ElectroCity – fears confirmed

Posted on September 11, 2007

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I’ve spent two days playing ElectroCity. Engaging? Yes. Balanced? No. Green? Not even nearly.

Prompted by TreeHugger’s praise then questioning of ElectroCity, I posted a review of the instructions to the game. Today, let’s play the game with green glasses.

The starting point for the game is a low population in a rural area, serviced by a small wind farm. I made the decision to try and keep it that way. Very quickly I found that I ran out of energy. The helpful warning suggested that I buy some surplus from the market.

do nothing - buy some electricity?

Not wanting to do that – who knows how it has been produced? – I looked around and eventually found the energy efficiency programes. The text here seems quite sensible but what are those silly options doing? “ban all TV”, “everyone in bed by 8”. While I agree they might have some benefits, I would have thought a range of efficiency alternatives would be possible without including the distracting.

energyefficiency.jpg

This gave me energy for a few more turns but soon I found that my city was growing and needed more power. I added to my windfarm (I tried several times to limit growth but my city went bankrupt really fast every time).

As the game progressed (mainly me ignoring power warnings every 5 turns) the game obviously decided that I needed more resources. I miraculously discovered gas (I wasn’t looking) and then a message told me I could sell my gas on the market. Soon after, I discovered a forest (I must have been looking for the trees) – although I was told it could help control pollution, the only option it gave was to “log this forest”. On looking, I found I could plant a forest on other land “nothing here – why not build something”, the benefits of doing this are not clear (I certainly couldn’t sell carbon credits!).

newresource_logthisforest.jpg

Running out of power a couple more times I added windfarms to the other hill near my city. Eventually I finished with 69/100. While I got an A+ for my environmental management, I had a small population and poor energy reliability. With more careful management of the windfarms (adding them before power ran out) I got a B+ for energy management (somehow this also increased my population), this got me 78/100.

windonlyfinal.jpg

Despite what the teachers’ instructions said (“There’s no correct way to play and many different approaches can lead to success. This is not a game of right and wrong, but of pros and cons”), 78 is as good I as I could get it with renewable resources. I couldn’t make enough money from industry/rates powered just by wind to build a hydro station. One time I my city had a local thermal area so I built a geothermal power station. It seems though it took a lot of money to run and my city went bankrupt quite quickly. Bizarrely I got an A+ for environment when I logged a native forest.

geothermal.jpg

In other cities I built farms but they seemed only to serve to increase my population. I’m not sure why I built a camping ground, it didn’t seem to have a purpose – I hope it wasn’t to placate residents with a power station next door. Again the designer’s humour distracts from the real messages: On the camp we are warned of the danger of a cooking stove. Do we put the fallout from a malfunctioning nuclear power station in the same humorous bit-bucket?

thatdangerousprimus.jpg

Somewhat disheartened I went looking at the gallery. Wow, some people have got 100%. How did they do it? Easy, it seems they put they power generations on half the land and put power consumption on the rest. The instructions were right – it is all about balance! On these 5 exemplar ElectroCities (all of them got 98-100) there are 13 nuclear power-stations, 11 ski fields, 9 hyrdo plants, 2 windfarms, 5 stadia, 11 units of reclaimed land, 4 tidal power stations, 4 airports, 15 high intensity farms, 6 forests and 1 unit of undeveloped coast (no, hang on, that’s a factory).

combined_finished.jpg

I’m not the only one to make this observation. Two of the highly industrialised cities above are from “J” who set out with best intentions:

J’s Marlboro:

If only I could get a high score with a small population and just coat the map with trees. This is the best I can do without making people irate about nuclear while not running out of power too much.

and J’s Greensville:

All I wanted to accomplish with this city is have as much green as possible … hence all the forests. I kept nuclear to a minimum to keep people happy. As a result electricity demand far outstripped my ability to produce it.

ElectroCity is a well implemented game. It is engaging and is being used in schools. Unfortunately, it is flawed to the extent that I would not advise using it for teaching. The changes I would like to see should not entail a complete re-write and I hope Genesis/SchoolGen are actively improving the system.

So, what needs to change?

1. The criteria for success are a mystery and, inferred from the success exemplar, based almost entirely on industrial development and high population – neither meeting most sustainability goals . I would like to see the ability to set my own goals: percent undeveloped, population size etc. and then be assessed on how well I can steer the system towards my goal.

2. Make the benefits of “doing nothing” clearer, I would like to see explicit carbon credits for my forests.

3. Change the market to an energy supply market (rather than coal and gas). I should be able to make money from building renewable energy supplies.

4. Let me get a loan to build larger power stations based on renewables. At present I have to build coal plants to drive industry to make enough money to build what I really want.

5. Make clearer the factors controlling population.

6. Lose the attempted humour in the pros and cons. They distract from the real considerations.

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