SimCity Societies: Will Gamers Go Green?

A screenshot from SimCity SocietiesI’m not, nor have I ever been, a gamer — I’m one of those people whose parents refused to buy them an Atari system (that should tell you how old I am, too). Despite that, I was intrigued when I received an invitation to an “Exclusive SimCity Societies low carbon power online blogger event.” Held by gaming company Electronic Arts and their first ever corporate partner on a game, BP (yes, BP), bloggers had the opportunity to take a sneak peak at the game, and to see how the developers incorporated ideas of sustainable development and clean energy into it.

Now, SimCity Societies isn’t an “educational game”: Carol Battershell, VP of BP’s Alternative Energy division, claimed that, from the outset, the idea was to create “entertainment with a little bit of education.” As in previous versions, players build their own cities, and either succeed or fail based on how their development choices create harmony or chaos within them.

In this version of the game, pollutants created by industry, transportation, and electricity generation play into the equation. A player has to choose the kind of power sources his/her city will rely upon, and receives information about the CO2 emissions and smog-causing pollutants created by each choice. Too much of either affects the city’s environment, and the well-being of its residents: increased instances of smog, for instance, will raise levels of illness among citizens and keep them from work (which costs the player, or “mayor,” money). Increased carbon emissions could result in floods, droughts, powerful storms, etc. As Rachel Bernstein, the game’s producer, noted, “Games are always about managing resources… Players have to make choices that have end-game results, and they come to recognize the costs and trade-offs of those choices.”

The game certainly looks entertaining, and I’m pleased to see these kinds of elements incorporated into it. My question going in, though, had to do with the partnership between EA and BP: essentially, why is an oil and energy company involved in a venture like this? Battershell addressed that upfront, noting that BP had been looking for educational partnerships, and approached EA about creating a game for teaching players about low carbon energy. EA was working on SC Societies, and brought BP on as a knowledge partner to create a “more sophisticated and nuanced” vision of pollution, and how how its effects stem from economic development choices. Battershell also highlighted BP’s history in electricity production, noting the company had been involved in the solar energy business for thirty years.

Of course, the question of “greenwashing” has to come up in a situation like this, so I went ahead and asked it: was EA worried at all that it would be accused of greenwashing for BP? Bernstein noted that the two companies had been working on the game well before the concept had entered the public consciousness, and again noted that BP had approached them about educating consumers on cleaner alternative energy sources. In short, no, they weren’t concerned about such charges.

Others, of course, will ultimately make that judgment, and with some of BP’s recent environmental problems, it’s a fair question to ask. Still, I think it’s largely a distraction in this case: any company should be held to account for its environmental sins, but I don’t think that undermines the potential good that can come out of a product like SimCity Societies. While I don’t want to make any blanket characterizations of gamers, I know there will be many who play the game who are otherwise unconcerned about, or unaware of, the potential environmental consequences of economic development choices. Some gamers may come out of their play with a better understanding of such issues, or perhaps more curiosity about them.

The game goes on sale tomorrow, November 15. If you’d like just a taste, a promotional trailer is available here.

Other responses to the game and the partnership with BP:

“SimCity Societies: A Greener Version of the Urban Jungle” (via BoingBoing)

  1. Kendra

    I thought video games were a way to escape reality. I’m constantly feeling green guilt about recycling, the food I eat, energy I use – I don’t think social responsibility needs to enter the entertainment realm. Ah well I’ll do my part by not turning on the game player.

  2. Larry Mondello

    I think BP is just one of the first big fossil fuel companies to start getting the idea that they’d darn well better start supporting the idea of alternative energies now if they want to make any money off of it. The best way to get a good rep with their target audience–young, savvy, creditworthy Americans–is through entertainment. As far as EA’s motive? Me, I’m guessing there’s some sort of a cash incentive there as well. Frankly, I’m less suspicious of Big Oil than I am of Big Game Development.

    OK then, thanks for an interesting read. Stumbling off then…


  3. Psychotic APEATTACK

    Paktu on Digg: “Given that the game is essentially an advertising vehicle for BP, attempting to make them look “environmentally friendly”, I really hope someone creates a Gary, Indiana scenario in which you have to clean up all the pollution they dumped into Lake Michigan.”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  4. Max

    Clearly the big oil companies, rich as they are, will be the ones who have enough resources to adequately invest in a future of renewable energy. They are in the business of energy, so of course they will be the ones most interested in preserving their own future. BP and other high-power energy companies are already in the business, so don’t think they are completely oblivious to the upcoming changes in energy sources. BP Renewable is only a decade or so away…

  5. Curtis

    Because BP is the worlds largest producers of solar panels. Although it was originally called British Petroleum, it had anticipated the market and is spreading into other areas, like any good business.

  6. McKenzie

    To give the game an environmental aspect (in terms of global warming and climate change) will be immensely exaggerating the effects of high pollution and carbon emissions. This is basically perpetuating environmental hysteria in a sensational rather than educational or honest way. Yes, i’m just a little bitter that these games never have the potential of a laissez faire, free market society. That would be a pretty boring way to play a sim city game. Oh well.

  7. Dave

    I am less concerned about BP “greenwashing” as I am about a game perpetuating the oversimplification of environmental issues. Granted, it’s a game, I know, but all Sim games purport to be guided by real life resource scenarios. So many mainstream assumptions about ecological impacts fail to consider all the factors in play under a true life cycle analysis. Even the foremost scientists often disagree. Having not seen the game, it’s hard for me to judge, but I would think that certain scenarios have been purposefully dumbed down. And certainly a dangerous scenario could be the perpetuation of the belief that reducing CO2 equals lower revenue, GDP, etc. As long as the game isn’t confused with reality then there really isn’t an issue here.

  8. Smarmy

    Too bad this game was VERY poorly reviewed and no self-respecting gamer is going to throw his money at it while Crysis, Call of Duty 4, and the Orange Box are out.

  9. AlienFarmer

    I think most people in the solar industry have known for a while BP and other oil companies will play a big role in renewable energy. Solar will be a trillion dollar a year industry and BP will get some of that for sure. I hope this signals BP’s intent to start spreading solar energy to the masses. I think I saw a coupon for BP solar panels on http://www.SolarCoupons.com the other day.

  10. Bente Lilja Bye

    Interesting angle on the SimCity Societies. Personally I am sorry they are moving away from a “real world” simulator.

    We should not be hard on BP – I think they have proven that they are trying to adjust to the lack of oil times that eventually will come. It would have been cool if more oil companies would have been represented in the SimCity. Hopefully next version is again more like a real simulator and with several energy companies represented!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *