Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Green Zombie

Ghosts are passé. Vampires have to have kung fu powers or teen angst to earn our attention. But zombies are one form of undead we've come to love more and more.

Recent zombie treatments have departed somewhat from the classic, lurching zombie archetype. For example, in Left 4 Dead, the "infected" are quite fast and have specialized abilities. But the word "zombie" continues to bring to mind the slow-moving, horde-forming, uniformly relentless flesh-eaters from the movies.

Why do such mindless monsters fascinate us so much? Ghosts and vampires at least exhibit human longing and suffering. Zombies just moan, shuffle and munch. The first Google result for "zombie fascination" leads to a page of the Zombie Survival & Defense Wiki that asks this question. One of the offered answers is that zombies reduce the world to a simple kill-or-be-killed state that society and technology, or even emotion and reason, cannot overcome.

I like this theory because of how well it explains the "bad guys," including zombies, in countless games. It doesn't matter whether you're shooting robots in Berzerk or zombies in Burn Zombie Burn; mindless, relentless, numerous targets provide run-and-gun gameplay that hasn't gone out of style.

Such games that pit one against many are, in a way, more believable when featuring zombies rather than intelligent and sophisticated enemies. You wouldn't expect the average person to last long against an army of soldiers, cyborgs, or vampires. But the slowness and stupidity of zombies give him or her a fighting chance. And maybe zombies are a more sympathetic foe. Vampires are powerful, arrogant and intelligent; zombies are clumsy, helpless, and have no idea how they got that way. On a typical day, do you feel more like the former or the latter? With their bulging eyes, green skin, and wayward limbs, zombies are even kind of cute.

Other reasons proposed on the Wiki for zombie appeal include the thrill of social upheaval and the chance to examine the meaning of life. Those are fine reasons, but I have another: zombies represent our fear of environmental threats. The root cause of a zombie problem is usually a pathogen, probably a man-made one. People are not only responsible for the genesis of the pathogen; they are also incapable of preventing its spread.

Real-world pathogens haunt our consciences because of our complacency in spreading them and our incompetence in stopping them. The Black Death spread far and quickly because of living conditions that facilitated its transmission and ignorance as to its nature. Today, confined animal feeding operations have been blamed for helping to spread the swine flu epidemic if not starting it outright. The H1N1 virus remains a concern despite advanced efforts to contain it.

Primal and uncontrollable, zombies carry out nature's wrath. They are the agents of Mother Earth, getting back at us for our environmental misdeeds. They are climate change personified, forcing us to give up our lavish and wasteful homes and lifestyles and go back to basics in order to survive. They also represent our fear of overpopulation; the resource needs of other people are so great that they may eventually eat us alive. Knowing how wasteful we have been in the West, we're worried about the teeming hordes in the East that now want cell phones and cars. We see a lifestyle-or-death struggle on the horizon pitting us, virtuous, sophisticated, and full of life, against them, barbaric, burdensome, and multiplying irresponsibly.

However, the earth has a way of reestablishing balance. If humanity becomes overwhelmed by zombiekind, other living organisms won't necessarily sit on the sidelines. The game Plants vs. Zombies offers hope that nature can correct a calamity as terrible as a zombie plague. If climate change is Mother Earth's attempt to reclaim what we've taken from other species, then Mother Earth may intervene on our behalf when a threat become too great for us to handle.

Writing this post has helped me understand our fascination with zombies. By being such primitive and primal reflections of us, they offer an intriguing perspective on our nature and environment. Like a devoted zombie fan, though, I am probably overthinking it. Zombies might represent an environmental problem much simpler than what I've raised above. We're pushing the capacities of our cemeteries, our "human landfills," and the dead just want a more sustainable place to rest.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Are Physical Media Here to Stay?

Digital distribution of games and movies grows in popularity, which gives me hope that that it will one day replace physical distribution altogether. You can already access large libraries of games for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii and PC without buying a single disc. How soon will we see game systems that don't accept physical media at all? Imagine PCs and consoles that don't have disc drives; all software would be downloaded via the Internet. Eliminating disc drives would conserve the mineral and energy resources used to manufacture, transport, and operate them. In an online-only world, companies may need to buy more servers to store and distribute content and consumers may use more electricity to download the content; I think, however, that the resource savings from abandoning physical media would be very significant.

