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Decline and Fall - Tom Stafford

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.



'Decline and Fall' is the latest computer game from DO Arts. It’s a sim/civilisation game, but with a twist.

The game is half massively multiplayer on-line role playing game, half resource management, sim-city/Civilisation empire-building. Teams of players manage their way through the running of virtual civilisations, choosing to cooperate or compete as they so desire. They found colonies, invent new technologies, build monuments and foster communities as they balance the demands of their population’s desires with the threats and opportunities of contact with their neighbours.

The twist comes after approximately 10 hours of game play-time, when the resources of the virtual world begin to run out, and all the player’s civilisations face extinction.

Warnings of the radical shift in the game’s parameters are built into the game, but many players choose not to heed them, preferring to continue to expand and compete according to the boundless growth model that the start of the game seems to accord to. Typical game-world scenarios move through a depressing sequence of ignorance -> denial -> resource-wars -> massive population decline. Players recriminate each other, report dissatisfaction with the design of the game-world and the inherent unfairness of the game’s parameters.

But ‘Decline and Fall’ was never designed to be fair. It was produced in Italy, a collaboration between award-winning game designers DO Arts and Edwardo Gibbone, a social-psychologist at the University of Bologna. Gibbone’s team are now studying the game outcomes as teams of players sign up from around the world.

“We wanted to investigate how the players managed the collective impact of enforced energy-use restriction. To do this we had to get them hooked on one way of managing their societies, and then see how they reacted to a change in this environment.” says Gibbone.

“We designed the game-play to be open enough to afford multiple different strategies in response to shortages in fossil fuels, clean air and water, and food simultaneously with catastrophic climate change and a population explosion large enough to tax environmental carrying capacity even without the other pressures. In doing so we hope to study the psychology of groups in crisis.”

Existing research on the psychology of trust has been restricted to relatively unrealistic experimental situations on the one hand, and non-repeatable real-life observation on the other. The ‘Decline and Fall’ project aims to establish exactly what conditions or behaviours are required to allow groups of people facing individual threats to cooperate.

Specific theories to be tested by Gibbone’s research include the importance of trade links, democratic political organisation, free media, cultural exchange and technological development.

“The dynamics of the game are designed so that painless transition to low-energy use societies is possible at all points of the game, even the final hours. Winning strategies aren’t hard to identify, in theory there are multiple routes to success — but the level of coordination required stops most groups of players from achieving it.”

The project is due to complete in 2012, when an estimated 400,000 players from around the world will have played ‘Decline and Fall’. Gibbone is due to make a presentation of the results and the implications for real world civilisation at the World Climate Change Conference in Geneva that year.

Early reports from teams playing the game have been unpromising. When asked how successful teams of players have faced down their global crisis Gibbone just says “We’ll let you know when it happens”.