One of the other areas commonly addressed games is resource management, a staple of the Turn-based and Real Time Strategy genres. Popular games such as Starcraft, the Age of Empires series, Civilization and the Caesar franchise all require one to balance the needs of a growing civilization with limited resources, which may be money, food, wood, gold, or something more exotic, like vespene gas.
What does one gather more of? What units does one build? Does one prioritize military or economy in spending? Does one go for rapid growth, or keep something in reserve for a rainy day?
StarCraft: the Resource Management Serious Game – with Aliens!
In general, these games place you in a position of authority, where you have the absolute right to make any and all decisions related to acquisition, distribution, and utilization of resources. In some, you are specifically a mayor or governor who must work within a budget to provide resources to the people and grow a city (Caesar and SimCity). In others, you are essentially god, except that you are not omnipotent – you can only influence the world through the civilization you build up.
Most people know of World of Warcraft (WoW) as the world’s leading subscription MMO, and Starcraft as one of the best Real Time Strategy games of all time (not to mention the national sport of Korea), few remember that part of the reason for WoW’s success was the fact that Blizzard built up the Warcraft Franchise through a number of wellmade games. The first of these was the eponymous Warcraft – the RTS which dealt with resource management, with food, wood, and gold established as the primary three.
While food could be provided simply by building more farms, units and buildings required wood and gold to be produced, with trees and gold mines simply vanishing once they were exhausted.
Resources were finite.
Age of Empires
This game crossed Warcraft with Civilization, a popular turn-based strategy game focused on building up your civilization over thousands of years. AoE focused, naturally, on building an empire, with two key innovations: the “Age” megaupgrades which unlocked massive portions of a civilization’s tech tree, and an expansion of the classic resource model.
Age of Empires built on the Warcraft resource model by expanding the role of food and adding a fourth resource, with Age of Empires I and II featuring Stone, Age of Mythology using Divine Favor, and Age of Empires III using unit and civilization XP
Perhaps the best known city building and management simulation game, the franchise developed by Maxis inspired a new genre of open-ended games, and its basic mechanics still underlay many city-building games today, including many of the serious games which deal with resource management, given its treatment of pollution, energy, and revenues – even land values, urban decay, gentrification, and more.
In many ways, the franchise – at least until SimCity 4 – could have been considered a serious game, given its emphasis on urban planning (albeit with underlying assumptions based on American cultural values) – and has been used to teach lessons in the classroom. Unfortunately, while the more recent SimCity (2013) attempted to add new features, using agent-based modelling and statistical approaches to predict behavior in town, and provide more dynamic feedback, some of its shortcomings rendered it unusable for educational purposes.
Given how resource management has been a core mechanic of commercial games for a long time (in the vastly popular simulation and strategy genres, though money and inventory management are key in popular genres Role Playing Games), we had hoped to find a number of polished, powerful games, with engaging gameplay and settings that were thought provoking.
Unfortunately, with the notable exceptions of Clim’Way and This War of Mine, what we found showcased the worst of what Serious Games had to offer, falling victim to perhaps every criticism of the genre.
The most egregious offender? None other than the game once billed as the first humanitarian game, sponsored by none other than the United Nations’ World Food Programme.
Food Force (2006)
Granted, the United Nations hasn’t had the best track record with how to engage with digital media audiences related to that – one only need look at their UNICEF publicity stunt in December 2014, a fake game pitch which both made a caricature of the issue of South Sudan (which they were trying to raise awareness for)and the gaming community (from which it inspired a violent backlash). The way the incident was spun made it seem as if “gamers”, who were implied to be isolated from reality and inured to violence, could not handle a mention of real-world violence, that real war, death and suffering could not be truly captured in a medium like a game.
Which is short-sighted at best, and dismissive and offensive at worst, given that games, like literature, film, theatre or any other medium, are simply another lens through which we can explore powerful themes and gripping realities. Granted, many games don’t do this – but speaking fairly, for every book like All Quiet on the Western Front or A Handmaid’s Tale, how many pulp novels or harlequin romances are there? For every Schindler’s List or Hurt Locker, how many Michael Bay spectacles full of explosions and violence?
Yes, there is the potential for a message to be trivialized by a medium – but that is the case in every medium, even the news media by virtue of what it covers.
But I’m being sidetracked.
As to Food Force, well, it is ironically enough, a perfect example of the games the United Nations and others criticize, given how it utterly trivialized the issues of civil war, drought, famine, and how one deals with it to the point of being offensive.
My colleague Rahul goes as far as to say it hits “every one of [his] buttons” and not in a good way. The game completely trivializes the level of difficulty involved, and makes it seem like to grow more food, you just need a farm, even though the region is in the middle of a sustained drought. Its almost as if the game was developed by a scatter-brained committee, given how incoherent it was from a systems-level perspective.
