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Blackout: A Game About Power

Co-PIs Cedric Langbort, Christian Sandvig (UIUC) and Sean Meyn (UF)

National Science Foundation

Project Summary In the past two decades, many countries have drastically reorganized their basic infrastructures (water, power, transport, communication networks) around market mechanisms. This new marriage of wires, pipes, and asphalt with prices, auctions, and incentives is fast becoming a part of everyday experience, with the average person now routinely encountering smart power meters and flexible electronic road tolls.

The transition to markets has not been smooth, especially in the case of power. Most of the world’s population knows about Enron’s illegal manipulations of prices and quantities of power that resulted in the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric, and about $40 billion in public losses in California. It is less widely known that the era of power grids as the ideal of a stable and taken-for-granted system may be at an end. The price for wholesale power has now jumped upwards two orders of magnitude (in Illinois), and two orders of magnitude downwards (in Canada and Australia). In Tasmania, negative prices have reached $1,000, meaning that power producers have to pay for the privilige of producing power. The Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 contributed to eleven fatalities, yet even today we do not have a complete explanation for this disaster.

In other words, power system operators all over the U.S. and all over the world are getting ready to address complexities unlike anything we have seen before: The introduction of generation from wind and water will bring unprecedented volatility; smart meters will bring new dynamics to the grid – coupling the behavior of users, generators, and transmission lines.

Today’s university courses cannot and do not address large-scale infrastructures of this magnitude. Games, on the other hand, and particularly computer games, have the ability to present players with holistic problems, the complexity of which often surpasses that of problems studied in traditional pedagogical settings.

Games afford players the possibility to learn viscerally and experientially about ideas. As game designer Eric Zimmerman has said, “Zoning into a screen with a joystick in hand isn’t mindless or mind-melting, it helps us pick through the sort of complex systems that run the world, the kind of systems that lead to massive crises like poverty and climate change.” A computer game thus has the potential to serve as a rich and expressive medium for  teaching design and regulation of large-scale infrastructures, and the role of dynamic economic markets.

We propose to develop a persistent, web browser-based, multiplayer on-line game about dynamic markets for electric power. We have given it the working title Blackout.

 

 

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