Chungking Espresso

Earth 2100 vs Superstruct

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on February 8, 2009
(originally written for http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/)
Earth 2100 is a crowdsourcing and future forecasting project – somewhat similar to Jane McGonigal’s Superstruct – in which “players” view video summaries about the state of the world in 2015, 2050, and 2100 before making videos based on the possible conditions presented by those scenarios. The best submissions make it into a 2-hour primetime special on ABC.

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Superstruct and Jane’s other games all deserve their own posts at some point, so I won’t go into an in-depth analysis of McGonigal’s design here; however, I will make some comparisons between Earth 2100 and Superstruct in order to contextualize the former. Superstruct is a future forecasting ARG (alternate reality game) focusing on multiple different scenarios in the year 2019: famine, pirates/raiders, disease, mass immigration, and war. Superstruct considers all of these possible scenarios as encapsulated alternate futures, while Earth 2100 takes a holistic approach by asking players to imagine what would happen if multiple conditions such as these converge over time; therefore, Superstruct tends to have many well-developed storylines for each possible future, while Earth 2100 stands more as a random scattering of entires.

It’s also probable that McGonigal, as the Dean of the ARG, would take issue with Earth 2100 even being referred to as a game. Superstruct incorporates a badge system similar to the achievement structure in World of Warcraft or the PS360. While the latter systems reward players with points by making general progress in games or accomplishing particularly difficult side tasks, Superstruct rewards players for specific contributions to the game community. When one of your submissions qualifies for a badge, one of the other players will nominate it for consideration. Consider two badges from the game (the most basic and the most difficult to earn, respectively):

Emergensight – 21 points
The ability to prepare for and handle suprising results and complexity that come with coordination, cooperation, and collaboration on extreme scales

High Ping Quotient – 2 points
Responsiveness to others’ requests for engagement and the ability to reach out to others in a network.

Every player can achieve a total of 100 points by earning every badge, and the points earned by every player combine to raise humanity’s “survival profile.” To continue comparisons with mainstream games, this global effort is similar to the server-wide resource-hoarding required to wage war on the gates of Ahn’Qiraj in vanilla WoW. Earth 2100, on the other hand, has no such affordances for player achievement. The “winners” of the contest receive airtime on ABC, but it’s only a two-hour long special packed with professional interviews and commercial breaks. Finally, the producers of Superstruct released content regularly in order to drive the narrative of their game – read: they did actual design work – while Earth 2100 users only get the introductory footage. A lack of a community feel and ludic structure results from all of these shortcomings.

Scenarios

In 2015, the world continues to suffer increased numbers of floods, droughts, and wildfires. We’ve probably failed to adequately confront the global climate crisis in this short period. Coastal regions suffer increasingly severe hurricanes and flooding as glaciers melt. Players see brief glances of infographics of Manhattan island being submerged. Provocative video clips show an African exodus and a mass Mexican border crossing. Food shortages are becoming a mounting problem in the less industrialized countries.

By 2050, food production cannot meet consumption levels as populations in Africa and Asia balloon. Water runs dry as the climate heats up. Major urban centers might be flooded by the ocean, but one can count on major reservoirs such as the Colorado River drying up – making it impossible to live in vast stretches of North America. By this time we’re nearly running out of gasoline , and brown-outs or complete electricity loss is common even in the US. Anti-immigration wars are a fact of life in industrialized nations. Scientists urge us to realize that nuclear war is a strong possibility during this time, because the protection provided by mutually-assured destruction vanishes if countries holding nuclear weapons have run out of food or water already. Video clips mostly show violent conflict in Africa.

Finally, in 2100, potable water has completely run out. People basically live in a second coming of the Middle Ages – meagre pockets of affluence are surrounded on all sides by subsistence living. One is left to imagine the political and religious consequences of these conditions. Accompanying video clips show subsistence living in African villages.

For the most part, these introductory videos require little in-depth analysis. It suffices to say that they are well-edited mini-documentaries mixing the talking heads of climatologists and political scientists with stock footage of natural disasters and political unrest. One rhetorical undercurrent does deserve note: Africa’s deplorable current conditions are used time and again as an example of what everyone’s world will be like in the future. One must ask the question, why aren’t we hosting an alternate reality game about ramping up humanitarian efforts in Africa instead of specious future forecasting? Using this footage without presenting “Africa 2009” as a major contributor to future disaster in their convergence model strikes one as disturbingly colonialist.

Submissions

At the time of this writing (January 25th), a Producer’s Message has been released on the Earth 2100 website in order to give a “state of the game” address. Submissions have come in two forms: typical talking head vlogs and meticulously constructed vignettes with actual acting and pyrotechnics. Strangely, the producer actually encourages more of the amateur talking head content. This is probably because they want as many submissions as they can get; they’re also playing off of the popularity of the viral vlog genre (see lonelygirl15). Entries are organized by the location of their submission (or at least based on where the scenario presented takes place). The map animation is fairly poor, and it’s usually difficult to pinpoint something from a location you’re actually interested in. Despite this, one can see that submissions are trickling in from literally all around the world. There are 37 accepted entries posted to the site at this time.

