Toward a Sustainable Resource Escalation Game

An emerging form of games, born out of Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, has occupied my thoughts lately. It doesn’t seem to have a name yet; it grew out of some Minecraft mods and had its seminal work in Factorio. It’s a cousin, or even sibling, to the idle/incremental game, but usually looks more like a management or survival sandbox game. You could call it a resource management and automation game, or a factory simulator, but I’ll use the term “resource escalation game,” because its primary features are:

  • resources to collect, usually from a world you must explore
  • crafting of resources into more complex or rich forms
  • structures for automation of the crafting, allowing you to take a higher-level conceptual view where you are concerned with the logistics of automation rather than foraging
  • and an escalation created by those resources, where your initial low-level needs become inconsequential and the pace of progression is governed primarily by what complexity of resources you have instead of a more abstract research system1

These games borrow gameplay loops from sandbox games like Terraria, where you collect resources that are rare or located in dangerous areas in order to craft equipment that lets you gain access to even more exotic resources. Resource escalation games also often include logistic challenges that bring to mind puzzle games like Infinifactory, although the goals are much less clearly-defined. They even evoke the space-claiming and hygge of farming or town-building games like Stardew Valley or Populus.

However, there’s a problem with the conventions of this new game form. It’s viciously exploitative of nature, celebrating some of the worst excesses of capitalism and colonialism. Let’s look at one of my most anticipated games at the moment, Satisfactory:

Look at the beautiful dance of conveyor belts; the delight of seeing your labor multiplied ten-, a hundred-fold; the creativity of making your own design for a factory, tweaking and optimizing it. And now look at a team of masked corporate employees clearcutting a conveniently-uninhabited valley, replacing greenery with smoke-belching smokestacks. Knowing the sense of humor of Coffee Stain, the developers, the player’s relationship to the in-game corporation is likely to be fraught. Still: this is a game about colonizing land and commodifying its resources.

The Problem

This sinister undercurrent is inherited from the budding game form’s roots. Joel Goodwin has a beautiful piece on his experience as an eventual Minecraft conservationist that also exposes the fundamentally amoral, individualistic bias at the core of a game that presents a fantasy about being the One Settler (or Few Chosen Settlers) in a world of bountiful harvests, conveniently uninhabited ruins, and residents that are either inarguably monstrous or placidly accommodating. Many of the criticisms of Stardew Valley can also be applied to these games, in that they celebrate the fantasy of the gentleman farmer without exposing the social context that surrounds agriculture and production in the real world. Finally, resource escalation games are usually violent, assuming that the player will develop weapons to fight back against an environment that is unavoidably hostile.

In short: resource escalation games see their worlds as threatening, their production as unencumbered by morals, and their characters as entitled to utilizing3 and consuming the resources they gather.

Is there a way to create a resource escalation game that is nonviolent, morally-driven, and ecologically sustainable?

The Cruces

First, let’s examine violence. I’ve written before about the potential of nonviolence in video games. We have too many games about fighting, and it’s unnecessary. While I enjoy many violent video games, I think of it as a crutch, an easy trope that plays into the worst ways our culture casts challenges as battles and treats violence as an acceptable, even inevitable, solution. This is the easiest of my criteria to satisfy.

Next: is it possible to avoid the moral quandaries that come with a lone explorer utilizing the resources of a hostile world? I believe so; these arise mainly from unexamined capitalist and colonial assumptions: for example, that it is better for a thing to be used than for it to exist for its own sake4; that the ability of an actor to do a thing inherently justifies that action; and that the appropriate way to thrive in an unfamiliar environment is to shape the environment to your existing way of life. While it’s a challenge to resist these assumptions (in part because they’re part of my real-world cultural hegemony), none of them seem essential to the appeal of resource escalation games.

Notably, industry and technology does not require capitalism. While their history is intertwined, there is no reason why manufacturing must be privately controlled, any more so than roads and other infrastructure. Likewise, much (perhaps most!) of our technological innovation occurs outside of a corporate context, and there is substantial evidence that common resources tend to lead toward triumph, not tragedy.

Finally: can we have a game which is about collecting and processing resources using built structures which is ecologically sustainable? I find this criterion the most challenging, in part because the vision given by the existing canon of these games is universally one of replacing the existing ecology with industrial sprawl. Factorio not only assumes you will be stripmining its worlds, but even models pollution — not as an encouragement toward responsibility but as an inevitable escalation of challenge, making the world increasingly adversarial as it responds to your activities. You can minimize this impact, but eventually you will come into conflict with the planet’s immune-system-like fauna5.

Resolving this issue will require a more fundamental re-examination of how we think of resources in these games. The prominent resources in play tend to be material and difficult to replace: wood, minerals, fossil fuels, and so on. The rules are designed so that sources can be expended, encouraging wider exploration. Sometimes resources can be farmed, but this often takes the form of replacing native forest with “efficient” orchards. As the resource escalation proceeds, play requires less player attention and effort for the same low-level tasks, but often resources are consumed at a rate that scales with the complexity of the player’s focus.

