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Fort McMoney: A Documentary Game That's Quickly Becoming a Reality

12/16/2013 04:14 EST | Updated 02/15/2014 05:59 EST

This week, the third episode of our documentary game came to life and exceeded all our expectations. And this week, tens of thousands of players the world over set out for Alberta on Highway 63, the Highway of Death as it's called there, heading north toward the cold "at the end of the road" and the unexplained incidences of cancer affecting the Aboriginal people of Fort Chipewyan, more than 300 kilometres upstream from Fort McMurray, the world's oil sands capital.

At first, the winter road is narrow and winding, with fir trees as far as the eye can see. Then it rises and descends. Finally the Delta appears, level, sure of itself, and then this: the Athabasca River, a frozen, polluted watercourse. Then kilometres of trails, forest, bush and a three-minute long crossing by car over the river's frozen water, into the void and gripped by fear. Another river, a third, five in all and at last, the destination: the aptly named Fort Chipewyan, bastion of the Dene, who are fighting for their land and survival. Or living off the oil, depending on what they choose.

But there was a game changer for Fort McMoney. The day before our third episode began, it was announced that Ottawa had just given Shell the green light to expand its oil sands operations in Alberta. At a stone's throw from Fort Chipewyan.

All week long, the news -- the real news -- about Fort McMurray was catching up with the increasingly less virtual news about Fort McMoney. All week long, the accounts of our protagonists took on a peculiar tone, somewhere between urgency and seriousness. More than ever, Fort McMoney had become a serious game. Where everything is absolutely true, grounded in reality; or, as a player on Facebook put it, where reality outdoes fiction.

The accounts in episode three include one by fisherman Ray Ladouceur, showing two fish, one with a normal head; the other with a head twice as big. "Kaya," he says. "Kaya means: no!"

Chief Adam Allan, as weary as he is determined, says: "They call that development. We call it destruction."

There are accounts by two environmentalists in charge of monitoring the petroleum industry's discharges and making recommendations to the Alberta government. Men of good faith, scientists, one disillusioned, the other confident. Their smiles and silent pauses covey the difficulty they are having in carrying out their mission.

There's Diana McQueen, Alberta's Environment Minister at the time, who by an amazing coincidence last week became Minister of... Energy, claiming that everything was done to ensure the proper balance of nature.

There's Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Greenpeace activist, who talks about all the struggles and debates, all the way to the House of Representatives in Washington.

And the relentless, horrific recollections of Dr. John O'Connor, a whistleblower, as well as the pointed arguments of Ken Chapman, a local oil producer representative.

While Internet players who've become permanent residents of Fort McMoney went from village to village or visited two mines -- one belonging to Syncrude, the other to Shell -- debates were raging on our site, very politely. Proponents in favour of halting oil sands development argued with advocates of controlled production, while others called for "economic realism." How could a country like Canada give up such a windfall? The Globe & Mail bluntly asked: "Should we stop exploiting the oil sands?"

In the comments flying back and forth all week 2, some people included confidential documents; others brandished irrefutable figures, and a player from Brazil posted a haiku:

In these gloomy mines

On these black roads

Despite all these shadows

We cannot lose hope.

A haiku as a reward. The debate is open. The virtual city of Fort McMoney has become a reality.

The first part of Fort McMoney is scheduled to end on December 22. In the meantime, join the adventure.

Have a good trip and good luck.

-David Dufresne

(1) As of December 12, the Fort McMoney traffic figures were 250,000 visits

(2) Since the launch of Fort McMoney, over 3,800 comments have been left by players.