PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Fate of the World

Fate of the World. Red Redemption, 2011. $9.99. Available for MS Windows and Mac OS.

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I  had been intending for some time to do a review of the environmental management computer game Fate of the World, which was released earlier this year by the serious game developers at Red Redemption. Red Redemption had also been responsible for the BBC’s earlier browser-based global warming game, Climate Change (2006).

Further prompting me to have a look was the recent news that the game had won a Silver Medal at the 2011 International Serious Play Awards, and that FOX News had attacked the game (and other environmentally-themed games) for pushing an alarmist liberal environmental agenda onto defenceless children. What’s not to love?

In this particular case, three of us actually did the reviewing: myself, political science student (and avid video/computer game player) David Brynen, and liberal arts student (and equally avid game player) Chloe Brynen. Although we all played through the game separately and deliberately didn’t discuss our impressions until after we had finished, we came to generally similar conclusions.

Chloe—as usual—didn’t mince words in offering her assessment Fate of the World:

It’s commonplace to see current tends, worries and crises reflected within today’s games as the medium continues to enter the mainstream. However, if educational gaming is the way of the future, Fate of the World is not the herald of this new wave. With some clunky interface issues, frustrating game play and a vertical learning curve, this educational game has a long way to go.

Presentation & Interface

Fate of the World definitely falls short in the interface department, although the bulk of the issues seem like they would be relatively quick fixes (which makes them all the more puzzling). There is an in-game encyclopedia, where curious players can look up the plethora of environmental and political terminology used within the game.  However, this encyclopedia is oddly inaccessible. Instead of linking it to the cards where these terms appear, one has to go back to the global menu and access it there; it’s not even directly accessible when the player is “zoomed” into a region. While this difference may only seem to take up a couple of clicks, it’s frustrating and discourages the player from looking up terms they don’t understand. Furthermore, there is no search function for the encyclopedia.

Some of the art direction in the game is a little bizarre; the logo – which features bird wings, rain (or tear?) drops and slashes of blood – is anything but attractive. Everything in Fate of the World seems designed to keep you at an arm’s length – the entire mechanic of reducing political, environmental and technological decisions into playing card further abstracts the experience. Nothing draws you in, and the whole situation feels fake and uninviting.

Gameplay

There is a stark difference between a game with difficult gameplay and a poorly explained game; Fate of the World falls into the latter camp.

Fate of the World doesn’t have a tutorial. Instead, it has an opening mission, with a more manageable goal and access to two regions (north and south Africa). The game offers a few pointers during this introduction, and then abruptly stops. There are no instructions or help beyond where to enlist agents, and a couple suggestions of cards to play. The difficulty curve becomes apparent during the second mission, when you’re given access to the entire world without any direction or help. It would have been helpful to either implement difficulty settings, or an “advisor” who could provide players with tips. Icons would pop on my global screen, and I still don’t know what their purpose is. In the tutorial department, Fate of the World could have learned a lot from the Civilization series. Difficulty shouldn’t involve poor game mechanics or no in-game help; difficulty should be a reflection of deep game scenarios and smart AI or mechanics.

In addition to the game’s difficulty, the links between world events (as presented in the “news” tab of the game) and your policies are not always apparent. This makes it difficult to gage the success and usefulness of your laws.

In Fate of the World you are given a selection of missions to complete. Each mission has a primary objective (lower emissions to x, etc), which you much achieve within certain parameters (HDI cannot fall below 0.7, etc). A sort of sandbox mode would have been an excellent way to encourage experimentation with policies, and would have helped mitigate the damage of no tutorial by encouraging experimentation in a free scenario. However, there is no such mode, which again stifles the player’s curiosity. By only allowing the player to operate within concrete parameters, Fate of the World punishes experimentation.

The politics of Fate of the World also seem bizarre and artificial. You play as an imaginary organization called the GEO (Global Environmental organization), which has an absurd amount of power. I was able to ban oil on a global scale, forcibly and secretly sterilize regions, declare martial law and unseat regimes. The game balances your power somewhat by implementing an “approval rating” scale per region: if you become too unpopular in a region, you can be ousted for a few decades. However, some of the policies you have at your disposal have strange approval ratings attached to them, and I was surprised to see that my liberal use of the “martial law” card had a positive impact on my approval ratings.

Due in part to the learning curve, the game is also boring. With its sterile “playing card” system and lack of concrete feedback, it’s easy to fall into the rut of simply spamming policies and crossing your fingers.

Verdict

Fate of the World is a valiant effort, but at the end of the day, it’s just that: an effort. It falls short in several departments, and classroom or personal time would be better spent watching a documentary on the subject. Muddled visuals, counter-intuitive interface and shoddy gameplay all leave Fate of the World feeling flat and unsuccessful.

