Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pipe Trouble: Successes and Flaws

I'm very invested right now in understanding how games can be used for positive change.  So, as an environmentalist, when I saw a game called "Pipe Troubles", I leapt at the chance to play it.  I really wanted to grapple with how the game mechanics could be reinforcing different viewpoints concerning the building of a real-life pipeline.  I was eager to see where I felt their ideas worked and didn't work and to use that information to inform my own designs down the road.  In this critique, I will only be looking at how the game uses mechanics and design to communicate its messages and intent (I won't be looking at video/audio quality, glitches, ambience, immersion, etc...).

If I am going to be criticizing a work of art, I need to know the author's intent, because I want to differentiate between judging the author against her/his intent and judging the author against my desires for the game.

Here's a couple notes from the site I find relevant:

"Pipe Trouble takes a clever new spin on an old arcade classic and uses over-the-top satire to draw awareness and prompt larger mainstream discussion for ongoing real-world issues surrounding the exploitation of natural gas....  Pipe Trouble was designed to engage a new audience in the ongoing energy debate and aims to explore timely issues in an entirely novel way without immediately vilifying industry."

I'm going to assume you have already or will play the game, so I will try not to go into too much detail about what happens in every moment of the game.


I am thoroughly impressed with some of the meaning embedded in the mechanics of this game.  Like Pipe Dreams, you must build piping from one port to another across the map.  However, in this game, there are certain places that have "realistic" consequences for building there.

Protestors blocking an adjacent space:  

This seems a well-placed mechanism.  If you build over land that environmentalists treasure, they are likely to show up and protest.  I cringe a bit at "hippie" protestors since it further ostracizes the idea of "everyday" people as protestors, but under the guise of satire, I will let it slide.  My other objection here is that the protestors in the game just walk away after a while, but often in real life they are arrested (sometimes forcefully).

"Black Bloc" members bombing the pipe:  

This game is meant for Canadian audience and in Canada there were bombings and bomb threats in dealing with natural gas pipelines  (which are alluded to in certain victory screens).  In that respect, I see the relevance of bombings and it certainly functions well to add another level of difficulty to the game.  However, I also have to wonder how much this also  fuels the ideas that protestors are "radicals" and "terrorists".  This might again be excused as satire, but I wonder if here their satire isn't working against their larger goals.

In both of the above examples, it seems likely that someone might walk away from the game with their ideas of protestors as hippies and terrorists.


This is perhaps the most realistic mechanic in the whole game.  A fine obviously depletes the $$ to be made and enrages the CEO.  It is also annoying as a player (momentarily blocking the middle of the screen from view), but it essentially allows the gas company to keep building.  This is true to life - fines don't stop companies from dumping toxic waste, spilling oil, or continuing to build and operate their facilities.  They just pay a fine and move on.


These are also (depressingly) realistic to an extent.  They do block you from proceeding, but only for a time.  Injunctions could be more permanent, but they are often legal stoppages to sort out some kind of court case before the corporations win out and proceed.


The best part of this mechanic is that you the only way you can influence the farmer's score is negatively.  Building this pipeline is no boon to his land.  It doesn't make him or his family happier or healthier, but certain consequences can certainly rob his family of productive land or health.

It would have been nice to see the farmer himself out on his land fighting the pipeline after a certain amount of discontent.


I can't tell if the CEO should be labeled as properly satirical or all-too-real.  The only thing the CEO cares about is getting the pipeline built and making as much money as possible as soon as possible.  In my dealings with these companies, I can't help but think this picture is fairly accurate.

In this respect, I feel the makers of the game failed in their attempt to keep from vilifying industry.  There doesn't seem to be much positive about working for the greedy, demanding CEO.  All of his disappointments are regarding money loss or poor company image (gas leaks).


Depending on your outlook, a balance of good scores between the farmer and the CEO is the goal of the game.  The game could be played in such a way as to favor one over the other, but I'm going to assume the player sees the "ultimate" victory as a 3-star score for both.

After the opening two levels, it becomes increasingly more complex to build a pipeline that uses the least amount of pipe and avoids trees, crops, and houses.  These levels are more true to life and the give-and-take between the farmer and CEO is very appreciated.  There is an inherent moral dilemma built into many of the levels and it is uncomfortable displeasing either (or both) of the characters.

This is perhaps the most nuanced and important mechanic in the game.  My only issue with it is that if both scores are equally important, you are essentially equating health/safety/ecological stability with profits.  Those concepts, to me, are inherently unequal.

Misc. Improvements (how I would have improved it):

Animals are visible sometimes on screen, but you can build over them with no repercussions.  Why are they even there if there aren't consequences?  I think animal habitats (especially ones like eagles' nests) are important considerations when using big construction projects to lay pipeline.

Stopping the pipeline is a function of "losing" the game.  Letting protestors stop you or bombers destroy your pipes just results in an option to quit or restart.  This is a rather frustrating part of the game, especially as an activist.  Pipelines are the only option in the game and building them is the only way to "win".  There is no other kind of compromise except in which the corporation compromises some money to build extra pipe so that the pipeline isn't so close to houses or is away from a forest or crops.  There is no option to just not build a pipeline.

Leaks don't happen naturally - they have to be instigated by a bombing (I believe).  In real gas pipelines, leaks almost always occur without any tampering on the part of humans.  The keystone pipeline (not a gas pipeline) spilled 12 times in its first year.

