Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

“Pipe Trouble” trouble

Pipe Trouble is a Canadian digital game that explores some of the issues around pipeline construction in environmentally-sensitive areas. In it, a player must connect two ends of a natural gas pipeline. In doing so, however, they must cross areas of forest, wildlife, and farmland. Placing pipes costs money, so there is an incentive to take the shortest route. However, building in sensitive areas brings out environmental protesters, and even the occasional saboteur. If a pipe isn’t connected when the gas starts flowing, spillages and explosions can result. Between levels, one hears “news broadcasts” in the background that showcase many of the issues involved. Part of the funds from purchases of the game were to be donated to the David Suziki environmental foundation.

According to the website of game developer Pop Sandbox:

PIPE TROUBLE was developed in conjunction with the documentary film TROUBLE IN THE PEACE by Six Island Productions.

Trouble In The Peace is a much anticipated documentary film by award-winning director Julian T. Pinder, commissioned by TVO. It takes an unflinching look into the world of Big Oil & Gas told through the eyes of artist/cowboy Karl Mattson and his four-year-old daughter.

As the video above suggests, Pipe Trouble is simply a classic pipeline game repurposed with a somewhat satirical political and environmental overlay. It is also rather fun. However, the part where angry locals blow up the pipeline (as really happened in British Columbia in the past) has ignited a storm of controversy—especially since the game was partially developed with public money, and featured on the website of TV Ontario.


The premier of Alberta condemned the game:

Alberta Premier Alison Redford says she is disappointed to see a taxpayer-funded online game showing the bombing of a gas pipeline.

TV Ontario provided money to create the game, called Pipe Trouble, to accompany a documentary about the pipeline debate in British Columbia.

But questions have been raised about the game’s introductory video, which appears to show activists protesting before a pipeline blows up.

This screen grab shows a taxpayer-funded online game showing the bombing of a gas pipeline, called Pipe Trouble, which will accompany a documentary about the pipeline debate in British Columbia.

The provincially funded broadcaster says the game is meant to engage people on both sides of the pipeline debate and it’s not taking sides.

But Redford says a taxpayer-funded game depicting the blowing up of pipelines is contrary to Canada’s interests given that the entire country benefits from a strong and diverse energy sector.

B.C. premier Christy Clark said there was no place for positions that advocate violence:

“In British Columbia, we have a long history of strong, vigorous debate on issues and it is always done in a respectful way,” she said.

“There is no place in debate for positions that advocate violence and it is disappointing this video would even suggest that approach is appropriate.”

At least one federal cabinet minister also jumped into the fray:

On Saturday, Federal Heritage Minister James Moore came out critical of the David Suzuki Foundation for supporting the game’s message.

“[The game] has sparked discussion, and it’s tasteless, and I think that they [the game developers] should be ready for that kind of a pushback,” Moore said.

“There are video games that depict all kinds of pretty aggressive acts — violent acts from time to time — but I think that angle, of the David Suzuki Foundation actually collecting a financial benefit from those who want to play games that depict violence against people who work in our natural resource sector, I think probably goes a little bit too far and I think probably tests the boundary of good taste.”

At first TVO defended the game:

As a public media organization our mandate is to use media to engage citizens in the issues that shape our world, and to spark discussion and debate by exploring different points of view. The issues our content has addressed over more than four decades are complex and sometimes controversial. We explore these issues through hundreds of hours per year of documentary programming and current affairs (For a blog and video on the issue of pipelines click here:

TVO does not endorse any one point-of-view. We have solid editorial processes in place to ensure all our content meets our programming standards.

Docs like Trouble in the Peace and immersive games like Pipe Trouble are some of the ways in which TVO uses media to engage people in complex issues. The point-of-view documentary tells the story from the perspective of a farmer who sees the construction of a pipeline affecting his remote community of Peace River. Worried about environmental repercussions, he takes an unusual course of action, building a protective capsule on his property for he and his daughter.

Pipe Trouble allows players to explore both the corporate and the environmental perspective of this complex issue. To get a perfect score, players must build the pipeline as economically and environmentally responsibly as they can. The objective is to lay down as few pipes as possible, while not disrupting the environment. A demo of Pipe Trouble is on TVO’s website. The full version is available for purchase as an app for iPads and Android devices.

TVO has no relationship with the David Suzuki Foundation. The game developer, who owns the rights to the game, has decided to donate a portion of the revenues to the David Suzuki Foundation.

Trouble in the Peace premiered on TVO and will be running on several other Canadian broadcasters later this year. The game has just completed an exhibition at the SXSW digital media conference in Austin, Texas.

But then they later removed it from the website pending a review:

TVO has rigourous editorial oversight processes in place to ensure that our Programming Standards are met. However, we recognize the public concern regarding this game and have therefore decided out of an abundance of care, to appoint two individuals of experience and independent standing to review the game in the context of TVO’s Programming Standards. We expect to be able to confirm these individuals by early next week. They will produce a report for TVO’s Board of Directors by the end of April. Until this process is complete TVO has made the decision to remove Pipe Trouble from its website.

TVO takes very seriously the expenditure of public funds with which we are entrusted and would like to assure Ontarians that the organization is in full compliance with all related Government policies and directives.

Much of the criticism is a little off-base, since the game certainly doesn’t advocate bombing gas pipeline. Rather, it is simply one of the things that can occur if your lay pipe in sensitive areas and anger the local population. Then again, pipeline sabotage is a rare and criminal activity that certainly doesn’t characterize the pipeline debate in Western Canada. A publicly funded (and Ontario) broadcaster could have anticipated the likely political backlash the game would generate.

As for the game itself, in many ways it has served its purpose: the film it was meant to publicize has now received far more publicity than would have otherwise been the case.

2 responses to ““Pipe Trouble” trouble

  1. brtrain 04/04/2013 at 1:05 pm

    CBC does a story on the politics of video games, mostly about the Pipe Trouble controversy but also mentions Bioshock Infinite and Anno 2070 (and even mentions Chris Crawford’s old Balance of Power!).

  2. ayatollahchowmeini 24/03/2013 at 3:20 pm

    The red herring smell forced me to open a window. Blowouts, mechanical failures, spills, etc are much, much more common than sabotage. A game in which your pipeline randomly exploded or spilled through no fault of ‘your’ own as the player would be far more realistic, and this controversy just takes the conversation so far away from that direction. The environmental threat of pipelines is not environmentalists blowing it up- “it’s the pipeline and all its attendant/inevitable mechanical failures, stupid.”

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