Playing games for sustainability

-A A +A
By John Bartlit

I call the computer the bringer of prospects. A few odd souls will think of computing. Most think of video games, texting, or e-books.
Environmental thinkers may think of smart cars and paperless records. Rare is the breed hooked on sustainability games, a many-pronged teaching tool.
Who knows? Games may be the best hope that the world’s youth will work out the problems we pass to them.
“Sustainability games” are computer games that test a player’s skill at prolonging the world’s use of natural resources and the environment. The games take many forms.
Players may strive to outdo each other or one player can try to beat his own best score. Players make choices in utilizing resources so that people’s needs and popular wants can be met as far in the future as possible.
People’s needs include adequate food, drinking water, shelter, heat, light and transportation (energy).
Popular wants, or “fruits for the spirit,” include seashores, coffee, pet food, and remote spots.  
“Sustainability” is like most everyday words, the image that pops up depends on the particular setting we have in mind. On the near horizon, the word means maintaining forests, shores and marshlands. It means cutting waste of energy and materials and using more renewable energy. The near horizon is in the news every day.
On the far horizon, things get hazier. The No. 1 question in the haze is world population. How long will it keep increasing or will something cause it to stabilize?
The more people fill the earth, the more demands are put on the land to supply multiple needs. One day, world population may push efficient use of land into the news as often as energy and water.
Nature has its say. It is a fact that fossil fuels and nuclear reactors are more concentrated, or more “dense,” forms of energy than wind and solar.
The fact does not say to forget wind and solar power.
Other factors that count include broad contours of oil resources, foreign and domestic, and effects of fossil fuels on climate.
Still an acre of land can yield more energy if it comes in crude oil, natural gas or nuclear than from wind or solar. Every increment of population increases the competition among needs, wants and land available to supply them.
Competition for items in short supply drives up prices.
The competition is real. Already farmland to raise corn for food competes with raising corn for fuel. Already solar power projects compete with habitat for endangered species in the Mojave Desert.
The core of sustainability is how factors interact. Yet juggling a string of connections is not mankind’s native talent.  
Computer games, or simulations, excel at juggling. They keep tabs on vastly more connections at one time than we can. Games are also well suited to grappling with uncertainties.
A large uncertainty is when world population will stabilize, at what level.  
Factors are afoot that may constrain the supply and use of fossil fuels.
Uncertainties are which factors come into play, when, at what levels.
Computers cope easily. A game can start by dialing in a medium value for population and a low level of constraint on fossil fuels.
Later on, dials can be reset to a high population and high constraints on fossil fuels. And so on.
Each game played ends in an outcome that adds to insight. One insight is that uncertain prospects matter.
Games do not tell us which real-life decisions to make. But little by little, players get a sense for a string of decisions connected with an outcome. It’s called learning.      
The learning process mirrors that evergreen glory to game-playing, Monopoly.
Nobody learns how to get rich, but players gain a visceral feel for many factors and risks to be weighed in buying real estate.
Sustainability games give a feel for how far natural resources can be stretched. A mere game?
So are military games and sports that prove their worth in teaching faster than life teaches.

John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water