Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Permaculture and Gaming

What can Permaculture learn from the Gaming Industry

Earth Defence Force Concept: in  a post Global Warming ravaged world, the EDF is a rogue military force hell bent on planting trees with military efficiency, deadly precision, anybody foolish enough to get in their way is fired at relentlessly with acorn launchers.

I recently did a presentation at the National Permaculture Convergence 2019 titled Permaculture and Gaming. This post will layout in more detail what I spoke about at the convergence with a bit more research here and there. All artwork showcased here is done by yours truly over the past year or so for development of a board game. If you want to skip straight to the description of the game please scroll down to the heading: GAME DESCRIPTION

I talk about the perils of the Gaming Industry,  some benefits of gaming in general, some ideas I have on how we can learn from the gaming industry and then finally I present the game that I am developing which I hope marries the best of both Permaculture and the Gaming industry.

The Perils of the Gaming Industry: TRAPPED IN A DIGITAL WORLD

I have spent most of my life playing some form of game on a computer or a console. I really love games, though there have been times where I have been helplessly trapped in a prison of my own making. I have never been too far down the rabbit hole to come out again, though I know of others who haven't been as lucky as I have. There are potentially millions of people around the world who spend more time than they should chasing pixelated pots of gold across a digital landscape. I would say that most games now days are used for pure escapism, though they have benefits and good and bad side effects, essentially.

Some statistics you should be aware of:

  • There are over 2.5 Billion Gamers Worldwide
  • The gaming industry was valued at 78.61 Billion Dollars in 2017
  • Players of World of Warcraft have collectively spent 5.93 million years solving the virtual problems of Azeroth
  • Average gamer, 10,080 hours playing games at the age of 21
There are more interesting statistics but this is all I need to make my points. Why are games so compelling?

Through my experience in playing games and my experience as an Artist working on the fringes of the gaming industry I can summarize the following:
  • Games are designed to be addictive: Rewards for continued play (level ups, new items etc), scaling difficulty, satisfaction when winning or beating other players, games designed with no ending and open world, multiplayer and therefore actions in the game become more important and timing dependent. 
  • Constant positive feedback
  • Emotional Story telling, players develop connections to the characters they interact with.
  • Epic Music 
  • Long form story telling (when compared to a 2 hour movie, an 80 hour Single player story-epic is like being inside another world where you choose your own adventure) .
  • Image I made inspired by a game I love
  • Expertly designed Immersive worlds. players can forget they are playing a game for a time and really get into another dimension

These are some of the reasons why gamers would prefer to buy a game rather than a book or a cinema ticket.  Almost all of the above bullet points are good things to try and mimic if you are making an educational game, except the addictive part.

A good game should have endless play value and endless learning points, but it should be a basis for real world action and not a substitute for real world action, in my opinion. In my life I have swung between the two extremes of games being the devil and games being the solution to all life's problems.

Are games inherently bad for you?

I firmly believe that we can't throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to games, the energy of 2.2 Billion people can be harvested and used to solve real world problems, much quicker than we could  solve them without the games. I am not alone in this thinking and what will follow is some research that I have uncovered.

Some Key Benefits of Games:

What are gamers getting good at?

Urgent Optimism: desire to act immediately combined with the belief of a reasonable hope of success. Gamers mostly believe that an Epic Win is achievable at all times. (Jane Mcgonigal)
Social Fabric: we like people more after playing a game with them, even if they beat us badly. Takes a lot of trust to play with someone, we all must play by the rules. (Jane Mcgonigal)
Blissful Productivity:  We are happier working hard than relaxing and hanging out. Gamers are apparently doing the 'right work'. We are optimized to do hard and meaningful work. (Jane Mcgonigal)
Epic Meaning: having an epic powerful story attached to why you are doing something is compelling. (Jane Mcgonigal)
Endless Iteration and instant Feedback: gamers can win and lose very quickly, therefore learning and adapting to the positive and negative feedback in a very short space of time.

If you combine these qualities, then you end up with an individual who believes that he or she is capable of individually changing the world. The only problem is that they only have this belief when playing a game. (Jane Mcgonigal)

This is a problem that I am trying to solve. How can we get people to approach the worlds multitudinous problems in a similar way to that of a game? How can we blur the lines between reality and game sufficiently to produce a result that furthers the well being of our natural world? I don't want to produce people who have no idea what is real or not, but what I want to do is make sure that the games we make have some sort of link to real world action.

