ElectroCity: “natural bias” not very natural at all

Posted on September 9, 2007


Last week TreeHugger said great things about a New Zealand site last week: “Electrocity: Teaching Kids to Manage Energy, Human Needs Responsibly Through Gaming

Genesis Energy, an energy supplier and retailer in New Zealand has come up with a terrific way of helping kids develop a strong basis on which to develop future knowledge about the issues surrounding global energy usage without overwhelming them with every sophisticated detail

But then, quick as a flash, alerted to the sometimes less-than-sustainable sponsor, TH changed its tune: “Educational Games for Kids: Proceed With Due Caution“:

…the sponsor of the game, a company called Genesis Energy, has been rated by Greenpeace as the worst offender in that country when it comes to polluting the environment. Within an hour our own Lloyd Alter popped me a quick email linking to yet another story on an “energy game” scheduled to be released this September, but this time by Chevron. The headline read “Chevron Promotes Petroleum… with Clean Energy Game,” and this time it appears that if you even try to create a future without fossil fuels you’ll get an error message that indicates that’s just not possible…


And while I believe it is reasonable to commend both companies for creating games that include renewable energy sources and help students confront a bit of reality, it’s clear that teachers everywhere had better pay very close attention to who, precisely, is putting out these games. The level of natural bias may wind up successfully undermining the very real message we need to send…

So, let’s look at Electrocity, with a view to exposing any of this “natural bias”. In this post I’ll look at the instructions  (tomorrow we reviewed the actual game).

The instructions start with these example outcomes. I must confess, this has me a little worried. I realise that it isn’t possible to show every outcome at this stage, but the example of success does not seem very green to me.


ElectroCity is all about balance and planning.

You need to balance your city’s growth with its environmental impact. Your citizens need electricity and jobs, but they also love their clean green image. So you get to decide whether that forest should be made into a national park or logged and turned into an aluminum smelter

The measures on the scoring are worth a second glance

Security of supply

Your Popularity

Your Population

Your Environment

There’s no mention of whether these measures are linked. Can I get a happy population by a secure electricity supply and a huge amusement park regardless of the environmental cost? And by what measure of sustainability is a growing population deemed a success?

Page 4: You start the game with a natural environment and low population. All your town’s electricity is generated by one small wind farm.

Sounds perfect! I have a suspicion, though, that running with this for 150 turns won’t benefit my overall score much:

What should you do first? That is up to you, Mayor. You could…

  • Save some money and do nothing
  • Log a forest
  • Increase Local Body Rates
  • Prospect for gas or coal in a land or sea tile
  • Upgrade your wind farm, ready for the future

…or a host of other things.

The measure of success of my decisions is happy townsfolk, the consequence of this is an increased demand for energy.

This game is about energy supply. Fortunately, though, one of the options is to use less:

If you click on the town tile in the middle you can run energy efficiency programmes, so your people use less electricity. But these programmes cost money.

The other option is to build power plant. The example given is for a gas plant to supply electricity. Pros and cons are given although note the language “more efficient than coal, and creates less carbon dioxide emissions“. On the next page the Gas Plant is shown to produce 70 mW per turn, 4 un-named pollutions units per turn and 2 tourism units.

The instructions tell me I could build other power sources, “like coal plants and hydro dams”. “Once you’ve got enough money in the bank, solar farms and tidal plants can be built also“. Meaning that these cost more than the coal and hydro? Does “can be built also” mean they can only be built in addition to coal?

I can do lots of other things too

You can buy and sell coal and gas on the ‘Markets’. A smart investor can make good money by watching for trends: buy when it’s cheap, sell when it’s expensive.

Surely it’s electricity I should be buying/selling, I hope there’s a market for selling power from my wind farm.

Right, before I launch my city I can set a goal:

  • Set yourself a goal. You can aim to have…
  • The biggest population
  • The least environmental impact
  • 100% happiness

I hope that these bullets aren’t mutually exclusive, the singular “a goal” is a bit worrying.

I’ll be back with a review of the actual game.

PS This an interesting statement with yesterday’s Bush APEC statements about nuclear being green: New Zealand is nuclear-free, so nuclear power plants cannot be built in our country. However, this game is intended to provide players with a base knowledge of energy generation, so nuclear power is included.