Our goal with this project is to make available for free a serious game that we think has great educational and civic value. We could sell it, and over the long run make more money, but we'd rather take less money and get many more people benefiting from it.
This is an environmental simulation game. The player sets tax rates on five kinds of pollution, and sets subsidies for five kinds of beneficial activities. Those taxes discourage certain kinds of energy generation, pushing people to resort to other forms of energy. The subsidies help humanity in a variety of ways.
The central challenge in the game is the trade-off between environmental needs and economic needs. Sure, we can shut down all those polluting industries -- but then the economy will be permanently damaged.
Ultimately, your score depends on four factors related to human well-being:
1. The overall quality of life of people, which is based on economic well-being.
2. The number of "rich" (First World) people who die from environmental problems
3. The number of "poor" (Third World) people who die from environmental problems
4. The overall environmental health of the planet.
No Dancing Dolphins
This is no kid's game: it's a serious simulation. It is far and away the most realistic, detailed simulation of the environmental and economic issues facing humanity. It includes 80 different environmental or economic factors, such as carbon dioxide emissions, air pollution, economic growth, acid rain, sea level rise, starvation, population growth, transportation, and many more. Each factor is presented as a single page in a kind of computational hyperdocument linking every cause to every effect in the complex web of causality that makes our problems so difficult to understand.
It's suitable for bright high school students, but middle school students will have difficulty with the subtleties of the simulation. About the only people who'll find it simplistic would be experts in environmental policymaking.
The game is only one turn long: you set your taxes and subsidies and then turn the simulation loose to calculate the effects of your policies over the course of the next 60 years. It then presents you with your score, which will usually be negative. For each of the 80 factors, you get a bar graph showing how that factor rose and fell over the course of the 60-year period. By comparing all those bar graphs, you can figure out how everything fits together and figure out the best set of tax and subsidy policies.
The single-turn play is meant to encourage lots of experimentation. You can enter your decisions in less than two minutes, but then spend ten minutes figuring out exactly how and why things came out the way they did. Then you try another experiment. That's the whole point of the game: to consider lots of different strategies so as to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each one.
There is no obvious way to win the game: a zealous environmental strategy will be just as catastrophic as a gung-ho pro-business approach. The player must carefully balance all the factors to find the optimal combination of policies.
You can check out the alpha (actually, it's not really alpha because it doesn't include all the features) version of Balance of the Planet at this URL:
I've been sensitive to political issues in designing this game. There's a level that is biased towards a pro-business point of view; when you play that level, you need to keep taxes low so that industry can do its job. There's another level that is biased in favor of an environmentalist point of view: in that level, you've got to discourage all the different forms of pollution and encourage the development of alternate forms of energy.
There's also a very disturbing level in which you must give equal consideration to the poor people around the world, millions of whom die every year from malnutrition. In that level, the most important consideration is helping agriculture grow enough food for everybody. Hint: it's impossible.
Finally, the top level of the game allows you to control the numbers that control the simulation. You can make coal power plants dirtier or cleaner; farms more efficient or less efficient; wind energy cheaper or more expensive. The point of this level is twofold: to show you that the numbers bias the simulation, and to challenge you to think about those numbers.
The game also includes about a hundred "backgrounders": screens that you can consult or ignore that provide background on many of the ideas, issues, and technologies that underlie our environmental dilemmas. Here you can learn about the causes of climate change, Pigovian taxes, how power plants work, solar energy technologies, and many other things.
For those hungry for more information, there are also plenty of links to additional sources on the web. If you find anything in the simulation questionable, you can delve into the sources to get a better understanding of the truth.
Our team is small: I am doing the primary simulation design and basic coding; Louis Dargin is doing all the Internet and website coding, and my wife Kathy is handling all the business and financial stuff.
About those rewards
Our primary reward system is rather unconventional, so here's a more complete explanation. We realized that nobody ever reads traditional acknowledgements pages – who wants to slog through hundreds of meaningless names? So we came up with a better idea. At the outset of each game, the player encounters this display:
The screen presents just one name. However, that name is different each time the game is played. The probability that your name will be selected for display is equal to the amount of money you donated divided by the total amount of money that was donated.
If you pledge more than $100, you get your face on the display as well, like this:
You can read a mountain of information on the design process I went through with Balance of the Planet here: http://www.erasmatazz.com/TheLibrary/GameDesign/DesignDiaryBotP/DesignDiaryBotP.html
I wrote essays presenting my thinking as I worked my way through the design; there are 65 pages of material here. If you want to learn how I design a simulation, have at it!
As I say in the video, the game is far from complete: the various levels have to be implemented, much of the text is too brief, and so on. I expect we'll need several months to finish the game; I'm planning on a release in January of next year.
What happens if we get more than the $150,000 we're asking for? The extra money will be used to continue making improvements to the game after it's released, as well as to publicize it so that more people can learn from it.
What happens if too many people try to play the game and our server can't handle the load? This could happen if we're vastly more successful in publicizing the game than in funding it. All we can do is hope that we get enough money to handle the number of players we get.
Why should you donate?
Because this game does something no other game, book, magazine article, or web page can do: it drives home the fact that all the pieces of our environmental and economic problems are interconnected in complex ways. It shows that we can't make everything perfect, but if we're careful we can avoid the worst outcomes. Finally, it shows why there's so much disagreement about the issues -- it all depends on what numbers you choose to believe.