Behind the redesign of Energize, the sustainable energy game (pt. 1)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020
by Marisa Benjamin

Energize main image

Energize is an educational tool for understanding how to plan and implement sustainable energy solutions. It represents the potential that games have for teaching people complex ideas, like environmental realities, by demonstrating the obstacles, considerations, and possibilities involved. AC Atienza, English graduate student, collaborated with the Waterloo Global Science Initiative (WGSI) via a Mitacs partnership and co-op term to turn their prototype and concept of Energize into a fully-realized game. AC was also able to apply findings from the research creation process into driving the production of their game poetics Major Research Project for their graduate degree.

In part 1 of "Behind the redesign of Energize, the sustainable energy game", we discover how Energize has changed throughout the redesign and find out why AC, an English graduate student, was exactly the right person to work on this environmental game.

Can you describe an overview of the game, as it is today?

The goal of Energize is to work together with your team to reduce the region’s carbon emissions by 80% before you get to the year 2050. It’s not as easy as just tossing out a bunch of projects, though! In order to implement strong environmental initiatives, you have to manage physical resources like money and materials, and ephemeral resources like awareness and planning and popularity.

To succeed, you’ll have to make a lot of decisions about the best place to put your focus at any given time, and you’ll need to develop a strong understanding of why and how things like legislation or awareness are necessary to create meaningful change.

In board game terms, it’s a fusion between worker placement games like Agricola and engine building games like Terraforming Mars. It’s a co-operative game where every player has their own role (like managing money or projects) as well as their own talents (like being charismatic, efficient or resourceful).

The acts of learning how to play, playing the game, and reflecting on the results are all important experiences for players. All three of these steps help players get a better perspective as to what it actually means to implement infrastructural changes into a city, and emotionally galvanize themselves to recognize the weight of responsibility while simultaneously feeling confident in someday taking it on.

Early printed prototype of Energize
Take me back to the early days of working on Energize. What was the prototype like when you first saw it?

The Energize prototype I was given had a few shortcomings. The biggest problem was that the play experience was unbalanced between players. I observed this during the first playtest with high school students where it was too easy for the passionate players to take control over the entire simulation, making it so that others could sit back and disengage entirely. If Energize was going to be used to educate the players, it had to keep everyone engaged and able to do something. Additionally, with the prototype WGSI brought to me, it took too long to learn how it worked, and the mechanics were broad enough that it could be broken by forcing like 20% of the population to walk to work - you needed a judge in-person to keep players accountable and ‘realistic’..

So, I realized that the most effective strategy would be to start over and create an entirely new Energize. I sometimes think that making incremental changes just pushes the fluff around a thing instead of changing the core, and that’s a problem. When you do small changes, each change has to agree with the core or else it’ll be rejected... which means if your core is suboptimal, your new changes have to be warped to fit its suboptimal nature. I think small changes are not just slower, but also forever limited to only a narrow range of possibilities. Instead I think it’s easier to start fresh and build outward, so that’s what I did.

How did you determine a plan for the redesign?

The first thing I had to do was consider what WGSI was trying to do. I had to have a lot of talks with various stakeholders like community organizers, environmental planners, educators and business managers to figure out what they wanted to happen with Energize. Like a lot of initiatives with the potential for impact, each group wanted different things and had different ideas of how to get there.

Even the ultimate goal was nebulous: some people wanted it to be a community tool for just increasing conversation in general about sustainable energy and greenhouse gas emissions. Others wanted it to be a scientifically educational tool in the sense of literally knowing the amount of carbon reduced by different plans. Similarly, some were hoping Energize could be used as a reference tool for policy makers. There was even disagreement about the intended audience between children and adults.

The design approach would be different depending on which priority we went with, so I had to work with Kate and Hayley to select the right vision. I thought about the concept of “story truth”, which is kind of in opposition to “happening truth”. I learned this concept from Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried. The characters tell somewhat exaggerated or even fake stories, but that doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about conveying what literally happened. Story truth is about helping you feel the same emotions that they felt back then, and the same emotions that they feel now. We decided to prioritize constructing a story-truth for the redesign of Energize so that the game would convey an emotional understanding of sustainable energy reform.

Secondary prototype of Energize
Game materials for prototype

The images above show AC's early prototypes and designs of Energize.

