Malthus as apocalyptic gamer?

By Anthony Richardson

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Cities and neo-Malthusian limits to growth

The foundational tenet of ecological economics is that limits to growth exist, and they provide a check on infinite economic growth. This understanding applies to cities, as complex systems, in three interconnected ways.

The first, and most obvious, is the finite nature of many physical resources such as petrochemicals, potable water, farmland, copper, etc – this finitude implies an eventual limit to their use at some point in the future.

A second related implication of any city’s reliance on physical resources comes to the fore when we look at cities through a systems lens. All cities, just like other complex systems, are complex adaptive systems; an academic term which describes the way our cities continually change and adapt in often unpredictable ways. All such complex adaptive systems need energy to maintain themselves (ie to drive their adaptability) or to grow and become more complex. If we take away, or even disrupt temporarily, the energy inputs which allow our cities to exist and function then we risk unpredictable consequences, including collapse.

Finally, there is a third limit to the growth of the complexity and scale of such complex systems in terms of, and driven by, their own ever-increasing complexity. The historian Joseph Tainter has written (1990) on the intersection of energy and systems complexity, arguing that societies increase the complexity of their social and technological systems to address new problems that present themselves. Examples include the ongoing development of medical technology; the development of our global and industrialised agriculture; and the ever-increasing technological and logistical challenges involved in accessing the oil reserves we need to power our increasingly complex societies.

The problem is that, as the second point above states, any increase in system complexity requires a corresponding increase in energy use. As complexity increases, the ‘return on investment’ (benefits gained from complexity minus the energy costs involved) falls. At some point, argues Tainter, the return on investment falls to such a point where we can no longer justify the energy costs needed to implement and maintain such complexity; this is the third ‘Limit to Growth’ in terms of systems complexity and the corresponding energy requirements.

The inertia of ‘what is’

However, within industrialised societies, such ideas struggle to challenge the doxic power (Bourdieu, 1995) of mainstream growth-focussed economics. Resource limits are largely invisible, and there is a great deal of denial, whether unconscious or conscious, around such challenges. We don’t want to think about the uncomfortable implications…

Playing games: resources and complexity

This is where games come in: anyone who has ever played a real time strategy (RTS) game like the classics Age of Empires or StarCraft understands intrinsically how energy and resource management is crucial to success – or even survival. The first step in most ‘building’ or strategy games is to find, secure and exploit resources, thus making the development of organisational and technological complexity possible – games bring that elemental calculus to the fore and make it obvious. Given our widespread cultural blindness regarding the importance, and fragility, of the resources we need to maintain our complex urban systems, I think that such games have interesting implications for how we think about these same systems.

More recently, there has been an increasing interest in the concept of economic scarcity as a game mechanic (Wiles, 2015). In particular, there has been a huge surge in the popularity in neo-Malthusian computer and console games in which the relationship between system complexity, energy and collapse is central to the gameplay.

Thus, games like The Long Dark; Banished; Dawn of Man; Sir, You are Being Hunted; Vigor; or even the perennial favourite Minecraft (in survival mode) are all games in which resource scarcity drives the conflict and thus the dramatic power of such narratives. In many of these games ‘victory’ means survival in the face of endemic and inescapable resource shortages – and often this survival is merely a temporary reprieve from the inevitable collapse.

Future directions

My current research interests include exploring the value of ‘imagining the unimaginable’ as a motivator of social and political behaviour change – and I see games as perhaps the best artform for doing this. They can be models for imagining possible future scenarios around climate change, Peak Oil or social and technological collapse so that these possibilities can be explored within popular culture.

Thus in 2014-15 I was involved in a research project on the effectiveness of the ABM (Actor Based Modelling) program Fierce Planet (designed by Dr Liam Magee from UWS) in teaching theories of sustainability, including Malthusian population dynamics (Richardson, Magee & Pepperell, 2015; 2016).

Most recently, I co-presented a panel at Pax2019, the largest games convention in Australia, on the attractions of apocalyptic gaming.

Building on this, as part of the 2019 ANZSEE conference I aim to explore the implications of the highly successful PC game Banished as a model of neo-Malthusian limits to growth. In this game a player is responsible for the social and technological development (aka the increasing complexity) of a mediaeval town in which the management of finite (and always insufficient) resources such as wood, stone and food is crucial. One misstep in the allocation of such resources and the system collapses… the game is over.

Yet what can such a depressing game, in which ‘success’ is never more than temporary, teach us about the reality of our complex contemporary cities?

The future area of enquiry I want to explore is to what extent the increasing popularity of these narratives of scarcity and collapse constitutes an opportunity to challenge dominant social and cultural orthodoxies around growth, resource scarcity and collapse.


References

  • Bourdieu, P. (trans. Nice, R.) (1995) Outline Of A Theory Of Practice, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, CUP, Cambridge
  • Richardson, A., Magee, L. & Pepperell, N. (2015) 'Fierce Planet: Sustainability Learning through Gaming and Simulation', refocus + renew: The 2015 Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) Conference, Deakin University, Geelong, 21-23/10/15
  • Richardson, A., Pepperell, N. & Magee, L. (2016) 'The Lucky Country vs. a Fierce Planet: Gamification and Simulation as Tools for Teaching Complex Social Theories of Sustainability', Cities & Successful Societies: 2016 The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) Conference, The Australian Catholic University, 28/11 - 1/12/16
  • Tainter, J. (1990) The Collapse of Complex Societies, CUP, Cambridge
  • Wiles, W. (2015) ‘Trading your gun for milk: welcome to the Hunger Games’, Aeon magazine, 22/1/15, https://aeon.co/essays/trading-your-gun-for-milk-welcome-to-the-hunger-games, accessed 6/5/19

Anthony Richardson is a neo-Malthusian (limits to growth) theorist. His PhD was focused on energy use, thermodynamics and the collapse of complex systems. He has a strong interest in the intersection between energy use and cities, and the problematic ethical and social justice implications of the contemporary focus on urban resilience. At the same time, he is an unrepentant gamer with a deep interest in the connections between systems theory, games, and neo-Malthusian collapse.

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