The scene: The black-gold boom town of Fort McMurray, Alberta. It’s winter. Average temperatures in this northern Canadian city hover around -17 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit); but today it’s much colder, -30 degrees. A desolate wind whistles across the wide, slushy highway. You just watched two raggedy men pick empty cans and bottles out of the dumpster behind a squat apartment building. Now you have a choice: to follow them into the city, then veer off into City Hall to attend a City Council meeting, where an agitator disrupts the proceedings to call for better traffic conditions in the congested city; or hang out a little longer by the side of the road with some questionable characters as they drink themselves warm. Or you could consult your dashboard, where you can check your influence levels and debate whether you think these men should have been warned about the job prospects in the oil patch, declining steadily as foreign laborers arrive ready to work for union-busting wages.
Welcome to Fort McMoney, an interactive web documentary designed to raise awareness of the conflicts among industrial, political and environmental interests in the development of oil. The film slash video game, which debuted in late 2013 and takes place over multiple weeks, is coproduced by Canada’s National Film Board, Montreal’s Toxa and the French/German TV Network Arte. The film’s unsubtle title indicates the stakes: visit the town, gather your evidence, and take a stand on whether Fort McMurray, the canary in the oil mines, should be allowed to develop unbridled. Your success at navigating the game is measured in terms of influence: every person you meet, every place you visit, and each survey you answer in the game raises your influence levels, giving you more leverage in the game’s regular “referenda” on oil politics. This round’s debate topic — Should Oil Be Nationalized? – currently has over 18,000 votes for and 6,645 votes against.
The docu-game is an intelligent and well timed intervention into the North American oil debate. Canada’s headlines pit the “ethics” of Canadian oil against the environmental activism of its deterrents. President Obama’s decision over whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline (which would transport oil from Alberta to the U.S.) looms.
The combination of documentary and video game attracts diverse media audiences (for instance, I don’t play video games, but I love documentaries) and the choose-your-own-adventure aspect demonstrates more directly differing points of view and the effects of various decisions. From a distribution perspective, the game is genius: Fort McMoney’s tri-national media partners Le Monde (France), The Globe and Mail (English Canada) and Radio Canada (French Canada), and Süddeutsche (Germany) are not just mouthpieces but interactive participants, as journalists from each media outlet play the game and report on their experiences. These media also pledge to publish substantive features on the politics of oil. Connective media platforms are in on the act: players get about 10 minutes of free viewing/play and then are asked to register, either through their Facebook accounts (bye-bye, personal information) or via email addresses; and the “help desk” is essentially the director David Dufresne’s Twitter feed.
If Fort McMoney’s innovation and intelligence is clear, the ultimate intention of the game remains an open question. Writing about his creation via The Huffington Post in November 2013, film director Dufresne is confident that the viewer/player’s experience will be transformative. “The world’s future is being shaped by energy issues. And gaming is a lever for raising awareness,” he asserts. “The Fort McMoney experience will be a kind of web-era platform for direct democracy.”
We need not rehearse here the problems inherent in the celebratory rhetoric of interactive media as a panacea for social and political blights. Regardless, whether intended as promotional hype or sincere evaluation, Dufresne’s claim to direct democracy deserves careful scrutiny. Matthew Hindman’s The Myth of Digital Democracy (Princeton UP, 2008) makes a compelling case for the failure of the Internet to develop the idealized public sphere. Hindman redefines the digital divide from a hierarchy of access to a hierarchy of voice, where even the most compelling ideas can be ignored, hamstrung by economic, social or algorithmic barriers to information. One hopes that Fort McMoney’s creative approach can be sufficiently amplified by its media partners and players to cut through the noise.
Perhaps a more dire problem lies not with Fort McMoney’s medium but with its message. Fort McMoney presents a vision of a sad city stretched to its limits by the ebbs and flows of oil. While the game’s players debate whether taxes should be higher, workers better treated, and environmental concerns alleviated, there is no space to say, “Stop. This shouldn’t be happening at all.” The film does not (cannot?) challenge the political, economic or cultural conditions that gave rise to this carbon democracy in the first place. Nor does it offer alternatives, asking what political possibilities might exist, what other arrangements of people, money and energy might be assembled, that could help foster less destructive situations.
This line of argument is not intended as critique. Fort McMoney presents a more radical scenario and more compelling overtures to debate than our dominant political parties and institutions have managed. The docu-game is not meant as policy prescription but as a stimulant to attention and reflection. In this sense it is a welcome intervention into the bread-and-circus routine in North American oil politics. But if democracy is understood merely as a set of conversations and referenda over already existing arrangements, this falls short. One hopes that Fort McMoney will inspire us to do more than vote for a slightly less dystopic vision of Canada’s canary.