The next time you are at a retail store, look at the shelves of movie and game discs and imagine them disappearing. Imagine all the resources that would be conserved if you could get all your entertainment choices at home.

I've been wondering about the possibility of the next Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo console going media-less. (PCs, having much larger software libraries, would be slow to follow). But a recent episode of Cheap Ass Gamer's podcast forces me to realize the minuteness of this possibility. In CAGcast episode 157, at 1:53:10, Stewart "Wombat" Nacht responds to a listener's fear of a total movement to digital distribution (which he thinks would mean the end of money-saving clearances and coupons) with the following:

"It's not gonna happen! Everything isn't going to move to digital distribution. There's too much space set aside in these big-box retailers for video games and there's so much invested in it and there's so many marketing dollars that are pushed towards it. The companies want their consoles to be sold in these retail stores, where they would lose so much money if they got rid of the disc-based media that they would probably stop selling the consoles in those stores ... Yes, I understand the technology is there to do digital distribution. Yes, it can be done. But it won't be done, because too many companies would have to eat too much money for it to happen."

David "CheapyD" Abrams then points out how impulse buying, important to game sales, would go away if you no longer could browse shelves of video games while you're at Wal-Mart to buy toothpaste or a plunger. I see his point. Even though I rarely buy games these days, I often give game shelves a quick look before I leave a retail store. That, of course, leads me to browse other departments at the store, increasing the chance that I'll buy something. A complete switch to digital distribution would mean the loss of a wing of merchandise. Retailers would fight hard to prevent it.

Shopping at markets is an ancient practice we're not likely to give up soon, even for the very recent addition of video games. But the rise in digital distribution tells me that companies and consumers share an interest in convenience and cost-cutting. This shared interest will keep digital distribution going and growing.

Despite the well-reasoned doubts expressed on CAGcast, I think we'll switch completely to digital distribution someday. It might not happen in time for the Xbox 361, PlaySt4tion, or Wiii, but it will happen. We'll keep buying consoles and PCs at stores, but we'll also increase our acceptance and adoption of digital distribution. There will come a time, perhaps when digital distribution accounts for half of all revenue in software sales, when publishers suddenly become interested in going exclusively online. Will retailers let them? At first, they won't; then, they'll open their own digital storefronts to partake in online distribution so they won't get left behind. The concept of physical media will then go the way of the floppy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Starflight: No Game Was Green Before

Spoiler warning: this article reveals story details from the Starflight games and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri.

Starflight enthralled me 20 years ago with a vast galaxy of perils and wonders to discover. As a child space captain trying not to get brutally killed, I probably overlooked the game's environmental message. The message is clear to me now in my eco-anxious adulthood, and I find it growing more relevant with each passing ice shelf.

You start the game trying to earn enough money to keep your ship profitable and your crew alive, but soon find that you have a bigger problem. Stars at one end of the galactic map are mysteriously flaring, wiping out all life on their planets. The phenomenon is spreading across the map and will hit your homeworld if you don't stop it in time.

When you finally look behind the wizard's curtain, you discover that the stellar flares are caused by the widespread use of Endurium as starship fuel. Endurium, the wondrous crystal that has allowed sentient races to reach the stars, means the death of those races if they continue to burn it.

The real-world parallel of Endurium is, of course, fossil fuels. Coal, petroleum and natural gas are wondrous substances hundreds of millions of years in the making. Incredibly rich in energy and easy to extract, refine, and combust, these fuels have helped humanity expand and develop very quickly. But extracting and refining them cause environmental problems locally, and burning them contributes significantly to global warming. The "stellar warming" in Starflight has exterminated some species and forced others to relocate; similarly, global warming may endanger many species on Earth and even displace human populations.

