by Dr. T.H. Culhane
After once again being thrilled and inspired by the research of academia's neo-game-theory champion, Jane McGonigal (read her book "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World to get in on the fun; for a synopsis of her ideas read her Huffington Post article Video Games: An Hour A Day Is Key To Success In Life) I find myself obsessed with expanding the idea of using the immersive 3d gaming platform to assist in our own Solar CITIES mission for empowering people to be able to solve their own environmental challenges. Can games be effectively used to teach people how to literally build their own solar hot water and photovoltaic and kitchen-and-toilet-waste-to-cooking-and-engine-fuel biogas systems and home scale windmills and efficient smokeless cook stoves and treadle pumps and schmutzdecke water filters and rooftop gardens? Can we in the field of sustainable development develop and use on-line MMORPGs that can really assist a generation of young people in the Middle East, Africa, Western Asia and SouthEast Asis, Central and South America in pulling themseles by their own bootsector bootstraps out of the low-level equilibrium trap that generations of environmental service degradation and dependency on all-strings-attached foreign aid and dicatator-dictated-underdevelopment have put them in?
I am quite sure the answer is yes, and I'm gratified that, yes, even the World Bank is now firmly on the side of this and funding this kind of an initiative (see -- and PLAY -- Jane's Evoke project: A Crash Course in Changing the World here , learn about the history of how she developed it on Tree Hugger here and see how the game links up to Jane McGonigal's research on the World Bank blog here.)
As the Evoke Blog states, "Evoking first started in Africa, but it can happen anywhere. And if you found this message, then it is your destiny to join us."
Well, we at Solar CITIES have been trying to ever more effectively answer that call to destiny for several years now, especially since 2008 when, as part of my doctoral research in Urban Planning in Egypt, I started massaging the architectural models provided by our friends in the Aga Khan Development Network in Cairo into Blender and Google Earth and Sketchup and Elder Scrolls Construction Kit and Unity 3D and attempted to make them work with my data on the micro-economics of hot water demand using the World Bank Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS) methodology.
From that experience emerged the idea of what I'm calling "Data-Driven Game Design for Dynamic Development: how practice and theory can be turned into praxis."
The idea is simple, even if it has eluded many in the ivory tower:
Use alternate reality games as the nexus between empirical study and academic research on the one hand and popular movements toward democratic empowerment and participatory planning on the other.
Let immersive multi-player on-line role playing games be places where our friends "Joe the Plumber" and "Ahmed El-Sabaq" (and "Yasmine the women's rights lawyer" and "Naveen the patent engineer" and "Sybille the education reformer") can meet to freely trade ideas and techniques (and have a whole lot of fun) sharing experiences for improved self-sufficiency strategies and community development.
Let MMORPGS and other gaming environments be open-ended, Montessori-cum-Dewey-cum-Waldorf-cum-Unschooling type of learning platforms where applied physics can be truly applied thanks to the physics engines that undergird the games, and undirected learning can be self-directed by players using the sophisticated modelling and simulation capabilities of their computers and the net to teach themselves and each other how build back the ecosystem services and infrastructures and technologies whose absence makes so many people's lives tenuous and fraught with suffering, uncertainty and danger.
Use the safe "try anything without getting injured" environment of the game world to create virtual "Barefoot Colleges" like the real one in that Bunker Roy runs in Tilonia, Rajasthan where we spent hours discussing how to bring the Barefoot Engineering experience to people the world over with the lowest transaction costs.
Use the game worlds to let people get their virtual hands dirty learning skills like carpentry, welding, plumbing, designing, engineering, dam building, fish weir construction, solar power tower creation, applied microbiology, agroforestry and permaculture without worrying about making the costly social and environmental mistakes that made so many World Bank funded projects in the past so problematic.
After all, isn't that why pilots and astronauts use flight simulators instead of jumping into the cockpit of the nearest airplane or rocket ship to get their training?
And today we not only have the capability to model and creatively visualize and interact with almost all of the physical, chemical and biological processes our Universe has blessed us with, but we have an enormous amount and variety of really good data from real processes, real histories and real places to make the versimilitude of games "the next best thing to being there" -- and in many cases even better because of the safety of experimentation in non-destructive digital environments.
