Immersed in the oil sands

Fort McMoney screen shot

By Rachelle Stein-Wotten

“Fort McMurray, city of excess,” says the voice-over in the trailer for Fort McMoney. The documentary video game, produced by the National Film Board and the Montreal-based game developer TOXA, allows users to take control of the boomtown, and determine the virtual fate of the oilsands.

Combining real footage and interviews with Fort Mac residents, including the mayor, a waitress, an activist, the homeless, and an oil industry lobbyist, players collect clues, vote on referendums, participate in opinion polls, and interact with other players.

NFB producer Dominique Willieme told CBC radio the game is intended to give an overview of what daily life is like in Fort McMurray and to “give people a key to the city” and all the complicated baggage the oil sands are saddled with.

The game is immersive, verging on addictive. I spent close to three hours collecting “influence points,” completing missions, and listening to the stories of Fort McMurray residents. I very quickly got a clear sense of what life is like in a city that, as Mayor Melissa Blake says, is like a “growing teenager getting ready to take on our adult responsibilities.” In other words, the boomtown, which has grown from a population of 35,000 in 1996 to 120,000 today, has got a lot of issues, and Fort McMoney wants you to think about them.

In an age when many people have the attention spans of gnats, this kind of absorbing experience may just be what the ADHD doctor ordered. It’s difficult for traditional mono media — magazine articles, radio interviews, even a straight up documentary — to provide the full picture or even hold one’s attention these days. Fort McMoney, however, envelops the user, effectively blocking out any external distractions — you can’t play while watching a video on Funny or Die and tweeting at the same time (well maybe some can). It takes a 21st-century approach, but without further eroding our ability to focus or think critically.

Given the control one has while playing the game — the decisions you make predict the future of Fort McMurray and affect other players in the game — Fort McMoney could very well help more Canadians connect with the issues around resource extraction. Fort McMurray and the oilsands are in a remote area, a five-hour drive from Edmonton. As outsiders, we hear about the job demand, the ungodly work schedules, the rampant drug and alcohol abuse; some of us probably know people who have headed to Fort Mac for work, many of them returning with a spiffy new truck purchased in sales tax-free Alberta. But most of us don’t feel any relationship to the region. It’s so vast (literally: leasable land spans an area nearly the size of Florida) and complicated and beyond human scale it’s difficult to relate to. It’s similar to climate change: The issue is so monumental and overwhelming that a lot of people glaze over when it’s mentioned.

But just because a lot of Canadians can barely imagine the oil sands, much less care about them, doesn’t mean they’re not affected by what goes on there. Fort McMoney makes what goes on there, and the consequences of it, very real.

If you’re looking for hard facts, this isn’t where you’ll find them. From my perusal, the game doesn’t, for example, offer any scientific evidence about oil sands production. This is more about experiencing what it’s like to actually live next to the world’s largest industrial project and all the good and bad that comes with it. It’s well-worth however many hours you find yourself putting into it.

Another game cycle is already underway; in fact, a new level was released on Sunday.

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