Gaming to our future oil reality
November 26, 2007
“A dramatic decrease in oil availability is not at all far-fetched,” explains futurist Jane McGonigal. “We thought we could play our way to a set of ideas about how to manage that crisis, if it were to happen.”
According to the Wall Street Journal (“Oil Limits,” Nov. 19), the “if” is fast becoming a “when.” The peak production of oil is a very real limit. The online reality game “World Without Oil,” invented by McGonigal was created to prepare people for that inevitability.
McGonigal explained that gamers who faced “World Without Oil” last year created a “citizen’s manual” for how to respond to such a crisis. The game also changed their behavior in the real world. Gamers planted apple trees in their backyards and converted their cars to run on used cooking oil. More than 45,000 people followed the game.
The issue of declining oil is more than a game, and it will require more than online musings to cope with it. As the WSJ reported, oil limits will have grave implications for the future, and not only for pump prices.
“The world certainly won’t run out of oil any time soon,” assuaged the WSJ. “And plenty of energy experts expect sky-high prices to hasten the development of alternative fuels and improve energy efficiency. But evidence is mounting that crude-oil production may plateau before those innovations arrive on a large scale. That could set the stage for a period marked by energy shortages, high prices and bare-knuckled competition for fuel.”
A world with limited oil and rising demand is certain to create global instability, especially in the “bare-knuckled competition” scenario. We’re already seeing China positioning itself to capture critical oil supplies around the world.
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Dismiss limits if you must, but when the WSJ trumpets a front-page story about oil limits, it’s time to get serious about the possibilities. That’s what prompted McGonigal to explore what the United States will look like when oil supplies decline. The online game begins with a frightening scenario:
“On [choose a date], an [ http://dir.salon.com/topics/oil/index.html ] oil crisis shook the world. Supply chains were interrupted, and in the ensuing weeks the price of gas pushed higher and higher, peaking around $7 per gallon. The American economy sputtered to a halt as shortages spread ” Detroit’s car factories cited lack of demand and shut down for the duration, trucking fleets scrambled for fuel to move their cargo, supermarkets jacked up their prices, and commuters bitched and moaned and grudgingly changed their lifestyles. Looting broke out, along with the occasional riot.
“A month later, good news began to emerge. When gas hit $7 per gallon, America didn’t disintegrate into chaos with warring clans jealously guarding their oil tanks. No further Middle Eastern countries were invaded, although there was a surreptitious scuffle in the oil fields of Alberta, Canada. The U.S. government hastily invested in public transit and alternative energy, and the grumbling populace began making lifestyle changes. People carpooled and bought bikes. They moved out of the exurbs. They planted gardens in their backyards, and religiously visited their local farmers markets.”
These are hoped-for responses, but how would the scenario really play out? Given the now common rationale for the U.S. attack on Iraq ” for oil ” is it a long stretch to envision a desperate U.S. taking on any and all supply centers in an imperialistic grab for oil?
That’s an unsettling question, but the WSJ report is leading to such questions, especially as the developing world scrambles for oil to fuel the exploding car culture in India and China. As these countries grow richer, so do their demands for First World entitlements.
Oil shocks are not a game, but solutions explored before a crisis and played out among thousands of gamers may provide valuable insights. If so, then we had better play “World Without Oil” in the Roaring Fork Valley. Exploring, collectively, the future of resort economics and life at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains may help us cope with oil shocks that are now mainstream concerns.
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