by Whit Gibbons

August 13, 2006

As one who recommends that children spend less time inside and more time exploring nature in woods, streams, or even their own backyard, touting a roleplaying game would clearly be a first for me. Nonetheless, when my nephew, PJ, sent me information about how games and ecology might mix, I investigated his claim. Despite my initial skepticism, I think he has a point.

I went to the Web site I had been directed to ( and immediately was in need of some education when I read, "eco is a different kind of RPG." Hello!? Eco must be the game, but what is an RPG? Never mind that it's a "different kind." Well, turns out that RPG stands for "roleplaying game." So, now I know that eco is a game for people playing a role, but a different kind of game from what they might be used to playing.

My next step in the learning process was tracking down the answer to a question on the Web site: "What is eco you ask?" Yes, I suppose I would have asked that eventually. The answer: "Rather than delving into lost dungeons, crossing the vast emptiness of space or stopping dangerous foreign spies, players in eco take on the role of ordinary animals." That does indeed sound different. And the animals, I learned, are "not quite ordinary" because "the PCs of eco are Aware. . . ." Whoa. This does sound environmental, but what does PC mean? Almost certainly not "personal computer." The short definition is that PC in a roleplaying game stands for "player character." In other words, it is "the individual role, or fictional persona [of] a roleplayer." PCs in eco are the aware animals, which, incidentally, are capable of learning rapidly.

OK. So I understood neither the lingo nor the rules. Nonetheless, I downloaded ecosampler.pdf and read about the game itself. The game is produced by Morrigan Press, and the lead game designer of eco is K. Scott Agnew. The writing, which is credited to Agnew and Alexander Freed, is excellent, and not only enjoyable but also environmentally educational. The insights shown by the writers of eco give me great confidence that they know what they are talking about in terms of animal behavior, ecological theory, and general environmental awareness.

My first indication that someone writing the program has an ecological background was the title of the first chapter of the instructions, "Gaia's Call." Gaia, a concept going back to the early Greeks, is Mother Earth herself. The Gaia hypothesis of modern ecologists proposes that the physical and chemical conditions on Earth, including those of the atmosphere, oceans, and land masses, are held in equilibrium by the living inhabitants of the planet. In contrast to the generally held assumption that life on Earth has adapted and adjusted through evolution to environmental conditions on the planet, the Gaia concept presents a world in which Life itself maintains the worldwide environmental balance. The explanation of the Gaia concept is a cool way to start the RPG eco in which the PCs are sentient animals.

I obviously will not be able to explain the rules of this game, whether you choose to be a squirrel, a rat, or a skunk, which are a few of the PC choices. But I can tell you that the instructions have some insightful environmental messages, such as information about light pollution that is good for children, as well as adults, to know. For example, "Animals are confused by artificial lighting. Migratory birds can . . . crash into lighted buildings." Some animals "base their activity cycles on the presence of light, and their schedules may change for the worse." In the game, as in real life, artificial light in the city is only one of the man-made problems the animals have to deal with. Toxic spills, asphalt, and smokestacks are others.

Eco is designed for "typical gamers [and] . . . those new to roleplaying." Though I will probably not take up RPGing as a hobby, eco would seem to be an exception to my rule that you learn more about the environment when you're outside than when you're in.

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