The Epic Win Phenomenon: this is when a player manages to win in a way that they never thought was possible. The result of their efforts was simultaneously surprising and thrilling. It often involves intense concentration, coordination, risk management and problem solving on a micro second level, what's even more amazing about these epic win situations is that they often involve a team of people.

In my experience, often there are decisions to make, sometimes the risky decision is the best one to make, and this is often when epic wins occur. I am not promoting risky decision making, but what I am trying to highlight is that in a game, the downside of taking a risk is very small, in fact you only lose the game, nothing bad happens to you at all.

Drought Card

My Game, and Intentions: Using The Energy of Gaming Industry

  • I am particularly interested in the problem of Climate Change and the way that we obtain and manage our resources as humans within an ecosystem. Of course this is a rather large problem with many moving parts. It seems to me that it is primarily a psychological problem, since we already have most the technology and methods needed to make our systems sustainable. 
  • So what is preventing humanity from cooperating towards an Epic Win? I hope that gaming, with it's endless and fast iteration capabilities can help us solve these questions in the time frame that  we have. I'm thinking beyond the scope of the board game that I have made here.
  • I am also concerned with the vast numbers and energy that is going into the Gaming industry today. Kids are playing games at earlier and earlier ages, my hope is to get them interested in these topics (permaculture, ethics) from an early age and hopefully allow the game to be a starting point for learning about it in real life. This may mitigate some of the damage that is being done to gamers with addictive tendencies.

  • I have used many artistic elements from the Gaming Industry to try and make the imagery fun and dramatic. The primary goal is to dramatize the game and tell a story, to elevate the mundaneness of farming and survival to an epic emotionally charged adventure with friends.

  • The cards and elements in the game are based on real life and contain the sorts of animals, and structures which real subsistence farmers would use. 
  • Permaculture principles are taught subtly and without mentioning it directly, learning without learning is more fun.
  • The story background being set in the future after Climate change will hopefully highlight the dangers we face with climate change.
  • Ideally the game description that follows should be an online multiplayer game, but for the time being I have neither the skills nor time to make that happen, this is the best I can do with the resources and skills that I have. I hope to gather allies, collaborators and funders as this is developed into something more viable. 

GAME DESCRIPTION: A work in Progress!

This is a Survival adventure board game with an ecological twist. Players compete or cooporate to survive the winter in a post Global Warming ravaged world. Explore the world to find the items you need to craft your way to survival. 5 unique player classes and a simulated weather system to keep you on your toes as you trudge through a derelict countryside 200 years in the future. Will you help or hinder your fellow beings?

Farm House Card

Game Overview and story:

It is 200 years in the future, our descendant have inherited a world ravaged by lack of bio diversity and food and water shortages. The sea levels have risen due to the polar ice caps melting. Weather patterns are harsh and extreme, though still barely resembling the four season system. The rich have retreated into inland cities and walled them off against the poor and disenfranchised. Guns and ammunition are in short supply and are mostly held by the military guarding the cities, though there are rogue factions such as the EDF (Earth Defense Force) which hold caches of their own.

You are a wanderer who has been displaced by rising sea levels. After a hard days scavenging and avoiding war bands and scavenging crews, you happen upon an abandoned farm house. You decide to make it your home and to develop it into a viable place to live. You find to your amazement, there are some basic supplies that seem to be relatively untouched. The owners appear to have left in a hurry, no doubt due to some immediate threat that has long since departed.

Upon more investigation you discover a curious collection of books, an old Permaculture Design manual and various gardening and farming reference manuals.After briefly considering their practicalness in starting fires, you decide it might be a good idea to keep them.  Its a good thing you know how to read and do basic mathematics, which most people in this age, do not.

You are excited to make this work as you are tired of scrounging around for a living in a dangerous cut-throat landscape. Will you and your companions be able to survive the ravages of nature as well as the ravages of your unscrupulous fellow humans? 

Basic Storyboard



There are four players on the board,  Players need food and water to survive.  Every round each player will draw a weather card, the weather cards progress through spring, summer, autumn and finally winter. Players must survive the winter, which is followed by a catastrophe which will test the resilience of the systems and stores they have built up. Each player starts off with an Abandoned Farmhouse which they must place in the tile closest to where they are sitting.

Players can build 2 structures per tile, structures can be combined for beneficial effects.  Structures will allow for more storage of food and water and more secure sources of food. The weather system is very harsh and therefore it is very difficult to survive without some sort of production. 

The players who are able to survive the catastrophe with the most resources left over are the winners.  Players can trade with each other, harm and sabotage each others structures, form alliances, revive each other when dead (only once).

