In their article, “Playing with Sustainability: Using video games to simulate futures of scarcity” videogame scholars Shawna Kelly and Bonnie Nardi merge game studies and environmental studies to consider games that offer representations of “gradually increasing scarcity of resources, climate change, and other human-environment interactions which can be influenced by transitioning to sustainable practices.” They first consider games like Civilization V, that “[mirror] common thinking about success in today’s world – that the viability of a civilization should be measured through [growth]” before moving on to titles like Fortnite and DayZ that “make visible the possibility of low/no growth as a challenging and achievable goal.” (Kelly and Nardi).
Kelly and Nardi assert that just setting a game against an apocalyptic, low-resource environment doesn’t instantly make it a “global futures game.” Instead, games set in futures of scarcity should move beyond zombie-killing and toward asking players to “[think] strategically in new ways about the environment under conditions of stress” (Kelly and Nardi).
By their requirements, then, A Dark Room’s qualification as a “global futures game” stems only in part from its desolate and resource-scarce environment. A Dark Room leverages its dismal setting to justify a resource growth model that, unlike that found in most of its clicker-game brethren, isn’t linear or exponential, and which may stall or even decline without warning. Indeed, since opening a new tab and beginning to write this post, my village has suffered two fires and an attack by beasts, in total eliminating a fourth of the population.
Certainly, A Dark Room is not unique for implementing the ability to lose resources, nor does it become a global futures game for this feature alone. Where A Dark Room does innovate is through compounding its resource-decimating disasters with a system of interdependent currencies. While most clicker games feature a universal resource (be it gems, cookies, or cold, hard cash) A Dark Room forces players to juggle an assortment of supplies: wood, fur, leather, meat, bait, and torches, to name a few. The player can assign villagers to specific jobs, and each profession both produces and consumes certain resources. Thus every decision leaves behind a cookie-trail of costs – I can produce add a trapper to produce bait, but trappers need meat, and that means I need more tanners, and that means … and etc.
So, the aforementioned fires and beasts that took out a fourth of my villagers also spelled disaster for my village’s growth. I had designated two villagers as the local charcutiers, who demand ten units of meat every ten seconds – an amount far outstripping my just-reduced meat production rate of two units per second. Notably, A Dark Room does not warn the player who falls into an unbalanced economy; it just trusts that she will spot the asymmetry sooner or later, then set up and maintain an equilibrium on her own.
In my second post on A Dark Room, I reflected on how the game casts a veil over many of its mechanics in order to promote a feeling of mystery. And after this last play session, I stand by my observations on the game’s tight-lipped approach to the long-term implications of player decisions. However, as I dig deeper into the game’s nuanced approach to resource management, I am realizing that A Dark Room does ask players to form a vision for the future of the village – it just pulls in the horizon line a few hundred yards, reconfiguring the end-goal from long-term abundance to short-term maintenance.
Fully cognizant that “in a finite world … the concept of a linear pattern of ever-increasing growth is an unsustainable long-term goal,” (Kelly and Nardi) A Dark Room reminds players that managing a future of scarcity will not be an easy or mindless task, but one that demands constant recalibration, and whose realistic end goal is not an era of infinite prosperity, but a precarious equilibrium that takes a village to maintain.
Kelly, Shawna and Bonnie Nardi. “Playing with sustainability: Using video games to simulate futures of scarcity.” First Monday, 19.5 (2014): n. pag. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.
A Dark Room. Browser. Developed by Doublespeak Games. Doublespeak Games, 2013.