We can now, for example, recreate post-modern Cairo and post-modern Hollywood in our virtual universe and put solar hot water systems on every home and solar electric panels next to famous icons like the Hollywood Sign and show the world what the world could look like if we commit to cleaning it up pronto. And with Data-Driven Game Design, we could demonstrate all the costs and benefits unequivocally to everyone, so special interests couldn't use the obfuscation techniques they normally rely on in their C/B analyses to hoodwink the public into accepting development plans that benefit only the few at the expense of the many.
The quest for a user-friendly digital earth for participatory general equilibrium modelling
Those of us who do play video games can all remember the thrill we felt when we jumped into a virtual world that faithfully detailed a part of the real world we know and struggle with. We remember how cool it was to have the game engine give us super powers to use in problem solving and to let us safely try out new behaviors and experiment with new found capabilities in that "test-scape".
As a former "science through multi-media production" inner-city teach in South Central Los Angeles, working with gang kids for almost 10 years, I will never forget how marvelous it felt to hop on a bicycle in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas and ride around a detailed simulation of the Watts Towers and interact with avatars of kids so similar to many whom I taught and befriended when I worked "in the 'hood". Sure the game has many limitations and socially inappropriate story attractors that make people (mostly Republicans? Er... and Tipper Gore too!) scream (yes yes, we all agree that the Hot Coffee Mod is denigrating to women and that it isn't nice to go around car-jacking or murdering people to get want you want -- though I must say in defense of Rockstar Games that trying out those behaviors usually ends up with the player getting arrested and going to jail and losing points, so there may be a socially redeeming lesson to be learned.
From the perspective of my former students, many of whom were GTA "addicts", it was much nicer to visit them in their homes and observe them playing these grand theft actions on a playstation console than to see them doing real life harm on the streets. To those who argue that these games encourage violence I can only say that in our neighborhood it was fear and fascination with the real violence they observed, which started long before the games were invented, that led the kids to play the game, not the other way around. Once in the game, with one hand on the game controller and one in the bag of chips, the dedicated players rarely went back on to the streets to physicalize what they were playing, so potential obesity was the only real danger I observed.
Today, as a father of a 2 and a half year old I found it particularly rewarding to take my son on a journey over the rooftops of Manhattan and its buroughs, familiar areas close to where I grew up, playing Spiderman: Web of Shadows. In virtual reality we visited my hero Luke Cage, Power Man (orignally "Hero for Hire" if you grew up reading comics in the 70's like I did), one of Marvel's first African-American superheroes, and through the game dialog we learned from him about the gang problem in Harlem. Playing the game I was able to relive the time in high school when my friend and acapella singing partner Lonnie James, who came from Harlem to live at the Children's Village foster home in Dobbs Ferry, took me down to the "mean streets" of his home turf to teach me about the problems that drove him from his community and to introduce me to friends of his who had stayed behind. I learned that day, at the age of 15, that so called "gang kids" are very much like you and me, but rarely get a chance to join the larger "gang" of the socially priviliged and almost never get a chance to be part of "the great conversation" that more privileged people like me, who got to go to Harvard, are privy to; participation in the great conversation, we were told, once universalized, would allow everyone a chance to direct where humanity is going so that we can provide a better outcome for all.
In the Spiderman game, players get a chance to learn about the exclusion that gang members feel (see this video clip where spiderman and Luke talk about their origins here) and then get a chance to work with Luke to help set things right in the 'hood.
So in a sense these games are "data driven" -- they deal with real social problems and they take place in "real" and recognizable landscapes.
But in my opinion they don't nearly go far enough.
Neither in the L.A. or Miami landscapes of Grand Theft Auto nor in the New York of Spiderman can you come away feeling you can really make a difference in the evolving narrative of the built environment. And this is basically because you can't do any real building. You can't build relationships and you can't build infrastructure. You basically solve problems by punching or shooting people or turning them in to the police. None of this addresses the root problems causing the rebellion against society and the rage against the machine that drives so much of our social ills, and none addresses the environmental service deprivation dilemma that subtends the poverty that underpins such rage and rebellion.
