Chevron Cares 

Warning! Oaktown Needs Petroleum

You don't sponsor an online game about energy usage unless you want people to think you care. And there's no denying that Chevron cares. Still, when we heard that Chevron was sponsoring an online game called Energyville, our first reaction was, "Terrific, a new forum for green-washing."

So what is Energyville? It's a game, found online at Reminiscent of Sim City and other such games, it's an animation in which the goal is to provide for the energy future of a fictional city. Above each of the structures in your city — houses, factories, offices, gas stations, etc. — are little yellow speech balloons, each containing an exclamation point. These are your iPod-using constituents, and they need power, badly.

The game play consists of grabbing little power plant icons at the bottom of the screen, and dragging them onto your city. When the power plants appear, the angry exclamation points go away. It's every politician's dream — give us your support, and then take your angry exclamation point and go away.

Your energy options consist of biomass, coal, hydro, natural gas, nuclear, petroleum, solar, and wind power. If you want oil rigs, you need only grab the little brown teardrop and drag it on screen — no messy oil wars required. Nuke plants get the fallout shelter symbol. The nuclear industry probably wasn't consulted on that choice.

Each type of plant is rated for its cost, environmental impact, and security impact. "Security impact" is a fancy way of saying that a given energy type requires foreign sources, is subject to terrorism, or could lead to widespread devastation in case of an accident. (There's that fallout symbol again.) After you build enough power plants for your city, you're rated for how much money you spent, what your security impact was, and how much you hurt the environment.

The game seems to come clean on the environment, if you'll pardon the play on words. Solar power is given a low environmental impact, while petroleum is said to have a harsh environmental impact, second only to coal. And yet petroleum's economic costs are also high. In fact, petroleum doesn't seem to make out well in Energyville. Did Chevron know what it was signing up for when it hired the publishers of The Economist to develop this game?

Play continues until you've dragged enough power plants onto your city to make all the exclamation points go away. After a few rounds, you'll quickly discover that you're not allowed to use the same type of power plant for all your energy needs. Trying to use just wind farms? The game won't let you. After all, you can't power your car with wind power and the game won't let you make everyone drive electric cars.

On second thought, maybe you'll have to use some petroleum — even if you don't want to.

After each of the game's two rounds, there is an intermission during which world events intervene. Here is where Energyville undoes your efforts to create Ecotopia. For instance, did you know that in 2023 solar power will become less effective due to an increase in the number of cloudy days? (Impact of global warming? The game doesn't say.) Or that terrorist attacks in 2013 will tighten the oil supply? But if you're still bullish on petroleum, don't fret. By 2027, "breakthrough technologies will alleviate fears over oil supply."

Perhaps Chevron did know what it was sponsoring.

Eventually you receive a score. It is based on the three impacts and how you did compared with everyone else who played. Our first time around, we came in 74,000th out of about 132,000 players — not really that great. By changing to a more diverse strategy including hydroelectric plants, wind power, and a small number of several other types of plants, we were able to raise our score to around 10,000th place.

Energyville isn't quite the transparent greenwash that we expected. The game seems well-sourced, and provides a mile-long list of references in its "About the game" panel. It's certainly an enjoyable enough way to waste five minutes at the office, and it's about as sincere as any Flash-type animation is going to get. But, of course, the folks out in San Ramon didn't do this just because they love playing video games. Maybe you shouldn't sell that Chevron stock quite yet.


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