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What's the Trouble with 'Pipe Trouble,' the Satirical Game That's Inflamed Canada's Energy Battle?

Pipe Trouble is an arcade puzzle game in which you're tasked with building a gas pipeline without hurting the environment too badly -- and while dealing with a group of ecoterrorists who want to bomb it

Via Vice Canada -- Pipe Trouble is an arcade puzzle game, funded by Canada's public broadcaster TVO, designed to enlighten its player to the ongoing conflict regarding pipeline development in Canada. You might remember it from the coverage it got in the premiere of our Noisey Canada show. If not, the player is given the task of constructing a gas pipeline in an efficient enough way that you don’t fuck up too many trees, anger the farmer whose property you’re building on, or develop it so slowly that the gas company loses money. Besides balancing out all of these requirements, along the way you face obstacles—one of which is a group of ecoterrorists who try to bomb the pipeline. That little detail alone quickly turned into a total fucking shitstorm of right-wing media and political outrage.


During a Sun News segment, entitled “Disgusted with Pipe Trouble,” Ezra Levant discussed the game with the mayor of Dawson Creek—a town that directly suffered the consequences of British Columbia’s 2008-2009 pipeline bombings. Ezra says the game is “simplistic and stupid” and has “disinformation.” He adds that pipelines are “extremely safe” and the Mayor of Dawson Creek gets all bummed out because apparently it “makes light of” ecoterrorism. The game has since been pulled from the TVO website and the new premier of Ontario has expressed her dissatisfaction with the project. There is currently a third party review underway to see if Pipe Trouble should in fact stay off the TVO website.

Anyone who has actually played Pipe Trouble would know that it’s not a pipeline bombing simulator. It’s an interactive look at the complicated issues surrounding pipeline development—and that’s the kind of experience only a video game could provide. The socio-political conflict that surrounds pipeline development in Canada is obviously a real and highly contentious issue, and Pipe Trouble lets you explore that in a very cool way.

It seems that the problem with Pipe Trouble is twofold: people don’t understand how video games work, nor do certain other people like it when you comment on the Canadian energy industry. To get deeper into this complicated (and somewhat silly) issue, I spoke to Alex Jansen, the head of Pop Sandbox Productions, the company developed Pipe Trouble, about this clusterfuck.


VICE: Were you surprised about all of the negative feedback that Pipe Trouble received?
Alex Jansen: The big thing was how completely it misrepresented the game we’ve made. That’s what completely shocked me, it just seemed like complete misinformation that I thought would be very quickly corrected—but then what’s frightening was how the same information was propelled further, to the point of people getting incredibly strong opinions without ever actually having played the game.

The whole idea was to use satire as a tool in blatantly over the top scenarios. But then we layer in all these real world issues. The audience we’ve been engaging with—18-34—is statistically the worst engagement for voter turnout and whatnot. As you start playing, between levels, you get these radio segments that anchor back into the real world and then people are realizing, wow, this is actually going on, these pipeline issues are happening right here in Canada.

I really believe that should be obvious to anyone who bothers to play it. Pipe Trouble is so accessible you don’t even need to be a gamer, per se. It’s so simplistically designed. So it’s a great vehicle to deliver the news in a creative way.
That’s exactly why we took on a very, very familiar gameplay mechanic. You can go back to puzzle board games like Water Work. Then there’s Pipe Mania, which is on every copy of Windows 3.1. That’s the formula. It’s just such a familiar mechanic that you can reach such a broad audience, and then it’s about layering real world issues onto a familiar mechanic. It’s really very simple for anyone to pick up.


The mayor of Dawson Creek being a n00b on a Skype date with Ezra Levant.

It’s great you had that idea—create an accessible game that can help deliver an educational message. In an ideal world, Pipe Trouble would have started a conversation about the real world issues surrounding pipeline development. But that’s not really the discussion you started.
I would have loved if most coverage were: one paragraph about the game and then move directly into the real world.

Yes, and there are real issues. We just ran a piece about the community censorship surrounding Enbridge’s Line 9 Reversal.
When the media storm hit, we got blindsided with completely inaccurate information about what the actual game is. Now a lot of the talk has been trying to clarify complete misinformation. It’s been brutal. The early reporting was you know, about it being a pipeline bombing game, which it’s not. The Toronto Sun called it: a “Blow up the pipeline game.”

So there’s all this misinformation going out there that’s slowly being corrected. An article would be posted online at like 11:00AM with all this misinformation and then it would be edited at 7:00PM to include modifications. But no one is coming forward and addressing the modifications, so the complete misinformation that led to people having incredibly strong opinions is now very hard to have people back down off of.

How do you feel about the energy industry now, compared to when you first started development?
The game looks at gas specifically. One of the things I flagged when I did a half hour long correction interview with the Sun—in which nothing was quoted, because I think what they were expecting was an extreme left wing response and that’s not what I was giving—is that I’m torn, my house is gas heated. I’m living in a country where we’re doing incredibly well because of our energy industry and our natural resources. But then you start to hear about these safety concerns and it starts to raise concerns around how we’re extracting the resources, and making sure we’re doing everything with a mind to the future. And that’s where it’s not in any way anti-industry, but it’s just making sure that all Canadians are informed with what’s going on. That was really the goal.

A map of existing and proposed Canadian pipelines, which help make Canada the principal source of U.S. energy imports. Via The Economist

Tell me about the film that Pipe Trouble is tied to.
It’s a feature doc called Trouble in the Peace. That's where a lot of the stuff in the game comes from. People asked: "Why are you including the bombings?" Well that's central to the film and central to the story the film explores.

It looks at a fifth generation farmer in the Peace River Region who is struggling with farming as a way of life. He's subsidized by big oil and gas, he has a well on his property, so he's in this tough position because around the same time his daughter was born there was a massive leak. And then he had a two-headed calf that was born on his property. He's convinced that the leak and the cow are related, and so it starts to raise these larger concerns around safety and also around the environment and watching the community change. Then the documentary hones in on him and his response to everything. It starts to look at the community as a whole and some of their concerns, but the entire backdrop to the film is this series of bombings [that happened in B.C.]. So all the things we chose to represent in the video game are all real world issues.

How do you feel about TVO pulling the game from their website?
It was very frustrating but I completely understand. I understand their decision but it was definitely frustrating. At that point it went from the Ontario Premier being kind of blindsided with a question about our game in a media scrum, to the Premier of British Columbia and Alberta also weighing in, then you had Ontario’s Minister of Education… TVO was under a lot of pressure on their side.


It’s disappointing to me. I hope after the process that they’re now going through now—with this third party review—that it will be reposted. My hope is that it comes back, and if anything it comes back stronger. My worry is that when it comes back… is it even a story at that point? Because it could get reposted quietly.

If I didn’t have any public funding I could completely push back against all this, but in this case I’ve been trying to bridge the concerns of everyone while trying to take the road of clarifying all the misinformation. But, you know, I did two different extended interviews with the Sun to try to clarify things and when I didn’t come back with the extreme sound bite they’re looking for none of it gets covered. And so it slowly disappears.

Maybe the information will slowly get corrected, but not with any kind of formal apology. It gets switched in without being able to see the track changes of where it started. This all started, very clearly, because people were saying this is a game in which you’re playing as an ecoterrorist bomber. It’s not, but that’s a good headline for them anyway.

Despite being pulled by TVO, you can still buy Pipe Trouble for tablets and/or try it out for free on the Pipe Trouble website.

Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire More on the pipelines:

Native Leaders Are Telling Enbridge to Go Fuck Itself

Enbridge's Sketchy Pipeline Reversal Plan Affects Most Canadians