Meanwhile there are reams of paper and countless academic journals and books collecting dust in libraries, and petabytes of information locked away behind password protected on-line services accessible only to people with money or certain institutional affiliations that offer real solutions to our global problems. These documents, arcane as they may seem to the layman, contain enormously valuable data and important statistical calculations, are painstakingly peer-reviewed and many of them describe ways out of poverty and ways to improve resource allocation, while others detail new engineering techniques and promising technologies. They spell out infrastructural constraints and geophysical parameters that affect development, and explore micro and macro economic options crucial for policy and planning. We should all be using all of this great information and I believe that the gaming platform is the perfect place to make such data comprehensible to the layperson.
In academia and in think-tanks and in business we have computer models of climate changes, local wind speed and insolation, hydrology and material flow rates, precipitation, ecosystem dynamics, toxin remediation and economic futures, to name just a few. From the World Bank's Computable general equilibrium (CGE) models (based on Leon Walras' General Equilibrium theory of 1870 placed into action through the power of computer modelling) to Ecological Footprint Models and beyond, humanity certainly has the data and the tools to interpret them and make them meaningful.
But there is a profound disconnect between what we in the ivory towers can do with our computer simulation capacities and what "the other 90%" are able to use their computers and their access to the global computer network to do.
The problem was addressed by two-time Nobel Prize nominee (Peace and Economics) Kenneth Boulding in his 1956 essay on General Systems Theory:
"Science... is what can be talked about profitably by scientists in their role as scientists. The crisis of science today arises because of the increasing difficulty of such profitable talk among scientists as a whole. Specialization has outrun Trade, communication between the disciples becomes increasingly difficult, and the Republic of Learning is breaking up into isolated subcultures with only tenuous lines of communication between them - a situation which threatens intellectual civil war. The reason for this breakup in the body of knowledge is that in the course of specialization the receptors of information themselves become specialized. Hence physicists only talk to physicists, economists to economists - worse still, nuclear physicists only talk to nuclear physicists and econometricians to econometricians. One wonders sometimes if science will not grind to a stop in an assemblage of walled-in hermits, each mumbling to himself words in a private language that only he can understand. In these days the arts may have beaten the sciences to this desert of mutual unintelligibility, but that may be merely because the swift intuitions of art reach the future faster than the plodding leg work of the scientist. The more science breaks into sub-groups, and the less communication is possible among the disciplines, however, the greater chance there is that the total growth of knowledge is being slowed down by the loss of relevant communications. The spread of specialized deafness means that someone who ought to know something that someone else knows isn't able to find it out for lack of generalized ears.
"It is one of the main objectives of General Systems Theory to develop these generalized ears, and by developing a framework of general theory to enable one specialist to catch relevant communications from others."
Deafness or Defiance?
I suggest it should be one of the main objectives of the Game Development and Sustainable Development worlds to come together to develop such ears, not just for "specialists" but for all humanity. The deafness we think we see in our children as they ignore our pleas to "stop wasting time with computer games" is actually a defiance against our deafness, against our refusal to let them into the Great Conversation that the specialists have been having in their walled-in subcultures. Our children know the power of creation and articulation that lies in the CPU of their PC, their Xbox, their Wii and their Playstation. Many are aware that real scientists are linking up Xbox units in parallel and series to make inexpensive super computers for systems modelling in physics and that real astronauts and rocket scientists use virtual reality to explore ways to "boldly go where no one has gone before". But they fell shut out of the process, and their processors are mostly used for cheap thrills in first person shooters and third person fantasy games.
True, there are now world building games that are becoming very popular -- EA Games "The Sims 3, SimCity, and Spore" come to mind, and Microsoft and others launched a bunch of interactive games like ZooTycoon, Railroad Tycoon, Restaurant Tycoon, Oil Tycoon and the like, while facebook has apps like Farmville; all are popular attempts to let people figure out the responsibilities and economics of running a successful home, city, zoo, aquarium, railroad, business, farm or planet. And the open ended metaverse of "Second Life" with its evolving ecosystems and AI areas and virtual classroom and conference halls is getting there too (though the sandbox where you can use Prims to create your own spaces and objects, because it costs Linden dollars which must be purchased with real money, is a barrier to entry for most of the people I work with in developing countries).
But I would argue that what we really need is an open-source, Data-Driven Games Designed for Dynamic Development.
