Now Playing (Again): “Fort McMoney”

LJ Kessels returns to the virtual world of Canadian oil fields as a player of "Fort McMoney."

David Dufresne’s interactive documentary game is back for a second round. Fort McMoney returned on January 27, 2014, and in the words of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) press release: “The fate of the world’s largest energy project is in play [again].” A documentary on the world largest oil sands meets SimCity. Experience Fort McMurrey in Alberta, Canada: From the local homeless man collecting cans for money, down to the industry lobbyist, from members of the First Nation and the town mayor, the entire game is spread over a four-week period and features different missions.

Every action inside or choice one makes inside of the game leads to a different story about Fort McMurrey, giving the player influence points and an unique perspective that he or she can discuss with the other players when it comes to voting on that week’s topic. The outcome of every vote influences how the town will change. For example, if the community votes yes on nationalizing the oil industry this will have consequences on the financial resources that the town and its people can draw from.

Dufresne’s documentary game first went live in November (and I wrote about it here), attracting more than 350,000 visitors of which 46 percent are French speaking, 37 percent speak German, and 17 percent speak English. TOXA and the NFB, in association with ARTE, produce the project. The second round features previously unseen content, missions, and improvements, making it interesting for previous players to discover something new on a return visit through Fort McMurray.

For those new to it, the project speaks to universal questions of our modern age, such as, what is the power of big industries? And how do human actions change the climate? But it also shows how some community members look to survive and make a living or how some of them self-destruct into alcoholism. All this can be achieved by a traditional documentary to some degree but the beauty of Fort McMoney lies in the possibility of choices and how with active participation and willingness one could change a society and see its fictitious effects, for better and worse. It spikes up a conversation on the modern condition and its consequences. But be forewarned, it may leave players depressed and hopeless in light of environmental politics, as seen in discussions on Twitter.

Fort McMoney’s stellar cinematography and harsh but stunning landscape grips the player from the word go, so much so that it seems completely beside the point that one doesn’t accumulate many points. However, this has a drawback because picking up special clues from the field accumulates points that can unlock secret parts or give more access, like in any ordinary game. (Notice that I purposefully used to word player when referring to the ‘audience’ or ‘viewer’ as one truly is a player inside of a game and not a passive spectator to movement on a screen; one is the inciter of this action on the screen.) As much as one is in a larger and more global sense the inciter of the current global and environmental condition of our planet and humanity, we all are willingly or unwillingly a part of a world that creates poverty, greed, and environmental pollution.

This unique documentary form makes it possible not just to get informed about the subject of oil sands, but also lets one be in the driver’s seat and “make decisions yourself” as Will Wright, the creator of SimCity said to The New York Times. This leaves the outcome to be endless. The project is up for competition at the Festival international du film d’environnement in February.

The interesting questions for (traditional) filmmakers and documentarians is now what is the value of this form and how can they benefit from Dufresne’s approach? One has to always consider the balance of form and content and how a story can best be told. Sometimes a story needs actors lip-syncing to interviews as in Clio Bernard’s The Arbor from 2010, or no narration or titles just a play of cinematography as in Victor Kossakovsky’s іVivan las Antipodas! from 2011. And sometimes it needs to be experienced by players to really bring the complexity home, as in Dufresne’s Fort McMoney.

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