This is part of Fort McMoney, an interactive documentary game that lets you decide the future of the Alberta oil sands, and shape the city at its centre.
A frozen highway spools out ahead of you, in the distance giant factory facilities with spewing smokestacks are carved out of virgin forest. It looks cold, cold like one of those Soviet factory towns in the Arctic Circle.
That's the scene that greets you when you boot up Fort McMoney, which is a virtual world that went live online Monday. There are many places to see and even more characters you can interrogate and interview. Scores will be kept and leaderboards maintained to reflect actions taken by visitors: the more curious you are the more points you collect. This world is also episodic, new places and people will arrive every week over the next four, and visitors can vote for changes they'd like to see based on what they experience inside Fort McMoney.
If you have a passing familiarity with modern video games, you will recognize this structure. But while it is a game, it's not fiction, it's an interactive documentary about that most consequential Canadian oil town: Fort McMurray. It was produced by The National Film Board with French, German and Canadian partners, including The Globe and Mail. (Columnists Eric Reguly and Margaret Wente will be writing about their evolving views as they play along. Read Ms. Wente's first take here and read Mr. Reguly's here.) The makers of Fort McMoney call it a game and call users "players," but there will be no "winners," or rather there is no way to "lose" the game.
(Also, for such an innovative project, the language to describe it is lacking; we need a new term like Game-Umentary, but one that isn't terrible.)
Functionally, it owes some of its game design DNA to 2012's episodic zombie adventure The Walking Dead from Telltale Games. The winner of multiple video game awards, Telltale's creation follows a similar forking structure: Like in Fort McMoney, each player's experience with the game will vary because each decision you make, each question or action you commit to, changes the sequence of the next thing you see or are able to do. In The Walking Dead that often meant people you met in the game got eaten by zombies, in Fort McMoney it just means you visit a different part of one of Canada's fastest-growing boom towns.
Over the next month players can dig through about eight hours of interviews and conversations with the real residents of Fort McMurray, a city which lies at the heart of Canada's oil sands. The game asks players to choose whether the city should help crank oil production up to 11, or if it should essentially shut down the industry. That's where the SimCity element of this game comes in: How the city grows, and how that affects Canada's energy future, will be displayed in a series of projections, updated each week by the latest referendum.
This laboratory of democracy is hosted in the "dashboard" part of the game, and this is where it strays from being a pure choose-your-own adventure story (if still a documentary, there are no actors here), and turns into a civics experiment. Players will be invited to debate, share their in-game discoveries and vote on policies for the town and its ever-present oil.
The issues the Fort McMoney asks players to vote on in the weekly polls are ones the real town faces: If you could, how would you vote to change things about the trajectory of Fort McMurray and Canada's exploitation of the second largest energy reserve in the world? The results of player voting will create a hypothetical Fort McMurray, one in which the future has been directed by the votes of this digital public square, like in a classical Greek democracy. Only here, the amount of debating, sharing and exploring you do can net you a higher score, and thus a heavier vote during the polls. It's why a documentary is keeping score at all, as a reward for spending time "playing" the game.
The elephant in the room is that this game/documentary is about oil in those sands, and the environmental and human cost of boiling it out of them. Fort McMoney starts by introducing you to people living on the margins of this rapid growth, the young woman who was hoping to clean work camps but instead works as a waitress, the alcoholic who collects cans (claiming to clear $52,000 in one year recycling the discarded booze containers of Fort McMurray's residents). In short order you meet the mayor of the town, and eventually oil sands executives and other leaders.
Creator David Dufresne talks about our civilization's "addiction to oil" when he talks about the conversation he wants this game to spark. This is the part the NFB, Dufresne and his whole team, are really excited about. As Dufresne explained during a recent live Q&A about the project: There are no shortage of great books, documentaries or journalism about the "tar sands." He says he was drawn to Fort McMurray thanks in part to stories about the town in The Globe and Mail. But for all of that, do Canadians feel any urgency to take action? He hopes to change that by giving people something gorgeous to look at, deep to explore, fun to argue about and which creates consequences for the user's decisions. He hopes his video game will convince people to be the change they want to see.
You can go play his creation here, join the debate and tell us what you think.