The Oil Slick Game

As part of the Environmental Justice, Politics and Humanities course at Central European University, a group of students got together to design board games to illuminate ecological issues in novel ways.  Patricia Petra Velicu explains the thinking that went in to one inventive game addressing the social conflicts and fossil fuel interests exposed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

On the 20th of April 2010, British Petroleum’s (BP) oil drilling rig exploded and began to release oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The rig burned for 36 hours, while the leakage of oil continued for months. Until July 15, 2010, between 53,000 and 62,000 barrels were released daily into the Gulf, making Deepwater Horizon the largest oil spill in United States (US) waters. In our Environmental Justice, Politics and Humanities course we created a board game inspired by this disaster. Our main aim was to create a game that is educational –  we wanted to teach the players about the dangers of offshore drilling, the problematic operation of the fossil fuels industry due to inadequate state regulation, and about how decisions which might seem minor or unimportant can lead to huge environmental disasters. In the same time, we wanted to keep the game simple, by avoiding extensive details of the events leading up to the BP disaster or of technical information about offshore drilling. This was indeed the biggest challenge – to make the game educational, but also fun –  to keep it informative enough, but also simple. How to do this? Where to start from? What aspect of the disaster to focus on and what to leave out?

We decided to focus on the main conflict that has been played out in the case of Deepwater Horizon – the conflict of interests and the different power dimensions of the fossil fuels industry (FFI), the state and the public. What are the different interests of these actors and how do these play out considering the different power each has? All three have different interests in terms of money, time and safety of offshore drilling operations. For BP, the faster the extraction – which directly implies lesser safety – the more money the company makes. For the state, the more time the operations take, the more money it receives from BP for the rights to extract the oil. But the fossil fuel lobby is very powerful in influencing the legislator in maintaining the regulations of offshore drilling flexible. For the public, the more safety the better, because a disaster affects the entire economy in the shore region, from fishing to tourism and real estate. But, in the same time, the public is also interested in the jobs offered by the fossil fuels industry. We wanted to find a way in which this conflict of interests and the power dimension of each of the three actors should be unraveled through the course of the game. In the same time, we wanted to highlight the main role of the environment throughout the entire game – to emphasize the importance of preventing such disasters and the considerable lesser costs of prevention in comparison to the enormous costs and difficulty of mitigation after a spill.

Another main question that was on our minds and that was going to influence how we design the game was – who is responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Isn’t BP responsible? The answer is yes and no. The fault for the spill is directly connected to the conflict of interest and the different power dimensions previously mentioned. The explosion and spill were the direct result of a series of decisions taken by different actors of the fossil fuel industry involved in the extraction-works on the rig. However, this was only possible in a wider context of permissive state regulations, meaning that the state failed to impose adequate safety regulations for offshore drilling, enabling the fossil fuels industry to trade off safety for money. Therefore, BP or the fossil fuels industry were not the only ones responsible for the disaster, but the US government also played an important role by failing to adequately regulate offshore drilling. In addition, the public also played a role in failing to pressure the government and the industry to prioritize safety in offshore drilling operations. We wanted to highlight in our game this complexity of different interests and power relations behind the spill and to show that each actor plays a role in preventing such a disaster or in mitigating its effects.

So, how does the game work? The game has three players – the fossil fuels industry (FFI), the US government and the public. Each player receives at the beginning a description card which explains what the main interests and aims of the character that they are representing are. This serves as a small guide for the strategy which each might want to adopt. The game plays out in six different scenarios – two happening before the spill and four afterwards. Each scenario opens a question with different options on which the players have to decide collectively by voting, their decision bringing them different amounts of points. In order to win the game, the players need to either prevent the spill from happening during the first two scenarios or to mitigate its effects at the end. In order to do this, they have to earn a specific number of different points which are either time, money and safety points. In real life, the Deepwater Horizon disaster resulted out of a trade-off between time, money and safety, where the first two were prioritized. We wanted to highlight this dimension through the point system of the game. The players cannot win if they only have money and time, but not enough safety and there is also an exceptional rule through which the spill can be prevented by an exceptionally high number of safety points. Joker cards spice up the game by giving or taking points from the players. The arbitrary role of the dice leaves everything open to chance, making winning a real challenge. The scenarios and the joker cards are inspired by the real events, and the effects of the decisions players take are explained in consequence cards.

Designing the game was a very creative and artistic process. We spent hours writing and rewriting the player descriptions, the scenarios, the jokers and the consequence cards, in order to make them as concise as possible, but to also keep them informative about the real events, the conflict of interests and the power dimensions. The most fun part was writing the joker cards which arbitrarily give or take points from the players, like “a picture of a pelican covered in oil just got viral on the internet – the fossil fuels industry loses 2 safety points, while the public wins 1.” We were anticipating how the players probably get angry by their “bad luck,” but how this also teaches them the different and unexpected dimensions of such a disaster that affects all actors and the environment. The board of the game was hand-drawn by one of our talented group member, Iuliia, while the other elements like the different cards or the points were designed and symbolically depicted by Daniel, who also had the idea of using wine bottle corks for the figures of the players.

After playing the game with a group of high school students, we realized what needs to be improved, however we were very happy to see that our educational aim has been met and that the players had fun developing their own strategy in trying to win and to “save” the environment. The players experienced the complexity of power relations behind such disasters and learned to balance considerations of time, money and safety, where safety is the most valuable. They understood the different roles and functions of the FFI, the government and the public, and the relations each of them has to the environment, which is unfortunately often only seen as a commodity. The game allows the players in the end to cooperate and put their points together in case none of them has the enough amount to mitigate the effects of the spill, teaching hereby the importance of cooperation when mitigating environmental disaster.