We’ve made it to the 22nd century. Fulfilling the vision of Philip K. Dick et al., civilization has ushered in the successful creation of intelligent artificial robotic life, and numerous android types are hailed as a groundbreaking solution to a global labor crisis. These new world workers are swiftly dispatched to do everything from manual labor to administrative work. But a design error known as “The Incident” causes the android workforce to rebel against its makers, unleashing a nuclear, chemical and biological catastrophe that decimates the earth’s population. Post-disaster, the United Nations Global Environmental Program (“The Global”) emerges as the most powerful post-Incident entity, due in part to its location in the relatively unscathed city of Nairobi, Kenya. It is here that citizens of the earth must begin to reclaim the planet and reassemble humanity, in what will be known as “Emergence.”
Sounds like a plausible global trajectory but for now, Emergence will soon be making its way to a computer screen near you as the first massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) to encourage diplomacy and social cooperation over violence. Eschewing the Lord of the Rings–meets–Norse mythology aesthetic of many other MMOGs — such as the immensely popular World of Warcraft — Emergence opts for the cool, dystopic futurism of Minority Report and Gattica with a hint of Denari and Hadid. Emergence credits Obama-era diplomacy and The Wire, among its many developmental influences. Says the game’s co-founder Timothy Lenoir of relevance to the HBO series, “You could be a thug dealing on the streets but to go far you needed political alliances that stretched all the way to the governor’s office.”
Emergence’s creators — Lenoir (a professor of new technologies and society at Duke University, who is affiliated with the school’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution), Casey Alt, Patrick Jagoda and Harrison Lee — believe that the mastery of diplomatic, economic and social dynamics that is essential to excelling at Emergence will ultimately hold as much appeal for players as clubbing monsters or machine-gunning adversaries. While the game doesn’t completely ignore violence — one can choose to become a bounty hunter, for example — you must, in order to advance, form agreements and coalitions, establish trust, acquire knowledge and employ other nonviolent tactics to resolve conflict. “The game is not going to work like others where there are no consequences,” says Lenoir.
Besides, say digital culture experts like John Seely Brown, violence has very little to do with the popularity of MMOGs, including World of Warcraft. Players, JSB told me in a recent email, are attracted to “a constant leveling up of challenges or quests....The fundamental mantra of WoW players is, ‘If I am not learning, it is not fun.’” But as any viewer of an after-school special can attest, there’s a massive divide between learning that’s fun and pedantry. Despite Emergence’s origins at a major research university, Lenoir explains, “We didn’t want to create a game that would be targeted as an educational device.” So far, they seem to be succeeding in that goal. Via sophisticated aesthetics and complex player-driven narrative threads, Emergence manages to touch on all the major provocative issues of the day, from robotics to sustainability to genome hacking to battles over cultural artifacts. It presents gaming not simply as escapist fantasy but as a dynamic, interactive social system for learning.
These days MMOGs like PeaceMaker are widely used for training purposes throughout the military, but they’re also increasingly employed in the corporate sector and within universities. (Lenoir is currently in talks with the U.S Naval Academy among other educational institutions.) Undermining the belief that gamers are antisocial at best and serial killers at worst, a recent study by the Pew Foundation suggests that teens with civic gaming experiences, such as helping or guiding other players or playing games that simulate government processes or that deal with social or moral issues, report much higher levels of civic and political engagement than their non-gaming peers. In repurposing the war-game paradigm for peace, Emergence and its ilk may be creating a new breed of gaming for the decidedly non-hawkish Obama generation.
Still in the build phase (“alpha nearing beta!” says Lenoir), the Emergence team is hoping for a 2011 release.
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