Ontario public television network pulls video game it funded after criticism from oil industry

pipe trouble
Screen capture Pipe Trouble

This is a guest post by Hugh Alter, who is interested in both politics and gaming.

Earlier this year, TVO, Ontario's public broadcaster, funded a documentary about pipeline construction in Peace River and supported a companion game, Pipe Trouble. The game's designers pitch it as an effort to "prompt larger mainstream discussion" on issues around pipeline construction, and it certainly got media attention. Sun TV's Ezra Levant railed against the "anti-pipeline game," as a chyron ran across the bottom of the screen calling it "TAXPAYER FUNDED PROPAGANDA." TVO has started an independent review and pulled it from their website. Alberta Premier [Canadian equivalent of governor] Allison Redford has protested the game and Kathleen Wynne, the ostensibly environmentalist premier of Ontario, has also voiced complaint.

They needn't have bothered. The game is hardly a smash hit - it has been purchased somewhere between 100 and 500 times on Android, and one of those few was me. But beyond its sales numbers,

if any of its critics had bothered to play the game they'd see it, apparently by accident, works almost as an endorsement of pipeline development.

Pipe Trouble (Gameplay) from Craig Small on Vimeo.

The game tasks the player with laying pipelines, struggling to come in under budget and on time. The player's choices are on a short timer and limited by the semi-random pieces of pipe you have available, not to mention finicky touch controls, making it quite difficult. Your success or failure is often up to chance. What pipe you have and where protesters appear end up driving the player's choices, and the game's supposed neutral stance on the the politics is undermined by the game mechanics.

Your inevitable repeated failures stack up and convey the impression that pipeline construction is always right at the cusp of defeat- a single rushed move, a single misplaced piece, and protesters manage to shut down your project, costs and fines spiral out of control, and bombers destroy your work. It casts environmentalists as an implacable but random force that, sooner or later, will defeat you. Losses are often caused by little black-clad figures planting bombs on your pipe, destroying the whole thing. It was this feature that many critics attacked, seemingly in the belief that bombings were the goal, not a punishment for failure. Not building pipes is never an option in the context of the game as the only conflict is between an oil company trying to build something and environmentalists destroying it or delaying it until it's not profitable. Leaks must be patched, and a sub-par pipeline is also a lost level.

This is a bizarre inversion - companies which extract oil sands gas are almost always able to wait out, buy out, or bypass protesters, as they have in Peace River. Government at all levels tends to let off corporations easy in the name of development. Alberta in particular works mostly off of regulatory capture, and one of the biggest oil spills in Canadian history stands to end in just 1.5 million dollars in fines after questions of government collusion with industry to reduce oversight. Real pipeline bombings are vanishingly rare, and have rarely resulted in any damage whatsoever. Anti-environmental critics complaining about the game should consider thanking Pop Sandbox. They've made a game that leads you sympathize with the hardships of pipeline builders, always pressed for time and money, and hate the arbitrary, capricious, violent protesters plaguing them.

There is a real argument to be had about the balance between developing resources, protecting the environment around them, alternate energy sources and the limits of development. Games are a perfect medium for encouraging their players to understand and balance all the competing arguments, if they are fairly represented. But despite the developer's intent of raising "real-world issues surrounding the exploitation of natural gas" the game abdicates any of these concerns and turns into a simple click race which, for educational content, rewards you with a few seconds of audio from news broadcasts between levels. This failure to approach the actual topic is what makes it so surprising to see the enthusiasm with which Pipe Trouble was attacked. It may not work very well as a game, but it's great as an object lesson in the immediate willingness of government and media to leap to the defense of pipelines, resource exploitation, and oil and gas companies. Whether they need defending or not.

Tags: Oil | Tar Sands