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Fun, Games, and Extractivism

Fossil fuels have a new recruitment strategy: Minecraft

Responding to skill shortages in their sector, the Minerals Council of Australia has pursued a novel solution to educate the next generation of workers: Minecraft. Described as their “biggest” investment in skills development to date, the Council partnered with the game developer Secret Lab to utilize Minecraft: Education Edition—an educational version of the popular block-based game, designed for teachers—to create a new game entitled Resource, Respond, Rescue for children aged ten to eleven. In the game, every child plays as an emergency response worker who must save the fictitious town of Kings Canyon from a host of natural disasters. In doing so, they are meant to learn about earth sciences and crisis management by selecting the right mitigation approach for each incident.

Ahead of a bushfire, for instance, players walk around a room surveying different equipment and infrastructural measures that might help curtail its spread. Upon selection, features like “house frames” or “break walls” are added to the model of Kings Canyon. Typically, a teacher then runs the “disaster simulation,” which initiates a crisis within the diorama of the town. If players have selected the wrong measures—let’s say “sensor buoys,” which are not for fires but tsunamis—they watch as the mining community ignites in flames and must start over. As Kings Canyon repeatedly buckles like a pile of matchsticks, players become more familiar with the concrete effects of each disaster—like air-quality depletion and heat exhaustion—but their underlying cause remains obscured: namely climate change. In the game, it is never clear that you might just be saving the mining industry from catastrophes that it in fact precipitates.

This game builds on a history of energy-themed releases developed by Secret Lab. Prior to Resource, Respond, Rescue, they collaborated with the Minerals Council of Australia on a variety of games, including Old as Dirt!, which was targeted at students aged thirteen to fourteen and taught them about the pit-to port-processing of iron ore, featuring tasks on mineral identification and heavy machinery operation. Many of these games, such as Mine Solar Car Labs, also use Minecraft: Education Edition as a platform. Designed for primary school students, Mine Solar Car Labs adopts a heavily greenwashed tone in explaining what raw materials and machinery are necessary for building an electric car. Even without the interference of the Minerals Council of Australia, Minecraft: Education Edition has hosted games that further the agenda of the energy sector, such as Pipe Dreams, which focuses on pipeline development and is meant to provoke questions like: “Can students empathize with local villagers who call the pipeline route ‘home’?”

This is perhaps the least imaginative and most pernicious application of Minecraft’s pedagogic potential, effectively reducing its limitless explorative gameplay to the bare bones of a simulation. While Minecraft: Education Edition has paved the way for an immersive and playful school curriculum—tackling issues from the women’s suffrage movement to orangutan conservation—its application to extractive industry is indicative of its shortcomings and speaks to the broader phenomena of gamification within the energy sector.

It is important to situate Minecraft within the broader use of energy games as a recruitment tool. Rather than relying on the mediation of a known game, the energy sector has also produced their own, which often evoke historical mythologies and draw on the frontierism of prospecting. For instance, Maersk Oil’s game Quest for Oil, released in 2013, allowed players to dredge the deep waters off Qatar in pursuit of black gold. In doing so, you were meant to learn seismic analysis, reservoir identification, and drill placement, among other skills, while feeling as though you “have you can have the world as your playground.” Similarly, MOL Group, a leading oil and gas company, recruited university students in 2014 by making them compete against each other in an oil exploration game which involved rounds of strategic challenges and case studies.

While Minecraft: Education Edition has paved the way for an immersive and playful school curriculum, its application to extractive industry is indicative of its shortcomings.

The connection between the energy sector and the games industry makes intuitive sense. Energy-themed games such as Turmoil have always been widely popular in their own right, and simulations have long been used by fossil fuel companies for internal training. The danger and technicality of many energy-sector jobs makes simulation a worthwhile investment; prior to producing games for academic settings, the games industry helped to provide tools to the industry for educating their employees. This gave rise to such idiosyncratic releases as SimRefinery for Chevron, which came out of Maxis Studios’s business simulation division in 1993. Designed to simulate an oil refinery in Richmond, California, the game was intended to encourage cohesion among Chevron’s workforce. As Bruce Skidmore, an engineer on the project, explained, “Their concern at the time was that operators tended to be very focused on their one plant . . . So they wanted a training tool that allowed operators to manipulate inputs and outputs of the various pieces of the refinery process to see how they impact.” Beyond this practical function, it was also meant to teach employees about how the business worked, as Esther Dyson wrote: “The overall objective [was] to maximize the refinery’s long-term profitability.”