Games can be a place where everyman and everywoman and everychild can access the latest (as well as historical) data that humanity has collected to improve the human condition. Games could be the bridge between the lofty windows of the ivory tower and the gritty workshops of our urban slums. In a properly designed and universally available game we academics could upload our data and create the world as our research shows it to be, and let the end-users collaboratively contribute to remake the world as they would like it to be. As Hans Rosling has pointed out, with today's user friendly data visualization tools, every mom and pop and school kid now has the chance to understand and even contribute to and tweak important data, seeing the results in real time, reified into places and objects and processes that everybody can see and understand.
A data-driven open-source massive multiplayer game environment would be collectively intelligent, crowd sourced cloud computed citizen science at its best. Playing the games would be tantamount to participatory community development. You could build and decorate your house, like in the Sims, yes, but in such a data-driven environment it could really be your house in your neighborhood that you were improving. You could try out various previsualizations of your eutopian city, like in Sim City, but it would really be your city, with all its infratructural and spatial and political constraints, and the mayor or city planners could have access to your version of how things should be done and run, and all could benefit from your contribution.
Just as facebook and twitter gave Egyptians a voice for the first time and thus a say in how their country was run, a data-driven-development-game could give all citizens a voice in how their region was developed, which technologies are used and not used, which policies are tried out and which mothballed, and how the built environment gets built. People would play their way to the "good place", and no single real life Le Corbusier or Robert Moses (or fictional Howard Roarks!) could wield the power they used to plan for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.
In closing this musing, I offer a real life example from my own work of how data-driven planning could be used to make an effective participatory computer game.
Below are graphs from my doctoral dissertation research on Rooftop Solar Access and Building Height in Old Cairo:
Egypt Oil and Gas Web Portal:
"The alternative [to oil and gas] would be solar water heaters, but we cannot use them in Cairo, as roof-tops are very limited, while solar water heaters necessitate large spaces."
The article should have quoted Dr. El Haggar as saying "we cannot use them in certain parts of Cairo", and if you meet with Dr. El Haggar and talk to him personally, as I've done numerous times, he will say as much. But when the public reads Egypt Oil and Gas they come away thinking that all of Cairo has limited roof space and that "we cannot use solar energy in Cairo". My data and personal experience building solar hot water heaters in old Cairo certainly contradicts this popular belief, but few people will read mine or other academic papers, and what gets filtered through the media is often confusing or misleading.
But a game that is data-driven can give everybody the chance to see with their own eyes. Below I've reproduced some of the buildings we surveyed in old Cairo, using models generously supplied by the AKDN, and you can see, for example, where we placed some of our experimental solar hot water heaters:
When you play the game and actually (virtually!) go into these communities and climb up on the roof (such as you can do in these two test machinima I created below) you can clearly see that there is plenty of roof space relative to the number of inhabitants, 93% of it receiving plenty of sun :
Our geocoded data below shows precisely where homes are using gas appliance (green) electric appliance (red), stovetop (blue) and kerosene (yellow) water heating solutions; in our data-driven game we will allow players to use this data with the architectural data and descriptive statistics to go in and target where they want to make their own "simcity" improvements -- it will be obvious to anybody playing our Alternative Reality Survial Game (called "Getting Into Hot Water" because it deals not only with the thermodynamics and engineering issues of hot water supply and demand, but the thorny political issues surrounding the quest for decentralized power) which roof spaces are adquate for solar energy and which are not. And for those that are not, the game will teach players how to build a home-scale biogas system so families with sunless or small roofs can use kitchen garbage and toilet wastes to provide the hot water they need.
Then, as the game progresses, the number of orange suns and green flames on the following geocoded maps (which right now show data representing some of the solar hot water systems we have actually hand built in the real community and data representing some of the ARTI urban biogas systems we've built) will increase until one wins the game by placing renewable energy systems on every feasible home in Cairo.
Our data-driven alternate reality survival game, and others like it, which would be constantly udated by contributions of new field data from researchers and scientists and citizens from around the world in a WIKI fashion, will hopefully enable a new kind of peaceful turf war to be won.
As players modify their cities and landscapes to create the desirable future they want, they can show and share their gains, in real time, interactive, immersive, multi-player 3d, with all the world and say to planners and politicians,
"I've made the world in the image I would like to see it be developed. Won't you come over to my house and my community in virtual reality and playfully engage with me and my ideas so we can all better decide which of these options we should invest in here in the real world?"
Now THAT would be participatory democracy -- and a safe and fun and data-grounded, responsible way to get truly involved with making positive contributions to the betterment of society.
Let the games begin!