Pipes are above-ground a leaks are immediately detected.  Most pipelines are underground and while they have systems to detect leaks, they aren't perfect.  A recent federal report "...found that pipeline control rooms, which help monitor whether a line is functioning properly, identified leaks in hazardous liquid and gas transmission lines only 17 percent and 16 percent of the time."

Finally, no connection to climate change is made whatsoever.  Admittedly, this issue takes the sidelines a lot when it comes to projects like pipelines, but it is one of the most pressing issues of our time.  We are talking about mass extinction and an ugly overhaul of the planet if we don't act.  Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, emitting CO2 into our atmosphere and warming our climate.

Final Thoughts:  

This game was overall, wonderful in its ability to try to navigate the treacherous relationships between corporations and landowners in the battle to build more pipelines.  As an activist, I just wish I could have had the option to stop the pipeline and win.   *Sigh*

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Games I'm currently playing:
  1. Fallout 3 (main game)
  2. LIMBO
  3. SW:TOR
  4. Bioshock
It's been a while since I played a game as violent and gruesome as Fallout 3.  This revelation might seem pretty "wimpy", but I don't pride myself in being immune to the goriest and most violent images available.  I don't revel in it and I have no intention of further dulling my senses to violence or disturbing images.  In fact, this blog is an attempt at keeping those parts of me I deem make me human.

At the start of Fallout 3, the appearance of ghouls disturbed me.  Yes, rotting flesh that half covers your face is a bit like feeling slugs squirm in your stomach.  It's such an odd pairing, though.  I can't write it off as pure gore for gore's sake, because there are people who have suffered serious injuries or diseases that are "disfigured" living among us today.  In a strange sense, I feel it's a sort of practice for how I treat people that I see as different from myself.  I can take the opportunity built in to the game and try to see them as I would see myself or my friends and loved ones.

Speaking of a mirror image, today's the first day I have played Bioshock.  Now (SPOILER ALERT), I know that the game does involve becoming partly the thing you are destroying or something to that effect, and I can already see it leaning that way.  You swim to shore from a plane crash over the Atlantic only to dive down many fathoms in a bathysphere into an underground city named Rapture.  Rapture was founded by Andrew Ryan, a man trying to escape the grips of Socialism (taxes for the poor), Church (tithe for God), and Communism (equally shared profits).  Further even than that, Ryan wants to escape any kind of morality that limits scientific or business endeavors.  All of this is communicated to you in a short film on your trip down to Rapture, eventually welcoming you to the city itself.

But things aren't as perfect as you would think they are.  Your first scene is a man being brutally mauled by what Atlas calls Splicers.  Atlas is your first and only friend in the adventure so far, but you only know him via a short-wave radio you pick up in the bathysphere.  Splicers are most of what remains of the population of Rapture.  They are something like what I would imagine a combination of Firefly's Reavers and meth heads are like.  They are certainly more coherent and "human" than a Reaver, but they have lost most empathy or concern for others.  They are violent, pathological, and seemingly addicted to Plasmids or something of the sort.  I haven't quite figured out the difference between ADAM, EVE, and Plasmids, but they all have to deal with rewriting DNA.  In fact, you start out in a Hospital where diary records inform you that plastic surgery has evolved far beyond what it is even today.  People have become like clay dolls, shapeable into whatever form you like.  The head cosmetic surgeon, for his part, has now become, in his own words "limited by his imagination" and my latest diary entry tells me he is fascinated with the idea of applying Picasso-like styles to real people's bodies because he is bored.  This is just a small sample of the kind of world that has been unleashed in Rapture - people are either Gods, animals, or some sick combination of both.

For my part, I have already injected two plasmids - lightning and fire, which let me telekinetically shock and ignite Splicers at will.  The first Plasmid was so painful, I fell off a balcony and nearly got picked apart by Splicers, except that something even worse came along - a Little Sister and her Big Daddy.

Little Sisters are cute little girls who have been somehow completely psychologically desecrated into something from your worst nightmare.  I saw one picking at the dead corpse of a man like she was combing her Barbie.  These Little Sisters carry ADAM - I believe a genetic code, which everyone wants and needs.  Big Daddies are huge, robotic creatures that accompany Little Sisters and protect them from Splicers who want the ADAM.

It's a cruel, cruel world.  I have shocked Splicers, thumped  them with a wrench, shot them with a pistol and a machine gun, and ignited them with pyrokinesis.  I am supposed to be saving myself and Atlas has asked me to save his family.  This is the only good I can find in the game - to save myself and perhaps save Atlas and his family.  Why do I fight?  Mostly self-preservation, but in this unsustainable city, what good is it?  What am I fighting for - to return to the world above?  Will I be able to return afterwards?

The violence is a lot for me.  Seeing both the mutated appearance of the Splicers and the masses of bodies I slay takes its toll- and I want it to.  I have to take breaks from this game and make sure that I play it very slowly so that I can still be myself at the end.  I already try to look away when I loot the bodies.  What does that say of me?  Can I not even look at my own destruction?  Is it too painful?  It is very painful.  It is a burden to carry.  Yes, it's a game, but it is more than that - it is a reflection of myself.  I choose to play the game.  I choose to abide by their rules.  I could just say "I would never kill to survive like that.  Why murder 1,000 or more people just to survive?  I would rather die - that is my beginning and ending to the game."  But I don't say that, so I must keep myself accountable for what I do.