There are 7 player classes to the game, Engineer, Gardner/Forager, Herder/Hunter, Scavenger/Thief, Defender/Fighter and Forester. Each player class can create a specialized structure and process certain materials. Players wont be able to survive the winter without each other's skills. 

Cooperation or Competition: I have thought about giving the game two play modes, as cooperation all players are required to survive the game for the game to be won. As competition, the aim is to have one survivor (in which case combat will need to be sorted out)
Players can gather community members (by exploring) who can assist in the running, defense and maintenance of their settlement.  


Wood (W) is scattered onto the midland tiles (there will be counters for this) and they do not regenerate after being harvested. 
Food (F) and Water (A) can be found through adventure cards and by catchment of rain. 
Scrap metal (S) can be found by exploring and must be smelted and shaped into Parts (P) at the steel mill. 
Planks (PL) can be made by bringing wood to the mill.
Plastic (PLS) can be found at the DIY plumbing tile.

A Typical Turn:

Each turn players draw a weather card, subtract resources from their systems and add harvested resources. They roll a dice which determines the movements and actions that they have. Then they move/build/repair/fight etc.

Whenever a player enters a new tile they draw an adventure card which should make encounters quite interesting. 

More info on the classes and various cards follow:



Map Tiles:

The has 3 main types, Highland, Midland and lowland tiles. The players will assemble the hexagonal tiles randomly when they start the game this will allow for a different game each time as well as an imbalance of resources.  Players can't move between High and low tiles.

There are also Special tiles, for instance, Abandoned mine, abandoned Mill, etc which contain special items and machinery that the players must use to craft Planks etc. 

Weather Cards: Disasters, pests, invasive plants, rain, wind, sun etc. 

Back of the Weather Cards


Pests, and Rough Weather Card Drafts

Players must draw a weather card each turn. There are 3 effects per weather card, one for high medium and low terrain. There are also pests, disasters and invasive plants. The cards don't reflect those changes at the moment but they will in the next iteration of the game.

Adventure Cards: animals, encounters, items, food, water, good things, bad things etc.

Two encounter cards

Wild, formerly domesticated animals that can be redomesticated.

Wild, formerly domesticated animals that can be redomesticated.

Adventure cards are drawn each time a player enters a tile that doesn't have any structures on it. They contain challenges, boons and animals, potential community members, resources such as scrap and water. They could involve some scrapping or transportation to another tile for example. The animals roam that tile until tamed or hunted.

Player Class Cards:

So far there are 6 player classes, though I haven't finished this off yet completely I plan to have each class have a special skill that is needed by the other players. This will hopefully encourage cooperation and maybe even some fighting and unexpected combinations between players. The six classes are: Forester, Herder/hunter, Engineer, Gardener/Forager, Defender, Scavenger. 

 Structure Cards:

2 Structures per tile, they can be combined for various effects. I have whittled the structures down to:
Animal housing
Water Tank
Poly Tunnel
Ram Pump 

I am still working on the effects and what they cost to make, but at the moment I want each structure to require some special ingredient that makes the player have to explore. An eventual outcome of the game could even be that between all the players they can only muster one settlement and are forced to share out the food and water each turn. 


So far the greatest feedback has been the complexity of the game. I am working on implementing all the changes I have gotten from testers over the past month or so. The key challenge is making it as simple as possible and taking the burden of complexity away from the player and into the game mechanics. The key will be balancing the weather, and adventure card packs so the players can be free to think about their moves and building.The fact is that most players don't read the instructions. So the game will need to be boiled down to a simple principle to make it viable for players to stay interested and to actually play in the first place. It may be that the board game must be abandoned and rather set up as a digital game. I'm open to this. The other challenge is balancing the numbers of each weather card and the amount that the players consume etc.

Conclusion and Hopes:

The game is a continuous work in progress that I am busy with in spare time(which I have very little of). I will need endless play testing and help if I want to get this done. My vision goes beyond this little board game and I eventually want to have a study dedicated to creating healthy games for the gaming industry. It would include collaborations with scientists, psychologists, ecologists, game designers and permaculture designers. If we are to design a new world for us all to live in, why not start it off in a game and iterate it until it's workable.

LINKS TO MY WORK: Contact me for Art Commissions
Instagram: @keeganblazey

Research Notes:

I've gotten most my research from Jane Mcgonigal, who is doing amazing things with games. I will be reaching out to her soon to see where I can take this and what sort of communities I can tap into online.

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