Gaming & Limits

Malthus and games of collapse

Collapse and apocalypse are longstanding tropes in fiction with the world ending because of war, pandemic, artificial intelligence gone mad, natural disasters, technological collapse, resource scarcity, supernatural prophecy… and even zombies.

Games are no exception. But when we’re living in a time with challenges like climate change, oil and food insecurity, rising inequality, corruption and political disengagement filling our news feeds daily, it may feel like doomsday is a little too close to home.

Yet apocalyptic games are more popular than ever.

Thomas Malthus – the original ‘Dismal Economist’

Malthus was the English economist and philosopher whose most famous work An Essay on the Principle of Population represents the first real attempt to mathematically model a ‘limits to growth’ argument.

Copyright John Linnell -
Copyright John Linnell –

Malthus was deeply pessimistic about the future of any human society and argued against the notion of teleological progress, criticising the very concept of the eventual moral and social ‘perfectibility of man’. His critique is based upon two interconnected trends: unchecked population growth which can only be definitively restrained by the limits of food (resource) availability. At some point in time the population must inevitably overshoot the carrying capacity of the food supply and a population ‘crash’ will result. The population will fall back to a level which can be sustained by the food supply and the whole dynamic will repeat.

Nowadays, his ideas have been applied more widely to resource concerns beyond food, with the concepts of Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Phosphorous (Peak Everything?) falling under the ‘neo-Malthusian’ label.

Malthus as apocalyptic or collapse gamer?

In particular, putting to one side the never-ending fascination with the zombie apocalypse in games (!), there has been a huge rise in the popularity of neo-Malthusian survival games, where resource management as a game mechanic is taken to the extreme.

Games like Vigor; The Long Dark; Banished; Sir, You are Being Hunted or even the perennial favourite Minecraft (in survival mode) use resource scarcity as the crucial game mechanic.

In these games victory means survival in the face of endemic and inescapable resource shortages – and often this survival is merely temporary. In many of these games, death or collapse essentially inevitable, and “winning” means postponing the inevitable for as long as possible.

The importance of resources

Anyone who has ever played a real-time strategy game like Age of Empires or StarCraft, understands the fundamentals of how energy and resource management is crucial to success – or even survival.

The first step in most “building” or strategy games is to find, secure and exploit resources, whereas in reality, most of us only think about our supplies of oil or other energy once they are at risk.

Games bring such considerations to the forefront and make them obvious.

I think that has really interesting and important implications for how we think about and plan our complex urban systems.

Why focus on games when thinking about urban resilience?

I think the most interesting reason why Malthusian or collapse games are relevant to our contemporary reality is that there is a great deal of denial, whether unconscious or conscious, around such challenges facing our wider society.

Speaking from personal experience, when the Saudi oil refineries at Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by drones on 14th September 2019, there was a flurry of interest (and fear!) about the possible fragility of Australia’s oil supply. I had 5 requests for media comment in the space of a few days… and then the news cycle moved on.

We worry about such issues when they are brought to our attention, and the minute they sink back into invisibility we all sigh with relief and move back into our usual modes of thought.

But games are valuable as they provide, like all similar narratives, models for imagining possible future scenarios around climate change, fuel and food security, or social and technological collapse so that these possibilities can be explored within popular culture.

They provide another possibility for driving attitudinal and thus social change. Because we don’t want to think about such dystopian or uncomfortable possibilities, there is real value in “imagining the unimaginable” and games, in my opinion, are perhaps the best artform for doing this and driving positive change.