Under the “Solutions” category, Jason Mann of (my alma mater) UGA’s Agroecology Lab and Full Moon Farm gives a basic explanation of the changing politics of farming in the U.S. He gives a rundown of how agriculture has become a niche understanding in formally rural states such as Georgia, and he encourages everyone to understand how scary it is that we don’t know where the majority of our food will come from in the future. Mann also gives an explanation of how he’s working against the average person losing all semblance of understanding food production: students from around the state can come visit his farm to spend half their time working the field and the other half learning textbook ecology and biology in a synergistic setting. The one other submission in the Solutions section is a voice-on-the-street documentary on how high school students see recycling as their most accessible method for combatting environmental disaster. The director provides no alternative or critique for this viewpoint (he is a high school student, after all).

Over half of the current submissions construct the world of 2015. Many entries are blogs simply reflecting on the conditions presented by the introductory video: water shortages, rising prices on groceries, and climate change. One impressive video (in the shaky handheld style of Cloverfield) depicts the “next big attack” on Manhattan through flashback. Just as in Cloverfield, the cameraman documents smiling New Yorkers chatting with each other and having a good time before running outside to view a noxious cloud of poisonous gas exploding over the city.

Dionne Figgins of Los Angeles mentions at the beginning of her vlog-style entry that although Obama’s presidency raised spirits in 2009, few people heeded his call to reduce our environmental impact. Now there are widespread water rationing efforts in the US. She details her disgust at an emerging divide between the rich and poor (one can pay $300 to bypass the ration for a week). Dionne presents one of the only “series” of videos submitted. Although most users put specific dates on their videos, she explicitly establishes a rough timeline for the two pieces she’s created for 2015. Her second entry takes place on July 4th and highlights the irony of America’s growing dependence on other countries – a dependence that the world regards with disdain on account of our former unwillingness to cooperate with them or successfully decelerate the tragedy in Africa. An African American woman, Ms. Figgins clearly understands that by politicizing her submissions she engages the current power structures leading to the convergence of escalating disasters in the 2015 scenario.

Videos for 2050 constitute a mixed bag of varying quality. One’s willingness to suspend disbelief on the vlog format begins to make these entries far less compelling. Despite this, two video diaries by teenaged girls in Texas ring clear from the noise: the temperature has risen so high that they go to school from 4pm to 8pm. They conduct the other half of their schoolday over the Internet, and high school sports have all but disappeared. The rising cost of subsistence becomes more arcane and menacing through the lens of two little girls unable to contribute fiscally to the well-being of their families.

A clever player presumably from Hong Kong creates a spy persona for himself in one of the more properly journalistic videos about 2050. He plays a compromised British agent monitoring deteriorating health conditions in China. His argument is that some countries will not report to the world the depth of their tragedy – this is information that must be smuggled out of these countries with sophisticated satellite hacking devices. The landscape of 2050 is particularly poignant for citizens of Hong Kong, who will be absorbed into China’s economy in  the year 2047. The producers of the game probably didn’t anticipate this particular angle when they determined this section of the game, so it’s great to see how cultural specificities affect the narratives created here.

At the time of this writing only one entry has been created for 2100. Two Chinese men run through a dusty, destroyed village while avoiding gunfire from invading Russians. This goes against the introductory material provided by the producers, who predict events such as this occurring in 2050 as opposed to this late date. Since it reflects a fear of Russian imperialism among Chinese citizens that I was previously unaware of, I anticipate that many of the players will end up doing much more than future forecasting – they will educate us about aspects of the current condition of the world that our mainstream news media ignores. In America one only hears about climatological and political crises in China. This video and the entry from Hong Kong have the potential to educate worldwide audiences in a way that only the Internet can.

Conclusions

I can safely assert that, by the time of this writing, Earth 2100 has not developed into what anyone would call a game. This is a future predicting video contest. Without the well-designed structures of an artifact such as Superstruct, the “players” of Earth 2100 struggle to understand exactly how they’re supposed to construct their narratives and play off of each other. I discern no continuity between multiple entrants (excepting the encapsulated series of videos by Dionne Figgins and Samuel Bennett), despite the fact that many of them use specific dates that one could conceivably manipulate into a timeline. This also leads to an over-abundance of redundant material. 

By making players jump between three such huge time gaps, it forces them to compact too many occurrences into an unrealistic span of time. Generally these submitters lack an understanding of how to depict systems that have been developing in the decades between the accepted dates – they structure everything as if it is breaking news. This would be valuable to our study here if one could actually call the experience a “game” or “journalistic.” Except for the spy piece on China in 2050 and one entry explicitly presented as an Internet news broadcast in 2015, the entries resemble either YouTube vlogs or short sci-fi student film projects. Understanding these video diaries requires a more comprehensive explanation of “citizen journalism” that we cannot explore in this article. As Earth 2100 develops toward the primetime airing of the game’s winners, and as our valuations of citizen journalism gain clarity, our project will likely return to some of this content in the future.

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