Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rainforest Regeneration

A fellow Octopus Overlords forumite pointed me to a New York Times piece on how deforestation may not be as severe a problem as we thought. As people leave their farms for jobs in the city, the farmlands revert to forests. Because these forests absorb carbon dioxide and become new habitats for wildlife, they counterbalance some of the negative impact of rainforest destruction. The effect could be significant because forest growth is outpacing forest loss in terms of acreage.

As some of the authorities quoted in the article argue, though, these new forests are no substitute for old-growth forests. The species displaced by rainforest destruction usually have no way to relocate to the new forests. Even if they did, the new forests may not be sufficiently developed to suit them as habitats. Furthermore, city workers affected by the global recession may move out and raze the forests to build farmland again.

The article didn't mention it, but I wonder whether the global warming phenomenon facilitates the growth of these new forests. Does rainforest destruction, by contributing to global warming, speed the regeneration of forests in other tropical areas?

I also wonder whether the forests you chop down in the Age of Empires games ought to regenerate a bit as you progress through the ages.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rainforest Tropic Salvation

According to a recent Slate article, the current focus on climate change could make the environment worse. We may be overlooking a direr problem, which is the rapid loss of rainforest landscape. In fact, tropical deforestation may affect the climate more than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.

The deforestation problem reminds me of how we greedily gobble resources in real-time strategy (RTS) games such as Warcraft and Age of Empires. A key strategy for winning an RTS match is building an infrastructure that rapidly harvests resources and produces military units. Cutting down trees not only supplies the crucial wood resource; it also clears land for building and training military units.

This strategy changes a little in the few RTS games that feature renewable resources. In Command & Conquer, for example, the resource tiberium gradually regenerates. If you’re trying to bring down a huge, heavily defended base during the singleplayer missions, it pays to let the nearest tiberium patches regrow.

The environmental effects of building bases, deploying units, and making war are not explored in games. That’s understandable since most RTS games are about the much more pressing, and hopefully temporary, concern of war.

Not every RTS game has to be about war. In 1997, Stardock created an RTS titled Entrepreneur in which the object was to win market share. In order to defeat your competitors in the chosen market (such as soft drinks or computers), you built offices, researched product improvements, and deployed sales reps and marketing campaigns.

With the Slate article in mind, let’s tweak Stardock’s game a bit. Instead of exploring the map for market growth areas, let’s explore the map for rainforests to preserve. Send representatives to these areas not to get people to buy products, but to convince them to make rainforest conversation a top priority. Conduct research and development on products and methods that don’t require the felling of old-growth trees. Your opponents, the agriculture and lumber industries, will try to outdo your progress by rapidly consuming rainforest landscape, marketing the end-products, and funding studies concluding that rainforest loss is not a big deal. You win once a certain percentage of the forest landscape has been safeguarded and CO2 concentrations have fallen to acceptable levels. Call the game Enviropreneur.

Interestingly, the game that launched the RTS genre was probably greener than any of its successors. In Dune II, you had to win a war on the bleak desert planet of Arrakis. Spice, the precious natural resource with which you built your bases and armies, could be destroyed by errant weapon fire. Your bases were fueled by “windtrap power centers.” And the price for encroaching on the sandy wilderness was the occasional unit being eaten by the planet’s native species, the roving sandworm.

Of course, it took an environment as bleak as Arrakis to force such green thinking. Let’s hope things don’t have to get this bad in the real world to change our thinking.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Connection or Confusion?

The first Earth Day took place exactly thirty-nine years ago. Back then, we were worried about regional problems such as pesticides and toxic dumps. We were still unaware of global challenges such as the hole in the ozone layer and climate change.

A couple of years later, Pong became the first commercially successful video game. As video arcades grew and video games became more sophisticated, many people thought gaming was a fad or suspicious pastime. Even those who attained the rank of Space Avenger on Gorf had no idea how ubiquitous gaming PCs and consoles would become.

Today, the environment is a bigger issue than ever before. Games rival Hollywood in the entertainment field. Am I seriously implying a connection between these two subjects by putting them together? At first, I thought it was silly to do so. As this year's Earth Day drew near, though, I thought of ways in which gaming and the environment affect each other. For example, the digital distribution of games could be better for the environment than retail and mail-order distribution. Conversely, some games, such as Sid Meier's Civilization series, present players with environmental challenges such as pollution and global warming.

This blog will explore the connections between our virtual lives and the real environment. Some of these connections will be tenuous, even ridiculous, but still fun to think about. Others will make sense and may even lead to improvement in our lives. Most of these connections will fall under the following subjects:
  • The environmental effects of the gaming industry and hobby
  • The environmental advantages of digital distribution
  • Games that address environmental issues
  • How to be a greener gamer
My goal is to write an article about these subjects on a weekly basis, with the occasional non-gaming or non-environmental post thrown in just for fun.

I'll close with some green advice on this Earth Day. Tips on going green abound on the Internet, so I'll just make one suggestion. If your home or workplace tends to leave its PCs on 24 hours a day, find out why. If the PCs aren't running critical applications, have them shut down tonight. See how that works for you, then consider shutting them down every night.