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SimCity, climate change, and BP: game for change or unholy alliance?

BP Alternative Energy, a branch of the UK-based oil conglomerate, is reportedly collaborating with EA on the latest installment of the SimCity franchise.

I have long felt that games are a natural vehicle not just for education (see Jim Gee and the Serious Games Initiative) or propaganda (see the Games for Change movement) but for stimulating moral development — not in some kind of proselytizing way, but by helping to develop serious moral reasoning and reflection. Most of this has happened through sophisticated story lines, not unlike good literature, but some of the most untapped potential lies in games’ inherent combination of player agency with what Eric Zimmerman calls “systems-thinking.”

I’ll flesh this idea out over the next few weeks, but for now I want to observe that climate change could well be the ideal subject for such work, and SimCity has been the darling of the games-in-education scholars. SimCity is inherently about systems and, like it nor not, inculcates a certain view of economics and urban development. (The versions I’ve played were decidedly Keynesian, where a winning strategy often entailed lowering taxes during recessions and raising them in the boom years). The question is whether the game works precisely because that inculcation is unconscious on the part of both player and developer, and focusing on conveying a certain view will break the magic circle. The whingers on the Gamespot post referenced earlier seem to think so.

(Interestingly, the comments are almost universally negative, leaning heavily towards climate change skeptics, with the environmentalists generally crying “greenwashing” at BP’s obvious PR move. I suppose that GameSpot readers’ first allegiance is to the game.)

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