I started thinking of social and environment issues, and my first reaction was to treat them punitively: if you force your workers to work overtime, you lose social points, or if you take all the wood off of a forest, you lose an environmental point.

Think about that! Economic points are earned by taking positive action, but environmental and social points are lost by taking "bad" actions. That's the imbalance of the three-legged stool! What I see as a reasonable expectation of default perspective on the issue frames these three choices as complete opposites. Of course, it's not the case that social good is earned simply by not exploiting people, or that environmental good is earned by not exploiting land.

I'm not sure where these design sketches will go from here, but I figured it would be worth sharing some of my thoughts here. I would like to carve out some time tomorrow or next week to put a minimal prototype together and show it to my students, to see if any of this inspires their designs.  In the meantime, if you know of games that have good representations of the environmental or social aspects of sustainability, please share them in the comments or send me an email.

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