Future Oil Wars Made Fun

In 'Fuel of War,' players can have fun as an oil shortage spurs a new world war.

February 9, 2009, 10:06 PM

Feb. 20, 2008— -- Sometime in the near future, gas will cost about $20 a gallon.

It gets worse: China and Russia will form a military alliance that threatens the security of the United States and Europe.

Amid hunger, water scarcity and power outages, the two sides will go to war. Soldiers will descend upon bombed-out cities and abandoned villages, where rusting appliances and old car engines litter the streets.

But don't let that get you down.

"What you're trying to deliver in the game is fun," said Luis Cataldi. "We don't want someone to come in and become depressed."

Cataldi, an art director at New York-based KAOS Studios, is one of dozens of minds behind the dystopian vision presented in Frontlines: Fuel of War, a new video game inspired in part by contemporary fears about oil, war and, yes, war over oil.

The game, which cost about $15 million to produce, is set in the year 2024. It is a time when, according to Frontlines' "speculative fiction," the Western Coalition (the U.S. and Europe) are at war with the Red Star Alliance (Russia and China) over the world's last oil reserves on the Caspian Basin in Turkmenistan. Taking on roles as American troops, gamers use futuristic weapons and vehicles to battle their way across Central Asian oil fields, ghost towns and crumbling cities. In the game's multi-player version, gamers can also assume the identities of Red Star troops.

While Cataldi and KAOS emphasize the game's graphics, fast pace and technical prowess — in the game's "open world" setting, just about any object, structure or person you see can be shot at, blown up or otherwise annihilated — they're also passionate about Frontlines' fraught premise.

Conflict over oil "is a very resonant story in the world. It's a global issue that everyone's very much aware of, but it's also fascinating," Cataldi said.

He spoke breathlessly of oil's role in World Wars I and II, of the Peak Oil theory – the idea that the world's oil production is on the brink of falling — and of reported military exercises between China and Russia aimed at protecting their oil interests.

"You don't have to dig very deep to realize that it isn't a new problem," he said. "There are some great pieces of research that suggest that the world is in a very sensitive place."

To devise the game's geopolitical context, he said, developers "read everything we could get our hands on."

That included the books "The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies," by Richard Heinberg, and "Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict," by Michael Klare.

Heinberg, a senior fellow at the California-based Post Carbon Institute, was surprised but pleased to learn that his book helped to inspire a video game.

"I think anything that helps people understand the situation that we're facing is, in general, good," he said. "My hope would be that people who play the game then take the time and trouble to actually research some of these issues and look both into the science of oil depletion and the implications for our economy and our future."

Klare, a professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, called the prospect of a world war over oil "very plausible" and said he saw potential for the game to raise awareness of the issue among young people.

"If you want to have an impact on young people on important issues, it's important to reach them outside the classroom as well as inside the classroom," he said, "Therefore entertainment has to be part of the mix."

Klare is hoping another form of entertainment will turn more people on to his research: movies. His book "Blood & Oil" is being made into a documentary.

"I know the power of visual imagery," he said.

Still, both Klare and Heinberg conceded that once Frontlines comes out, they probably won't be rushing to the nearest Xbox.

"I'm too busy reading the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times," Klare huffed.

Ted Diamond, Nick Manos and Kristopher Renock were oblivious to Fuel of War. Indeed, the three teens — each is 14 years old — seemed oblivious to just about everything as they waited on a New York City subway platform one recent evening. The trio was discussing Halo, a series of games centered on interplanetary battles against alien foes.

But the boys were open to taking a break from extraterrestrial warfare. Told about Frontlines by an ABC reporter, the three said they would be interested in playing — and not just for the sheer pleasure of shooting stuff.

"If it has a compelling story, it's interesting to me," Diamond said.

Renock took it a step further.

"You'd probably understand what's going on in the world through the game," he said.

Will the game, as Heinberg hopes, increase consciousness of oil politics?

Todd Maroney isn't so sure.

Frontline's developers carefully accentuated the game's oil-poor context with scenery that includes solar panels and wind turbines — energy alternatives that presumably help Frontlines' denizens survive — as well as abandoned car tires and stoves rendered useless by a world that's almost out of gas.

But Maroney, 36, a Jacksonville, Fla. man who has played preview versions of the game, said that he doubted those details would stir any political sentiment among gamers.

"When the fight's on, obviously everything else loses focus and you focus on keeping yourself alive," he said.

Maroney said that the game has raised his awareness of oil issues. Still, he said, games are generally an "escape" for players.

If Fuel of War doesn't ultimately deliver a geopolitical punch, the gang at KAOS may not mind as long as players are enjoying themselves. Oil philosophy aside, game developers are still focused on fun.

"We're making a game and if there's a statement within that game that people pay attention to, then we feel fortunate to be able to tell that story," Cataldi said.

"If you're not interested," he said, "please move along and drive that vehicle and go shoot your friend."

Frontlines: Fuel of War, a THQ game, will be released Feb. 25. The game retails for $49.99 for PCs and $59.99 for the Xbox 360.