As the mining industry has become more sophisticated and remote, the desire for more effective simulations and modeling has grown. These newer technologies in many ways build on the aspirations of SimRefinery. The mining software company GEOVIA has developed a widely popular mine planning and modeling software called Surpac, which provides a 3D geological rendering of a specific mining project. Like SimRefinery, one of its functions is to centralize knowledge, so that the surveyors, geologists, and engineers are all working from the same data sets. Likewise, virtual reality technology is being deployed as an immersive training and communications tool by companies like Tecknotrove and Immersive Technologies. For workers, virtual reality is meant to make training feel more realistic, and for off-site employees, it is meant to give them better insight into operations on the ground. But couched within the rhetoric of “better communication” is a desire for optimization and greater managerial control.

Gamification is also used by the energy industry as an instrument of both surveillance and efficiency. Companies are usually drawn to games because they are a “fun” means of provoking competition between workers and of measuring their subsequent productivity. This without fail works to the employees’ detriment. As the CEO of ThoroughTec Simulation—one of the larger suppliers of military and energy simulation tools—explained in a 2016 interview, “Management [has] come to realize the impact that operators have on the production cycle and even the smallest improvements in operator efficiency can result in huge returns.” In practice, this means that ThoroughTec’s customers have sought “quantitative models to accurately measure performance improvements at the ‘per operator’ level.” The company responds “by developing training technologies with tracking and reporting metrics that could be extrapolated to real world scenarios.” In other words, games function as a bait and switch: the same technology used to lure in potential workers is eventually wielded against them as a determinant of their success.

The collaboration between games and the energy industry can also have a placating effect when it comes to attitudes toward environmental decline. When you engage with the mining industry via a voxel world of pixelated art, extraction is reconfigured as world-building rather than destructive. In the case of games that use Minecraft: Education Edition as a platform, the negative connotations players may associate with fossil fuels can be diluted by their positive feelings toward Minecraft. A similar tactic has notably been used by the U.S. military, which has used Call of Duty and Valorant as recruitment tools on Twitch. By sponsoring esports organizations, teams, and individual players, they gain immediate access to millions of impressionable young people, promising them not only entertainment but also lending vocational legitimacy to what many view as an immature hobby.

But of course, the relationship between games and the environment is not always determined by the energy sector, nor is it inherently negative. As Alenda Y. Chang argues in Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games, to frame the mediation of video games as a move away from nature is to feed into a false dichotomy between technology and environmentalism. In fact, she writes, “games can offer a compelling way to reconcile a deep connection to nature and the nonhuman world with an equally important connection to technology and the virtual.” While focusing on the ways in which games can bring us out of the domestic realm—such as Pokémon Go—she also stresses the role that graphics and mechanics play in shaping our attitude to nature within games, as well as the underlying environmental model a particular game is built around. Chang emphasizes the difference models of “resource extraction (where the game world is primarily a source of building materials)” and “visual spectacle (where the game world is primarily a scenic backdrop to player action).” In comparison with games like Flower, Firewatch, and Walden, it becomes clear that the the issue with energy simulations is not so much the fact that they are games but the specifics of the gameplay. 

Whether demolishing sandcastles or flicking dominos, destruction is a key component of all kinds of play. In video games, it is used to inculcate players into the rules of the game while also making them more aware of their surroundings. The assurance of immortality allows for experimentation; you can die, be revived, and die again, refining your skills with every acrobatic demise. Often the destruction of a character coincides with the obliteration of their environment, and this taps into its own appeal: the chaotic joy of failure. Famously, SimCity boasts the fun of demolition, as you can bulldoze everything from office blocks to condominiums. This is also largely the appeal of SimRefinery, where you learn about how a refinery functions through its collapse.

But one major difference between popular games and edu-games is that the latter are designed with the intention of conferring knowledge. In the case of games like Resource, Respond, Rescue, the line between fact and fiction is being blurred, as the fun of disaster is co-opted to culture children into budding extractivists. The problem is that the destructible environment surrounding us is not so easy to reload or replenish.