It may be that the very concept of resource escalation is inherently anti-environmentalist. The joy we take in playing these games may stem directly from our elimination of the wild and the interconnected and in our distillation and concentration of the natural into the “useful” or “productive.” I hope not. In the spirit of that hope, let’s look at some potential angles from which we can pursue sustainable versions of this game form.

The Promise

I would love to provide a completed formula for the sort of game I want to see, but I don’t have one. This style of game hasn’t even quite solidified into what it wants to be, and I am presenting some tricky problems. Instead, here’s some brainstorming. Below are seeds for ways to resolve the problems above, and I’d love to hear more suggestions for resolutions in the comments.

Eliminating violence

  • The resolution to a violent threat could be placating or creating understanding with the threat instead of battling it.
  • Survival games already present tension and danger in the form of starvation, exposure to the elements, and hazardous environments. These can provide the same thrill as violent threats with strategies that involve crafting and mastery of the space.
  • We may not need danger at all. It serves a game design purpose of limiting the pace of exploration and lending weight to decisions, but we may be able to do that by making use of things like character speed or player time investment instead.

Finding value beyond productivity

  • Instead of treating the environment simply as a source of harvestable resources, we could attach a value to in situ resources. Look at how The Sims attaches value to the environment of a room, and consider how that could apply to tradeoffs between consuming a resource and benefiting from it remaining untouched.
  • We could move away from interchangeable or fungible resources. Similar to how players of games like Diablo soon ignore items of common rarity in favor of ones with random benefits, we can attach value to diversity or uniqueness over quantity.
  • Perhaps resources in the fiction of the world are not consumed, but provide benefits when discovered or understood. See resources in Civilization and other 4X games, where their presence is useful but they are not always spent like currency.
  • Assign value to aesthetic expression. Perhaps the player’s labor does not derive its value from harvesting resources, but from curating them or using them in a creative way.

Eliminating colonial entitlement

  • Justify the player’s activities by making them a request of local stakeholders, or an active reclamation of a space previously spoiled, or make the resources sapient and explore the complexities of acquiring their consent.
  • Alternately, set the game in an active society, with the player character(s) either part of that society or coming from an underclass, where their actions are not performed with unilateral authority.
  • Contrast the player’s actions against a colonizing or exploitative force, where the player is defending against incursion instead of acting as a settler. This would require thought to avoid an implication of paternalistic oppression, where the player is “protecting” a weaker and subordinate group.
  • Incorporate peers for the player, requiring compromise and communal use of resources. These can be abstract rather than detailed AI agents.

Rejecting erasure of the existing space

  • Instead of transforming local resources into more easily-digestible forms, try transforming the player character(s) to more easily exist in this new environment.
  • Explore roles like “host,” “caregiver,” or “custodian” rather than “settler” or “entrepreneur;” make the player responsible for maintaining a space or providing joy to its inhabitants rather than transforming it.
  • Make the “structures” involved in automation less intrusive. Think treehouses rather than buildings with concrete foundations.

Exploring sustainability

  • Place a greater mechanical focus on maintaining resource health; for example, instead of penalizing overharvesting by slowing production until the player finds or creates a replacement source, consider prohibiting overharvesting altogether and requiring sustainability to be a proactive practice.
  • In many resource escalation games, renewable non-biomass energy is presented as a high-tech luxury, painting bio and fossil fuels as unavoidable for development. Disrupt this by using low-tech renewable sources like waterwheels and windmills, but don’t ignore the environmental impact of activities like damming water sources.
  • Explore environmentalist approaches to resource use, such as sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, and recycling. Keep in mind the way in which these can become moral luxuries for the privileged when the poor may not be able to afford sustainable sources.
  • Instead of resource escalation allowing for consumption of resources at a higher rate, try focusing on more efficient use of existing resource supplies. At the very least, allow for the prevention of waste due to obsolete equipment, spoilage, or lack of energy storage.
  • Maybe even reject any appearance of zero-sum simulation by making the resources less concrete. Have the player collect information, or inspiration, or something mystical that avoids the problem of environmental exploration entirely. See how Cultist Simulator makes heavy use of lore, relationships, and moods as resources as opposed to physical objects and assets.

The Hope

This discussion explores the things that I would like to see in this emerging game form. I like many of the existing resource escalation games, but I want to see their successors build on their best aspects while also improving on their shortcomings.

If you’re a developer like me, let’s all work to create games that reflect our values while still providing the experiences we seek. And if you’re a player of resource escalation games, especially those in early access or ongoing development, consider compassionately advocating for these moral priorities when you give feedback on the games you love.

Show 5 footnotes
  1. Factorio gates a lot of things behind research, but research is driven by manufactured resources, not the more typical research-over-time approach seen in strategy games.
  2. Note some issues with how RimWorld handles identity and the dev’s not-great response.
  3. I specifically use “utilize” to mean “make useful,” in the sense that these games take resources that exist in one interconnected system and reduce their value to their usefulness for the player’s purposes.
  4. Which is not to say that there is inherent value in “authenticity” or an ideal state of nature. Some purposes are absolutely good justifications to utilize resources, but not because unused resources are valueless.
  5. On the default difficulty. You can turn off automatic escalation, but the game is designed with the assumption that it is active.