Fort McMoney Hits Internet Black Gold

I’ve just spent 5 minutes talking to a man who runs a local strip joint in Fort McMurray and asked him if oil company deals take place in his club. He answers in the affirmative and I ask him who he thinks runs the city? From there, I’m off to talk to mayor Melissa Blake so I can ask about what she thinks about “black gold” and then ask the same of one of her rivals, John Vyboh. I check my dashboard to see if I’ve visited everything in the town hall before I’m off to the airport. A new “clue” is available to me and a referendum on whether or not large mining projects should be allowed is underway.

I’m playing Fort McMoney an interactive documentary style video game. Or maybe it’s more like a video-game documentary. Whatever it is, director David Dufresne struck black gold on the web when FortMcMoney launched on November 25th. While the real Fort McMurray has a population of 85,000, over 120,000 people world-wide joined.

“Players” move through the city and interact with a complete cross-section of residents interviewed by Dufresne and his team. Their views allow players to hear differing sides of complex issues surrounding Canada’s boomtown Fort McMurray and make decisions about its future through on-line referenda. The decisions made will shape an alternative, virtual city.

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The premise of the game is fairly simple. Beautifully filmed in a winter landscape of the real city, each player chooses his own path through the virtual game, selecting different places to visit and pausing to question town inhabitants. Politicos, oil company execs, homeless people, immigrants, and employees share their viewpoints on different issues ranging from drugs to immigration to pollution to sponsorship. The more characters a player interacts with and the more places visited, the more “influence points” earned. These influence points translate into greater weight during the referenda, that in turn will shape a virtual Fort McMurray.

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I’m not sure if I’d call this a game so much as an educational experience. Each of the four weeks has a pretty significant amount of film to watch (2 hours plus per week), all of which is found by visiting specific places. Each stop is rich with info. A trip to the airport provides a bird’s eye flight over the work camps and town, followed by overhead views of the mines, while a soothing voice-over gives data. Different characters provide answers to pre-chosen questions that reveal the complexity of social, economic, political, and environmental problems at the Fort. The filmmakers pause on details of the city that show both the good and the bad. For example, one image is of  a sign with the word “fruit” pointing to canned pears.

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Kudos goes to Philippe Brault for lush cinematography that gives a sense of being there, whether walking behind a bottle picker or driving a car along the highway. Again and again, he captures the omnipresent corporate logos of Suncor, Shell, Imperial, Albian Sands Energy, and many others.

Though the filmmakers claim they want to be unbiased, I am not convinced. Fort McMurray looks bleak and seedy in the first week of play and continues to be eerily wrapped up in a single industry in week two. That said, a diversity of views is present. Certain questions repeat, allowing one to ask of a stay-at-home-mother-and-bodybuilder as well as a doctor  “Who controls the city/Fort McMurray?” or “What is your relationship to the oil companies?” The responses vary, showing that no opinion is discounted. One thing is clear, though: Dufresne wants his players to think about our dependence on oil and the role that we play in the development and creation of a place like Fort McMurray.

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A few bugs interfered with the game in a very irritating way. More than once, I restarted the site over, hoping it would fix the problems, but this was not the case. At times, my dashboard wouldn’t appear. Navigation through the game wasn’t always obvious and it wasn’t always clear what my options were. I ended up covering the same territory several times over or asking the same people questions. Sometimes the page didn’t load or the characters spoke in German or French instead of English. Subtitles didn’t always appear. Finally, since the questions were pre-decided by the game, they didn’t always make sense.

Given all the bugs, don’t come to Fort McMoney expecting to play a quick video game before a night of Netflix. Instead, it’s much more like a personalized documentary, a vision of a unique and important city as seen through the filmmaker’s lens.

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