In the April Blogs of the Round Table, Corvus asks us to design a game about a social issue we personally find troubling. There have been several stellar entries already, which you should check out from the main hall or using the pull-down menu at the end. Be aware that the subject matter of some of these games is fairly disturbing and may not be appropriate for all readers. My own design is rated E, because it is a light little planting sim I’ll call Garden of Eden, which is a metaphor about sustainability and resource consumption.
In Garden of Eden, a player attempts to create the most aesthetically pleasing garden possible with a limited set of resources. The garden consists of several equally-sized patches of soil that the player chooses to seed with certain plants. Each plant requires a certain richness of dirt. The player can increase the richness of each patch’s dirt by adding topsoil or fertilizer. By adding these elements the player can enrich the soil; every season of growth depletes the soil. The garden receives a score every season. So long as this score increases which each successive garden, or decreases by a small amount, the game continues. If the score falls by too much for 2-3 consecutive seasons the player is fired and the game ends. An online leaderboard built into the game interface shows high scores.
At the beginning of the game, the player has 8 patches under his control, and 16 different kinds of plant that he can grow (4 for each different season). The player has a warehouse containing a large but finite number of sacks of fertilizer and topsoil. A set number of these sacks (more topsoil than fertilizer) are deposited in hoppers on screen each season, and the player can move them from the hopper to a patch in order to enrich that patch of soil. Topsoil can only enrich the soil to a certain level, but fertilizer can enrich it infinitely. The only limit on soil richness, therefore, is the number of fertilizer bags in the hopper. The richness of each patch can be represented to the player either as a number or by the color of the soil.
Each plant requires a certain minimum soil richness to grow, and at this level will produce small flowers and a baseline score. Plants can be placed in soil that is too poor, but they will die and give no score. Making the soil richer than the minimum will produce a plant with more and larger flowers, and a much higher score. The return on investment is non-linear: enriching by X amount will increase the score by X1.5 or more, up to the maximum available for a particular kind of plant. The minimum and maximum scores for each plant are known to the player, as is the amount of soil richness needed to achieve these scores.
Once the soil has been adjusted and the plants chosen for each patch, the plants grow to full bloom over the course of about 30 seconds. At this point the player can pause to admire his garden, or move to the next season. Higher-scoring gardens are always more interesting to look at — the plants themselves are larger, more detailed, and more beautiful. In addition, high-scoring gardens draw animals such as singing birds, deer, butterflies and bees, and human visitors who ooh and aah over the garden. Once a season is completed, the now-dead plants are removed into a rubbish bin. The player can choose to move them from there to a composting heap; after one additional season each plant left there will turn into one bag of topsoil. The intrinsic richness of the soil in each patch will decrease, and the cycle begins again.
With a high enough seasonal score or net score (added up across all seasons), new plants become available: these plants always have higher soil richness requirements, and also give higher scores with the same degree of non-linearity as soil enrichment. The player is shown when he will receive a new plant. The scores required are low initially so that new plants come rapidly, but as the game progresses it requires a higher and higher score to get a new plant. The player’s highest-scoring season is also recorded on an online leaderboard, but it is not stored permanently. The score is only on the board as long as the player’s game continues. The score is also removed temporarily after a few minutes (say, 10) of inactivity. The player sees the top ten, as well as his own position on the leaderboard and the 10 players who flank his score.
At a certain point, new patches become available, always delivered in groups of 16 — there are 5 extra groups of patches. Each time you receive one you get a one-time delivery of additional fertilizer and topsoil to the warehouse. In addition, because you now have more patches of soil overall, your hopper contains proportionally more fertilizer and topsoil sacks. This means that the maximum enrichment possible for a given patch of soil increases. It also means that more fertilizer and topsoil are removed from the warehouse each season. Something must be planted on every patch you have, and that plants on these new patches only count half as much towards your score as plants on your original patch. Additionally, the intrinsic soil richness of these patches depletes more quickly than the player’s original 8 patches. The player cannot choose to refuse new patches.
Obviously the fertilizer will eventually run out, and as the intrinsic strength of the soil gets depleted the return from composting will not match the investment of topsoil needed to grow anything. If the player manages things properly he can quite easily keep the scoring decline slow enough that the game continues indefinitely. Once a section of soil is completely depleted and the player has no more topsoil, the game runs on its own. The soil in the six different groups of patches becomes cracked, dry, and barren as the seasons continue. The original set of 8 patches expands to take the shape of North America; the other groups of 16 patches, as they dry out, fill in a Mercator projection map of the earth. Once this happens the game ends; the player loses. If, however, the player manages to run the game for a very large number of turns, then he is told that he has won, and his best garden score from that game is permanently entered in the leaderboard. At no point prior to winning the game is the player told that this outcome is possible.
Aims of the Design
The game is meant to describe the problem (not a solution) of sustainability. In the metaphor fertilizer represents non-renewable resources and topsoil represents mostly-renewable resources. The composting process represents recycling efforts — the player must make a conscious mental effort to compost, and the recovery of resources is not totally efficient, in that many resources are lost and composting only returns the less powerful topsoil, not new fertilizer. The mechanics associated with the additional patches of soil represent a global drain of resources from poorer to richer nations, here represented by the currently-worst offender (the USA).
The mechanics of the game are meant to encourage the player to value a high-scoring garden with large, rich plants that suck down resources. This value is communicated to the player by the direct presentation (more beautiful garden, more visitors, more interesting sounds) and also socially, via the ever-present leaderboard. The requirement that the player actively interact with the game in order to keep himself on the leaderboard is meant to increase the volatility of the board, but also to keep each individual game moving forward. Additionally, ever-increasing growth or carefully controlled losses are valued by the game (by allowing progression).
Contemporary values romanticize the idea of a continuous march of progress, in which our success as a society is measured by how much bigger or better our things are compared to the things previous generations had. This is not just a view that informs our attitude towards technology, although it is most evident there; it also informed our latest real-estate disaster and the associated plague of suburban sprawl. The game is meant to communicate the idea that these values are self-defeating in a world of finite resources. Even if a small area can be sustained at a high level, this can only be achieved by taking resources from other areas at the cost of making their standard of life lower. Ideally I would tune the game so that it would be possible for a dedicated and careful player to run a modest garden indefinitely. To achieve this kind of success, or to “win” the game, the player must reject the “bigger, better” values implicit in the design. Because the game means to infect the player with these values, the upshot is to make the player question himself.