Super Energy Apocalypse: RECYCLED by Brain Juice Games is a Real Time Strategy game (RTS) that explores the pros and cons of different energy-economies by taking real-life data and simulating it in a science-fiction world that turns long-term consequences into immediate consequences. It does this by creating a world that has been attacked by hordes pollution-eating "mutant alien zombies."
During the day, you build your town and defenses, while trying to keep air pollution low and making sure all of the garbage ends up in a well-defended landfill. When night arrives, "zombies" - resembling giant eyeballs on spider-legs - invade from off-screen. They are attracted to garbage and nuclear waste, which they can eat to heal damage and grow larger and more powerful. They are also powered up by air-pollution. The smoggier your city, the stronger the zombies will be when they arrive. You can stop the zombies using various defensive structures, each with its own strengths and drawbacks. Turrets use up your metal supplies for bullets, floodlights and Tesla coils drain power, and flame-throwers use up oil or natural gas and cause air-pollution as the zombies burn.
You have to build up your city in order to have the resources necessary to survive the nightly attacks, but unlike other RTS's, strip-mining all of the resources on the map while building overwhelming forces is not a winning strategy. Almost every thing you do has some environmental repercussion. This requires you to try to build slowly, carefully weighing your options. For instance, constructing a turret requires energy and metal for the construction, and more metal for ammunition. You can build a coal mine to power your coal plant -which pollutes the air - and a metal mine for more metal. Mines produce a lot of garbage, which needs to be cleaned up and placed in a landfill. You need a factory to build your garbage trucks, which burn oil and produce air pollution. You need an oil rig to get oil, and the drivers of the garbage trucks need food, so you may have to build more farms, which pollute the air a little bit and also produce garbage! All of these buildings will need to be defended, requiring some more turrets!
The above scenario seems like a catch-22, and that's because all of the technology used in it are based on our modern status quo energy policies, which produce runaway air pollution, especially in developing areas. Using the looming threat of nightly zombie attacks, the game turns the long-term consequences of our world's energy policies into a short-term consequence! If nothing else in this game illustrates a potential strategy for developing an educational or persuasive game, it's that. But Super Energy Apocalypse also offers hope in the form of alternative energy sources and scientific research. You can build research labs, which also pollute and require food and power, but also produce "research points" you can use these points to buy new technologies or upgrade existing technologies. You can build power plants that run on Coal, Natural Gas, Wind, Solar, Geothermal or Nuclear. Each power plant has advantages and disadvantages. Using your research points to upgrade your power plants will cause them to produce more energy and less pollution. You can also research new fuel types to use in your garbage trucks and engineering vehicles - Gasoline, Natural Gas, Ethanol, and Electric. Again, each has advantages and disadvantages, and each can be upgraded to mitigate some of those disadvantages. You can also convert your landfill into a recycling center, while will produce some useful metal and natural gas.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to winning Super Energy Apocalypse. Each level has a different map with different available resources and strategic implications. Some maps might have no available locations for oil drilling or coal mining. Others might have lots of rich soil for farming and high ground for more efficient wind and solar plants. The levels in story mode are bookended by conversations with some fun and interesting characters, most notably Dr. Anastasia Wurstwagen, who is the first person to realize that the zombies are being powered by garbage and pollution. These characters act as an efficient and entertaining way of telling the player what they need to do, and about the advantages and drawbacks of each type of energy technology. One of my favorite levels start out with extremely high air pollution and a coal mine. Dr. Wurstwagen tells the people of that town that their pollution is going to make the next zombie attack impossible to survive. The first thing you have to do in the level is shut down the coal plant and coal mines, and then quickly build up a nonpolluting power-plant and convert to an alternative fuel source so you can let the pollution levels fall while still having enough energy to build your defenses. That level was a great way to illustrate how much harder it is to have to completely replace an energy economy after it's already too late.
The statistics for the different types of power plants used in the game come from the Huston Advanced Research Center which funded the production of the game after seeing the early version in a presentation at Texas A&M University. The story of how the game came to be can be read here there is also a postmortem that will very interesting to anyone involved in designing educational games.
I spent a lot of time talking about the particulars of the game because I really enjoyed playing it, but here are the take-home points for educational game designers.
Finally, I'll leave with a quote from
Philosophy moment: Learning is fun. That is not to say that the one is simply the quality of the other, but that they are, in fact, one and the same. Put more profoundly: FUN is LEARNING. We just don't usually have very useful fun.
But I like "useless" fun!