Oiligarchy: A game with a message


I hate to be one of those people who forwards links to "hilarious pictures" or "brilliant games" to half their contacts database. You know the ones. The hilarity or brilliance of a forwarded link is inversely proportional to the number of people it's sent to. If you've sent a link to me and one other person I think: ah, something potentially very relevant and interesting. If you've sent it to me and one hundred other people I think: ah, a long "joke" about how men and women are side-splittingly different. And into the trash it goes.

So it's been something of a trial to me this week to discover a link that I really do want to send to at least half the people I know: the wonderfully simple, sublimely intelligent little online game Oiligarchy, which I discovered via Metafilter. It combines so many fascinating elements: it's part strategy game, part political statement, part chilling near-future narrative. It's charmingly designed, and yet so slyly educational that I've been thinking a little differently about the world ever since I played it.

The game begins with a familiar-seeming business strategy scenario. It's 1945. You the player are CEO of a large oil company in the US. Your job is to make money, keep the shareholders happy. So you start to drill. First in Texas, that's pretty easy, no one's trying to stop you and the black gold starts flowing. But soon the Texas wells aren't enough to meet consumer demand. So you need to look further afield. But where? If you drill in Nigeria, you might find protesters blowing up your rigs. So you'll probably have to employ local militia to defend them. If you try Alaska, you'll have those pesky environmentalists on your back. And of course Iraq is unstable: to drill there you'll really need the support of US soldiers. But to get that you'd have to have a president sympathetic to your cause. Time to start funding political parties, then.

Oiligarchy makes no claims to be an impartial guide to the oil industry. As the designers say in their fascinating postmortem document, "Software does not constitute … documentary footage or a journalistic report." Instead, their manifesto is to "free videogames from the 'dictatorship of entertainment', using them instead to describe pressing social needs, and to express our feelings or ideas". As the game goes on, past 2008, the future it imagines is increasingly unsettling.

"Human-derived fuel is the ultimate solution to overpopulation and oil depletion" reads a headline in the game's Petroleum Times newspaper. Soon human-to-oil power plants are available for deployment, but only off US soil, naturally. And when the continuing depletion of oil reserves means that demand vastly outstrips supply, the Petroleum Times reports, "Deer hunting is spreading all over the country. Corn fields are patrolled by the army." What began as an amusing strategy game has become a prediction of the fall of society as we know it. I can't say I found it totally convincing, but it did send me off to look at their sources and to learn more about the arguments for myself.

Of course, not everyone will agree with Oiligarchy's politics and with the assumptions it makes about the world. But that's not the point. The point is that there's no more powerful way to understand the world than by stepping into someone else's shoes. And games are an incredibly effective way to do that.

For millennia, human beings have been finding new ways to look at the world through each others' eyes: from projecting ourselves onto the characters in novels or movies, to dressing up in costume, to devouring the details of some celebrity's life in Hello or OK. Chess is, among other things, a way to put oneself in the position of a general: mustering forces, trying to foresee the enemy's movements. And as the world gets more highly populated and more complex by the day, tools for understanding others are increasingly important. I hope there'll be more games like Oiligarchy along: I'll be emailing them to all my friends.