David was also disappointed by the poor in-game tutorial, but was somewhat more positive in his overall assessment:

Fate of the World puts the player in the future year 2020, in control of an omnipotent organization called the Global Environmental Organization (GEO) . In various regions of the world, the GEO has  the ability to set important policies such as technology development, environmental regulations, economic measures, and health and education programs.

Fate of the World offers player missions of varying length, each of which sets specific goals such as advancing Africa’s Human Development Index and mitigating the effects global warming. The game revolves around numerous actions that are triggered each turn (five years) by playing cards in each of the twelve regions of the world. The cards are effectively orders that you, as leader of GEO, issue to your agents in each of these areas. The action cards are broken down into six groups: political, society, technology, environment, resources, and projects.  Each card costs money and personnel (agents), both of which are quite limited in the game, and become quite hard to manage when all areas of the world are set to playable and upwards of 20 actions must be ordered each turn. Certain actions may make a region friendlier towards GEO, or have the opposite effect by decreasing that region’s favorability rating towards you. It is important to choose your actions wisely, as GEO can be temporarily banned from an area if it ignores an its needs or issues orders which anger the local population or lead to adverse consequences.

Ascetically the game looks very good. Menus and windows are vibrantly colored, while the world map is detailed. The player has the opportunity to view pollution and population hotspots as an overlay on the globe, which not only looks nice, but can also be very handy when seeing where to distribute your resources.

One of the best things about Fate of the World is that there is such a wide variety of actions which can be performed. Each of the six groups have numerous cards with varying costs, some of which will be low risk-low reward, or high risk but high reward. One thing with the card system I found a little strange, however, was the overwhelming power of some of them. For instance, GEO was able to often quell an unstable region by simply issuing a “martial law” card. Most of the time issuing this particular card had little or no other negative consequences. The cards also could have done with more description instead of just one or two sentences

Probably the main negative about this game is its length as well and difficulty—or rather the lack of player engagement and motivation that makes game play seem rather tedious and repetitive to play. Similar to the previously-reviewed People Power, after a few turns the game becomes somewhat boring as ones issues orders and then sees (or tries to see) their effects. In regards to the difficulty, even the “tutorial” mission was very difficult and took me numerous tries. For example, in another mission, once I was able to develop or stabilize one region, another one became destabilized very quickly for no apparent reason. It was not uncommon to see armed conflicts break out in numerous continents in one turn sometimes in regions with the highest HDI, which would prevent me from achieving my victory conditions.

In addition, the game has a very poor tutorial and awkward interface which will confuse many players at first. Apart from a few pop-ups in the first turn in the tutorial (which direct you where to click and give a brief introduction to the game’s main features) you are left on your own for the rest of your missions. You will likely have to proceed via trial and error for your first play-through of the initial mission to get a better understand of how the game actually works.

Despite the negatives, I think that Fate of the World could be a useful teaching tool. This is in large part because, despite being set in the future, the game deals with numerous contemporary problems, such as environmental degredation, economic imbalances, and political instability. Although the game’s premise is highly unrealistic in the sense that one organization can manipulate the world as they please, Fate of the World does give the player numerous potential approaches to address a wide variety of challenges, something which might force users to think critically about how to proceed while minimizing negative ramifications—thus resolving some of the problems faced by the leaders of today.

My own impression was that as a serious game, Fate of the World rather fell between two stools—of, perhaps, somewhat missed them both entirely. As a game it is not particularly engaging, and I don’t think it will hold the attention of youth or adults who have rather more interesting computer games available for the electronic entertainment. At the same time, I don’t think the game does a very good job of communicating cause-and-effect, linkages, or the substance of various possible policy options (information on which is buried in a place most students won’t bother to check). As both Chloe and David noted, the in-game tutorial is very poor, an especially serious deficiency for a game that is intended to serve a serious educational purpose.

As I post this, Fate of the World has a 72% rating on Metacritic, from 10 reviews. As is probably clear from the discussion above, we think that is a little high.

I’m in two minds about the way politics is dealt with in the game. On the one hand, the existence of a fictional, all-powerful Global Environmental Organization allows players to try out a broad range of policy instruments that, in real life, are impeded by the morass of local, national, and multilateral politics and resource constraints. After all, playing an accurate simulation of the stultifying incrementalisms and frustrating compromises of the 2009 UN (Copenhagen) Climate Change Conference would likely drive most gamers into committing mass self-extinction. On the other hand, players can well learn the wrong lessons about global environmental politics from Fate of the World while failing to appreciate the complexities of international cooperation upon which effective action against global warming and other challenges must be based.

For educators considering use of this game in the classroom, I would think that you could probably achieve more learning through 3-4 hours of conventional lectures than you could through having students undertake 3-4 hours of game play. It would work, however, as a “book review” assignment in which students are expected to use classroom knowledge and background research to inform a critical assessment of the games strengths and weaknesses.

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