Moreover, the game intersperses ridiculously easy gameplay with a storyline that merely left me horribly confused as to what the game designers possibly hoped to achieve with this game. The art is mediocre at best, the gameplay trivializes a serious issue, and there are few redeeming aspects to this game.
Moving on, we get Clim’Way, a flash game created for a virtual exposition in 2008. A city management game in the style of SimCity, the game places the player in the position of the civic authorities with the goal of reducing energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions over the course of fifty years, balancing political power, citizen approval, and business buy-in to achieve one’s goals.
And while the long-term objective was clear, the path towards it was not, which is one of the game’s great strengths, as it presented a player with many options for what to do, and let each action affect others – a true systems-based approach that really shows off how manifold the factors affecting climate change are and how self-reinforcing the process is. Over the course of several playthroughs, I tried – and failed – several times to reach both the energy waste goal and the greenhouse gas goal, but by the end really understood what some of the critical failures were.
This game was of surprisingly good quality for something made simply for a virtual exhibition and not for commercial distribution – better than most city management games I’ve seen, in fact, as the next example shows.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that when my colleague Rahul decided to play the game in French, a language he does not speak or read, he was nevertheless able to get the gist of the instructions with his knowledge of Latin and had fun experimenting and exploring because of how intuitive the UI was. It was easy to pickup, difficult to master, just as the best games are.
Plan it Green: The Big Switch
From what we can tell, there are two versions of this game, an eco-friendly city management sim developed in partnership with National Geographic. One of these was released on Earth Day, 2009 as a download for PC/Mac. As a city management game, it was rather less sophisticated than Clim’way, with its lack of ultimate deadlines for environmental upgrades, failure to reward good choices, and overly lengthy tutorial making it rather humdrum.
The other is Plan it Green: The Big Switch, a free to play online version that is pretty much Zynga’s Cityville (or any other free to play city management game) with a green twist…
…as displayed above, up to and including rewards for building certain buildings, a premium currency, spammy social network integration and more. In fact, only about a minute in, I began to grow paranoid that it would begin posting my actions on my social network profiles and start trying to hook me into buying more “hearts”, which could be used to complete a building immediately and skip the wait time.
Basically, it cloned the look, feel and play pattern of a casual game and, instead of integrating what they wanted to teach into the mechanics, simply tried to layer environmental education on top of a generic Free to Play city building game by providing a “Green Guide” tab which gave energy saving techniques.
Noted game designer and scholar Ian Bogost would characterize this as “bullshit,” a term I will readily use as the language I would otherwise employ would be far less appropriate for all audiences.
And thus, after spending minutes of my life I will never get back on this travesty of a game, I launch Steam and move to the last game this post will cover….
This War of Mine (2014)
…and that is an experience I will not soon forget.
One of three games nominated for Best Gameplay at the 2015 Games for Change Festival, This War of Mine is a narrative and philosophical tour de force among serious games – and among games in general. When playing most “serious games,” I am forced to make allowances for gameplay or design, but not this time.
Even compared to the vast field of commercial games, games meant to entertain, games with astoundingly large budgets, This War of Mine is easily one of the most moving – most powerful – games I have played.
The topic of this game? War. But not war through the lens of an elite soldier, as is common in so many First Person Shooters; this is war at its cruelest and harshest, war from the perspective of a group of civilians trying to survive in a besieged city, always in danger of having a shelter raided, of being shot by soldiers when one goes out to scavenge and so forth.
Some have likened it to a dark version of The Sims – and I suppose there is some truth in that, though it grapples with a far more serious theme and doesn’t pull any punches. Though its mechanics, encounters, visual theme, you begin to see what the reality of war is like – the constant unease and terror of never really being safe.
Did I “win”, you ask? One of my characters survived, yes, but I’m not sure I would have called that victory when the price was so dear. I freed a man who had been tortured by militia, but I killed an old couple for the medication my group of survivors needed. One of my survivors was gunned down by rogue soldiers. Another went out and helped dig people free from rubble at great risk to himself.
In the end, my characters were not heroes or villains – they were simply humans trying to survive, which is the message the creators wanted to get across. Not through heavy handed lectures or things preventing you from doing terrible things – but through the mechanics – the things you have to do to survive – the toll it takes on your survivor’s bodies – and souls.
That is really powerful, and captures the true potential of games as experiences.
This War of Mine is a stark statement about war delivered through deftly designed stealth survival and resource management where the focus was on the now. On what was needed for survival in the present, and how haunting the consequences of one’s actions can be if one does survive. Its portrayal of mental health is one I’ve never seen in a game before, and it is powerfully done.
It is largely due to this game that my reaction to UNICEF’s publicity stunt was so extreme, as UNICEF was wrong. Games, like other media, can capture the horror of war, the challenge of trying to fix a broken society, can offer a window into another life or another point of view.
They just have to be designed to do so.