Alternate reality: World Without Oil

How skipping class to play “Dungeons and Dragons” paid off.

Two years ago, veteran computer game author Ken Eklund harnessed an ancient energy, one he feels may be the secret to saving the world. He did it with “World Without Oil” (WWO)—a month-long collaborative game he invented. Beginning April 30, 2007, he and 68,000 people from around the globe came together online and immersed themselves in a story they imagined as they went along, crafting subplots and playing out a conclusion that was, in one respect, inevitable: We were running out of the gooey black stuff that powers civilization. Now what?

The answers drew on the combustive, collective brilliance we share as a species to both prepare for trouble and, more important, to stave off a devastating global crisis. With the game, Eklund tapped into what’s come to be called the wisdom of crowds, the title of a 2004 book by writer James Surowiecki. Before WWO, though, the idea that online games could foster positive change seemed a bit far-fetched.

Not just a game

Alternate reality games differ from virtual world games like “World of Warcraft” in that they don’t offer a fantasy realm of dwarves and elves. Instead, they ask players to imagine a new element added to the everyday world.

Eklund has helped author “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Eagle Eye Mysteries” computer games, and he has seen these generate tremendous buzz for movies and video games. But he wanted to do something more. “I didn’t want a game just for gamers,” he said, “but one anybody could play, and one that would be socially relevant.”

He struck oil, so to speak, when he struck on oil. “It’s the oxygen of our economy. It seeps everywhere in ways we don’t really appreciate or understand. What would happen today if we started to run a little short?”

He brought the idea for “World Without Oil” to Independent Television Service, a public media nonprofit in San Francisco. Then he and his team created a website——built around the premise that an oil shock had arrived. The site asked people to report on what the end of cheap oil was doing to their lives.

The players were mostly non-gamers, ages 16 to 85, with an even split in terms of gender. One in five was from outside the United States.

At the time, gas was selling for $3 a gallon here. “I was asking people to think the unthinkable,” Eklund said, “an oil shortage that sent gas to over $7 a gallon.”

People responded immediately, taking the game quite seriously. They pretended the crises were real and, on the first day alone, posted hundreds of personal chronicles in blogs and videos. They sent photographs of abandoned cars and empty supermarket shelves. They left emotional messages on the WWO voice mail.

Red zones

Crowds and power: a glimpse at the citizen nerve center for WWO

How did people see the oil shortage playing out in their own lives? First, they cut back on discretionary spending; no more piano lessons and weekend trips. As the crisis continued, they collaboratively built a narrative that envisioned overwhelmed mass-transit systems and hundreds of abandoned homes in the far exurbs. Tourism vanished.

“Players foresaw mega-events: the rise of Russia and Venezuela and a stricken SUV-laden U.S. auto industry,” Eklund said. “They were also quick to imagine street-level outcomes experts overlooked, from pump rage and rampant bicycle theft to sudden food shortages.”

One of the most sobering visions came after players realized that government resources would be stretched thin. “Police and firefighters would be forced to cut back services. Imagine a place where the police no longer come if you call. One WWO player, a soldier in Iraq, called these ‘Red Zones’ after the Red and Green Zones in Baghdad.”

Emergency drill

Two-thirds into the game, players hit rock-bottom. “But then people began imagining the adaptations they would make in a real crisis,” Eklund said, “planting victory gardens, ride-sharing, and pooling resources with neighbors. They found their lives had become more human, more intentional.

“The game really was a kind of preparedness drill.”

Eklund hired an early advocate of “World Without Oil,” Jane McGonigal, as the game’s participation architect. McGonigal, a rock star of the alternate reality game genre lists the groundbreaking WWO as one of her top game projects of all time. “It revealed, somewhat unexpectedly, that alternate reality gaming can serve as an extremely powerful new, massively multiplayer forecasting platform.”

Forget the princess

Through alternate reality games, Eklund said, “We’d like to get people all over the world to put their ideas on the table, compare them, decide what might work best, try them out and implement the ones that succeed.”

Players lauded the game for making them more aware of “the fragile thread that supports the lifestyle that I and others keep,” as one put it. Others praised the way it illuminated both the complexity of the problem and the “really great people out there” who rise to the occasion. The blogosphere loved WWO and saw its potential. By the time the game ended in June 2007, more than 5,000 sites in 40 countries were praising it. Awards soon followed, with honors for its pro-environment art and technology. WWO was nominated for a Webby Award and selected as Best Activist Website in the SXSW Interactive Web Awards.

Eklund appreciates the accolades, but he finds greater satisfaction knowing that he helped launch a new genre of games that create alternate realities to spark collective intelligence and imagination about the future, with an eye toward positive change. As this article goes to press, he’s striving to enhance the “ecosystems of caring” with a game called “Ruby’s Bequest”, created in conjunction with United Cerebral Palsy.

Since Eklund graduated from college 30 years ago, games have come to play a much different role in society. “These days, games earn more than Hollywood,” he said. The time has come for games to move beyond escapist entertainment and bring people together both for fun and for serious problem-solving.

Looking back, Eklund said, “Most games I played as a kid had us save the princess. We’ve reached a point where we can forget the princess and save the world.”

Paul Totah ’79 is the editor of Genesis V magazine at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco.

post-image Game on: As a student, Ken Eklund was known to skip classes to play "Dungeons and Dragons." "That was a good career move on my part, it turns out," he says. Photo: Charles Barry
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