I asked Greg Johnson, a chief designer of the Starflight games, whether the environmental message was intentional. He replied that although it was, "that theme wasn’t as topical as it is today because we simply didn’t know as much about our effect on the environment." Despite its galactic scale and quirky aliens, Starflight could be the first, most prescient computer game about environmental impact.

By the time of Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula, Endurium has been banned and replaced with a fuel called Shyneum. Shyneum is safer to burn but a lot more difficult to obtain, which is a problem comparable to our real-world struggle to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The new threat to the galaxy is an enormous sentient entity that mind-controls other races. Caught up in the drama of the story, I had wrongly assumed that this entity was merely cruel and vindictive. "We and the other life-forms were akin to infections inside of its vast body," Greg points out, "and it would take over entire sentient races and use them essentially as antibodies."

That sounds a lot like the Gaia hypothesis that envisions Earth as an organism, reacting to its inhabitants' actions as it attempts to maintain a surface equilibrium. This hypothesis comes up again in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri when the planet you've settled emerges as a rival faction to correct your environmental offenses. The way in which you resolve the Gaian threat in Alpha Centauri contrasts quite interestingly with the blazing outcome of Starflight 2, and I will write about its environmental implications in a later post about the Civilization games.

Even while you're exploring a planet in your little rover, Starflight demonstrates the importance of awareness and education to environmentalism. The local flora and fauna are not merely cute little icons. When you scan a life-form, the readout informs you about its size, shape, and behavior. More than just "flavor text," the descriptions indicate the creature's value and role in the local ecosystem. You can capture specimens and sell them to the scientists on your homeworld, but only once per species. These activities remind me of real-life zoos and exploratory activities such as safaris and scuba diving. We might be doing (hopefully minor) damage to habitats by satisfying our curiosity, but what we learn may motivate us to preserve biodiversity and take faster action against global (or stellar) warming.

Incidentally, there's a lot more money to be made in Starflight by mining than capturing life-forms. The richest mineral deposits, however, tend to be far from creature habitats. There are also lots of mineral-dense planets where there is no life to disturb. Perhaps, in the actual future, humanity will be able to satisfy its mineral and energy needs by mining the moon and asteroids, leaving our wildlife alone to flourish.

The Starflight games, like earth science, challenge us to unfold mysteries. In the process of doing so, we challenge our assumptions about our ecosystem and the effect we have on it. We are forced to realize that living here means curbing our other interests, and external threats may be rooted in our own actions. "In both games," says Greg, "I suppose you could say the strongest theme is the one of perspective. We start out assuming something else is evil, only to discover that we simply didn’t understand the perspective of the 'other.'" Only by seeing from the perspective of the other can we fully see, and save, ourselves.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Climate Change Heeldraggers

The EPA has proposed findings that may lead to regulation of greenhouse gases. And it looks like the Washington figures who will lead the fight against such regulation will be Senators James Inhofe of Oklahoma and John Barrasso of Wyoming.

In Senate floor speeches, Inhofe and Barrasso spoke on how climate change legislation would worsen the current economic crisis. Their language evokes a vision of a jobless American landscape, as if the Obama administration or the public would simply allow such a doomsday situation to occur. They express doubt in the scientific evidence of global warming, yet have not offered evidence to support their predictions of massive job loss and debt should greenhouse gases be regulated.

They have gone so far as to stall the confirmation of an EPA official over the issue, saying that they still have unanswered questions on how EPA action on greenhouse gases would affect industries. But since EPA hasn't even proposed a course of action yet, I think those questions would be more appropriately addressed during the drafting and proposal of climate change legislation. I'm sure there will be plenty of discussion and debate opportunities when that time comes since every state could be significantly affected.

The pressure to act on global warming grows every year, as does the evidence. Inhofe and Barrasso could serve their constituents in ways better than dragging their heels as the country finally gives in to the pressure. They can more precisely determine how greenhouse gas prevention programs would affect industries and prepare those industries for the changes ahead. They can find solutions that attain a balance, and perhaps synergy, between industrial production and greenhouse gas control. With their tactics of delay and denial, they are setting up their constituents to become unprepared opponents rather than participating partners in this new environmental movement.