Why is it important to engage people’s feelings about the environment? Which feelings were you trying to evoke and how did you incorporate that into the design?

At some level, everyone is guided in relation to their emotions. I personally think that everyone on both a short-term and long-term scale is driven by emotion. Sometimes it’s the hope for happiness or fear of emptiness, or maybe it’s raw spite that’s motivational. I think it’s the source of all motion.

So, I focused on designing for feelings of frustration, triumph, confusion, apprehensiveness, and anticipation. I wanted people to feel compelled to talk to others and collaborate, which is really important for major environmental reform.

I didn’t want to avoid negative emotions, since these are often constructive in learning settings and in games. I think negative emotions, especially anger, are good for overriding pre-existing logical pathways. And since your logical pathways are wrong most of the time and constantly need to be updated, these overrides often benefit you.

In the design of Energize, my intention was to evoke an emotional journey toward hope and optimism. People playing the game will already be aware of the problems of climate change, so we’re not really concerned with arguing whether or not it’s real – Energize starts after you accept that it’s real, so that it can ask, “What do we do now?”

Energize follows a typical 3-act structure, but in game form. In the beginning, we wanted people to feel overwhelmed and perhaps a bit unsure with what they have to do in order to achieve their sustainable energy goals. To do this, we front-loaded the tasks and designed a win condition that feels impossibly far. Act I purposely makes players feel about the same way that they would thinking about environmental stuff today. The goal is that when things improve, it’ll be noticeable.

The transition to Act II happens once players find a rhythm for working with their teammates and start to seriously take on the task of reducing carbon, from a “How do you do anything” to a “What is the best thing to do” mindset. Once they start working together, they’ll notice that the game still has challenges but is much more manageable now, and they’re truly called upon to make the most of their teamwork and character abilities to ensure success.

Ideally, the transition to Act III involves an acceptance of the fear and other negative emotions that were present from Energize’s beginning, and pushing through to see everything to its conclusion.

We know from contemporary research that ignoring our fears isn’t helpful, but neither is feeling so hopeless that we don’t do anything. Instead, we reached for a narrative of “it’s really scary but we’re going to do it anyway”. By the end of the game, we want people to feel their fears disperse as things get better.

On that note, that’s why it’s so important that Energize is a co-operative game and not competitive. We want people to learn how important it is to collaborate with others in order to reach what feels like daunting environmental challenges. We gave each player their own role with a special ability so that everyone has a particular place where they shine and are valued.

And regarding fear and motivation, the mechanics are designed to give advantages to players who act quickly rather than wait around. Rewarding swift moves was specifically requested by the environmental scholars on the team as it reflects environmental research.

How did developing Energize support your own Major Research Project about game poetics?

It formed the baseline of both creating and testing individual game poetics, and also in helping me understand how people drew meaning out of different situations. Specifically, running playtests was the most valuable part of the ENergize creation process by far, because it allowed me to witness the ideas, feelings and conclusions that people drew from a variety of different circumstances.

Game poetics is basically about tracing and shaping the way that people draw meaning from various mechanics and interactions in a piece of media, so by seeing how something like an event deck would shape people’s impressions on political opponents, or by seeing how people felt about the tedious number of steps it took to pass legislation, I could better understand how different game poetics worked in a practical context.

So if we were looking at a game poetic like axis, which is about a game element’s influence on your chances of winning/losing, we could have a better frame for understanding how powerful the Social Media action should be compared to the Pass Legislation action for example. Or for another example, I’ve seen players debating a project called Business Carbon Tax and measuring the importance of popularity versus the importance of reducing carbon. A frame like Axis could be useful in understanding why people would ever choose to do the unpopular thing - I made carbon reduction the #1 goal and was careful to make individual population levels not matter too much, so that players can make critical realizations like “It is sometimes worthwhile to sacrifice your popularity”.

Energize is available online for free as a print-and-play - contact us for more information. Schools, community centres, and citizens across Waterloo can reach out to Mathew Thijssen from the UW Sustainability Office to inquire about accessing the game. AC says that the context driving Energize – its relevance to Waterloo -  can be rearticulated to fit any region across Canada should other municipalities want to pursue a research project that will produce own, specialized version.

Look out for the next instalment of "All About Energize", coming out soon!