SimCity-style documentary game explores implications of Canadian oil boom.

The second round of Sim City-inspired documentary game Fort McMoney, exploring Canada’s exploitation of its Athabasca oil sands, kicks off today (Jan 27).

The game, revolving around a virtual version of the oil boom region of Fort McMurray in Alberta, attracted 309,000 unique visitors, for 350,000 site visits, in

the first round that unfolded from Nov 25 to Dec 22.The work is the latest creation from French journalist David Dufresne whose past co-credits include award-winning Prison Valley about a Colorado town which is home to 13 prisons. 

Fort McMoney is one of the first interactive works combining documentary material with gaming technology.

Canadian multi-platform production house TOXA and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), a major force in interactive digital content, co-produced the work in association with French-German broadcaster Arte.

One of Dufresne’s main aims for the work was to create debate around Canada’s exploitation of its tar sands in Alberta that has been ramped over the past decade.

More than 1.5 million barrels of oil a day are currently extracted in the Fort McMurray area. This is set to rise to five million in the coming 20 years. Fort McMurray’s population has increased from a few thousand to more than 100,000 people over the last ten years.

The downside of the boom has been spiralling living costs, creating disparities of wealth, as well as the destruction of natural habitats. Increased oil dependence has also pushed up emissions of greenhouse gasses.

The game sets missions and also invites players to take charge of the day-to-day running of a virtual boomtown and oil industry, created out of interviews and panoramas shot in real-life Fort McMurray.

In the first round, participants voted to cut output in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 58%. The upshot of this was that the population dropped to 4,000 people from 40,000; household income fell to $9,287 from $192,707 and unemployment soared to 28%.

Dufresne spent 60 days over two winters filming in and around Fort McMurray alongside long-time collaborator, photographer Philippe Brault, interviewing inhabitants including the local mayor, councillors, environmentalists and oil workers. This footage was then used to create the game.

“When you’re making something interactive you need to shoot a lot more than when your making a linear production… sometimes you have to shoot things which are not interesting visually but are essential for the immersive experience,” explains Dufresne. “You have to be several things at once, a director, games developer.” 

When the game is live, Dufresne swaps hats to act as games master, answering queries, fixing bugs, fuelling debates and overseeing forums.

“Fort McMoney created a virtual community in just a few days. That was one of the big unknowns: Were players going to take hold of the town? Transform it? Control it? From day one, we knew that aspect was off to a good start,” says Dufresne of the first round.

One of the main challenges, he says, is sustaining interest as the game proceeds.

“Of course, there’s erosion from one episode to the next. The more we move ahead in time, the harder it is to attract people. And yet, we saw that anticipation, real anticipation, was growing over the course of the episodes. Some players were so impatient they tried to guess the unknown urls to access new sequences,” reveals Dufresne. 

Players, he says, logged on from all over the world. The trilingual work was supported by media partnerships in Canada, France and Germany.

“It’s worth mentioning some 20% of the players were German-speakers which is down to three factors, a media partner that played the game to the max; having a German-speaking games master and the importance of environmental issues in Germany,” says Dufresne.

The game also sparked interest in Fort McMurray itself.

“Suncor, a Canadian oil industry leader, encouraged its blog readers – some of whom are employees – to go onto Fort McMoney. Forums defending the industry’s viewpoint have appeared in the press. The employees of several companies and residents of Fort McMurray have written to me personally,” says Dufresne.

“A debate has begun, but we need to work to make it a more far-reaching debate in parts 2 and 3. In part 1, pro-environmentalists were quicker to enter into discussions than the pro-productivists. A confrontation of viewpoints is still one of our objectives,” he adds.

Other NFB productions due to go live this year include Stan Douglas’ Circa 1948, a non-linear exploration of an inner-city Vancouver neighbourhood after World War Two, and the skateboard culture-inspired Devil’s Toy Redux