I’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: