Daily Archives: April 6, 2011

Energy Technology and Video Games

Like many geeks, I have played a frightening amount of Sid Meier’s Civilization series. I skipped the latest one, because, seriously, I’m a grown up, and seriously, I need to be very careful about what video games I allow into my life. But, I played them before, and similar games to them. My favorite non-Civ Civ was an Ancient Egypt simulation with the annual floods to feed the growth of my empire. I still dust off the old games a few times now and then for nostalgia’s sake. I like shaping societies, even fake societies.

In games like these, sometimes you run a deficit to build up technology to allow yourself to succeed, or you do something that has negative side effects for a little while because it is the springboard to something newer and better. This happens in life, too. You go into debt so you can repair your car so you can still drive to work, which pays off your debt eventually. You go into student loan debt to earn a degree that — at least in theory — is supposed to increase your economic viability. A loan is like a game in life, in that the way you allocate the resources of the loan to successfully pay off the loan is like a game. Do it well, and “win” by paying it down very quickly. Do it poorly, and “lose” because you can’t pay it off fast at all. Sometimes, almost everyone has to run a little debt whether to buy a car or a house or a latte or a suit for a job interview. Sometimes, everyone has to do something with a potentially large negative side effect to be a springboard for something bigger and better and otherwise hard to achieve.

I was thinking about these things when I was looking at the news from Japan, and thinking about how slow my investments in green technology seem to be moving compared to how dire the need for them happens to be. Like, if everybody all together decided to make the transition into green technologies we’d all sort of have to pay the price as if we were living in debt. (And not the bullshit green technologies like the paradoxically-named “clean-burning coal”. Right. Burning. Clean. Right.) We’d have to ration our energy use. We’d have to be careful about driving to make sure we don’t go alone, and all our carpooling accomplishes multiple errands organized efficiently to maximize gas. We’d have to live like we were in an “energy debt”, and work ourselves into new patterns and technologies to build up to the point where we would not be exceeding what we could afford to produce with real green technologies.

More than that, thinking about this series of extended and muddled metaphors got me thinking about the relationship between nuclear energy and pollutant energy and the planet.

If we were an entity playing one of the games of Human Civilization in this real world, as some kind of all-powerful, all-knowing player of nations against nations, the cost of modern energy is quite severe. It ruins the land around the cities, polluting the citizens and sickening them, and makes for an agitated, disgruntled population with leisure and communications technology to overthrow their masters and sue for the money to pay for the cancer treatments we need to survive. We, the overseers, would see the powerful potential of the atom as an energy source, and wonder at statistical dangers and the looming, omnipresent toxicity of the spent fuel rods accumulating. We’d see the slow melting away of the ozone layer as a temporary price to pay for the large gains possible through the number of calories we’re accessing to build civilization towards something greater.

Industrialists urge us not to worry. Technology, many claim, will find a way to solve the problems of oil and gas and spent fuel rods, over the next ten thousand years. We can continue to push the clean-up into the future because it isn’t actually as dirty as it could be. I mean, look at all the ways technology has already reduced the ecological impact? Industrialists stopped pouring arsenic into drinking water, after all. They did it for a while, then it was bad so they found another way to deal with the waste and now we’re all doing so much better. Everything else will be like that. Industry will find a way.

Industriali advisers in this game say not to worry because we’ll just keep innovating our way out of trouble and we can continue to develop our cities, and our complacent ways forever. The fuel rods will never accumulate so great that we are personally affected. The pollution can be dealt with later, because people still need to get to work, or the all the cities and factories and cultures will collapse into a ruin of stone age tools.

In a video game, this sort of “pollution debt” would be justifiable as it leads to an actual innovation that makes the pollution unnecessary. It would be a balance design, to make sure the players don’t feel like they are all the way to the best, awesome thing yet that’s going to save us all and make this ecological energy debt worthwhile.

So, what’s the victory condition? We’re going into all this global and ecological and health debt, pouring so many toxins into the world it will take generations for our kids just to piss clean of pollutants. What’s our victory condition, here? What are the game balance designs of the universe trying drive us towards? Because, it looks a lot like solar energy is the future, to me. The vast majority of the natural world already runs on solar energy. Energy comes from the sun, up through the plants and up the food chain to fuel the entire natural world. They’ve been doing it for quite some time, and show no sign of slowing down. We’re the weirdos who’ve tried to build something different than solar, next to the bodies that are totally reliant on sunlight like any other beast. And look where it’s gotten us and all of our neighbors on the planet.

So, how long do we keep running in debt?

I walked to this cafe to post this message to the internet. Walking here, I wondered how much of the energy I used up walking came from sunlight, and how much came from oil to drive the grains to my door.

So much of it a waste.

Like this small letter poured into the world, there is no victory condition. The word is not strong enough to change the world. Whatever masters rule us all herd us in our willful ignorance, distracting us with baubles and dancing celebrities and interesting books, and do whatever it is that they want to do, secure in their high, omniscient camera view of the world seen from the top of the Sears tower.

Like every player to play the game, they’ll do it better as they develop skill. Unfortunately, we’re in hardcore mode and there is no reload and no second chances and nobody seems to have read the manual to know what they’re supposed to be building towards.

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