The Unwinnable Game: Confronting the End of Tech’s Natural Resources

Nicholas O’Brien’s speculative fiction video game considers what it would mean to run out of the nickel, platinum, and silver that power computers and green technology.

In another life, Nicholas O’Brien might have been an investigative journalist. He has uncovered municipal inefficiencies by questioning construction workers, skewered Silicon Valley culture, and profiled one of Brazil’s most infamous CEOs. But instead of publishing these stories in glossy magazines or on breaking news blogs, he makes speculative fiction video games about them.

His most recent, live on Kickstarter now, takes a hard look at a problem we don’t often discuss: what it might mean to run out of the nickel, platinum, silver, and other metals and minerals currently powering our electronics and green technology. They’re nonrenewable resources that we tend to treat carelessly; The Last Survey aims to generate more thoughtful consideration of why that might be a problem.

A chance encounter with the invisibility of environmental infrastructure

Walking to his Brooklyn studio one day, O’Brien stopped to ask some city workers why they were digging up the sidewalk.

“We’re putting in a bioswale,” they told him.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“You have to talk to the DEP,” they said.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

They told him to call the city.

He went back to his studio and looked up New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and learned about the bioswale gardens they were installing to absorb rainwater and runoff. He remembers thinking, “Wow, as a resident of this neighborhood, how do I not know about this? This work seems so invisible.”

Researching it more, he found that some of the DEP’s infrastructure projects account for billions of dollars in public spending, yet the communication around them seemed disproportionately slim. So he created a series of 3D animations, videos, audio interviews, and public programs exhibited at The Knockdown Center called Treatment: The Plan for Rain about how their designs failed to communicate their goals.

He saw the DEP’s work as misguided systems engineering because it ignored where humans might fit in. “What the DEP neglected to design or account for is how citizens and residents would use those rain gardens,” O’Brien says. “They installed a bunch of these rain gardens all across Brooklyn and Queens, but people would just throw their trash in it, misuse it, or pull up all the weeds and replant things. The design system didn’t account for residents. That, to me, is such a huge flaw — especially for human and health services or infrastructure.”

O’Brien’s next environmental discovery

A little more than a year later, O’Brien came across an environmental story with a more human center of gravity — and more ethical complexity. He saw an article about the Brazilian mining company Vale (pronounced vah-lay) shifting operations to focus on nickel as a way to meet growing demand from green technology manufacturers. “There was something that I thought was interesting or poetic or strangely nuanced about a mining company responding to the market demands of green technology,” O’Brien says.

There was plenty of drama, too: fatal dam breaks Vale ignored, a water contamination scandal considered the worst in Brazil’s history, and a protest in which indigenous women from the region splashed animal blood all over the company’s headquarters.

O’Brien dove into researching how green tech and the computers we often consider a cleaner alternative to paper and physical goods are taking their own, less talked-about toll on the environment. He learned that nickel is used in a lot of motherboards, and most solar panels are coated in silver to help capture light. Platinum and nickel are both used in coatings for energy cell technology, like Tesla’s car batteries. These materials are mined and smelted to maintain purity for thresholds of efficiency; ensuring high yield from raw alloy is of the utmost importance for matching skyrocketing market demands, O’Brien explains.

“The more scary projections say that we could run out of these in less than 150 years,” he says. “Others say we’ll just solve this thing and we’ll never reach that point. But it’s really hard to know. If we adopted the Green New Deal, the demand for some of these minerals would shoot through the roof. Then we’d really have to reevaluate what it means to be taking all those things out of the ground. The mitigating factors are really complex, and that was part of why I got interested in this project. I have no domain expertise, but I wanted to explore the complexity of these scenarios. And this felt timely alongside the UN report that moves up the clock as far as when we’ll start seeing the effects of the climate crisis.”

He decided that storytelling, “creating characters that are trying to navigate this space for themselves,” was the best approach.

Games that place people in systems thinking

O’Brien wanted to explore what it would be like for an individual to be a “thoroughly active participant in a system, then think about how to change the decision-making that goes into that system’s design or purpose.”

He’d created some interactive speculative fiction video games about various system designs before. In the Hollow of the Valley takes participants through a browser-based adventure at the cloud software company Salesforce as a way of interrogating the software as a service distribution model. The Trolley, about the closure of a public transportation system in a fictional Rust Belt American city, explores urban infrastructure, labor, and technological progress.

A still from ‘In the Hollow of the Valley’

The Last Survey hits a bit closer to home because it deals with environmental systems we all participate in, whether we want to or not. It takes players through the experiences of a geologist delivering bad news to a fictionalized version of the real CEO of the Brazilian mining company Vale and coming to terms with the fact that even the digital and green technologies we tend to consider “clean” are taking an irreversible toll on the environment.

Kicking off tough conversations

“In the past, I was playing with a space that I was skeptical or critical of,” O’Brien says. “In this project, I think that there’s a lot more of my own personal take and personal values, because I feel myself becoming an agent in systems and not knowing how to make ethical, thoughtful, and progressive decisions, and I don’t know if outright antagonism — going to someone in a position of power and saying, ‘You’re wrong and you’re destroying the planet’ — is actually the answer.

“I really wanted to think about how to create a character, create a narrative of someone who hasn’t washed their hands clean of the thing that they’re partaking in or skeptical of. So in The Last Survey, you play as someone who’s employed by a company to conduct research and deliver pretty dire news. Instead of that phrase, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger,’ it’s like, ‘What if you were the messenger? What nuances happen, and how could you play through those nuances to effect real change? How do you critique something that you’re deeply ingrained in?’”

Those weren’t easy questions for him to ask. “I found myself only writing in a critical, kind of damning voice, but I wanted to create ways in which you could play and imagine what it would actually take to have a real conversation about this, not an argument or a speech or a lecture. I feel like we’re living in an age of cognitive dissonance, beating ourselves up and burning at both ends. How do we navigate that? How do we creative dialogue in those spaces?”

It’s not just challenging for O’Brien — players grapple with their responses to the game, too. “Through the playtesting that I’ve done, I’ve seen a lot of people choose the more hostile route, and a lot of people asking, ‘So, did I win?’ I say, ‘Well, is that how you approach conversations?’ If you do, you should really think about revisiting your expectations for talking with other people.”

A preview of animations from ‘The Last Survey’

Slowing down the game

O’Brien sees the irony of making a computer game about the extractive economies of digital and green tech manufacturing: “I’m literally using the devices that are depleting minerals on the planet to make an artwork about depleting minerals on the planet.”

He’s trying to cut the inherent hypocrisy, at least a little, by hand-drawing animations, commissioning composers Jessie Montgomery and Eleonore Oppenheim of Big Dog Little Dog to create an original score, and hosting a live performance of the game in Brooklyn. From previous projects and his background in experimental film, he’s found that digital distribution just isn’t conducive to the conversations he craves. He likes to think of his work “as a comma as opposed to a period” — a continuation of an idea instead of a final statement. So live participants at his June 26 performance will collaboratively vote on how to navigate the game.

Jessie Montgomery and Eleonore Oppenheim of Big Dog Little Dog

“I admire and want to identify with the artists doing truly activist pieces that set out to create direct social, material change,” O’Brien says, “but my work is more about opening the possibility and potential of talking with individuals that you might be in abject disagreement with, and trying to find some commonality or trying to find some critical framework from which to start the conversation.”

The Last Survey is live on Kickstarter through June 24, 2019.