“One Hour One Life”, Soil Depletion, and the Development of Agriculture

“One Hour One Life”, Soil Depletion, and the Development of Agriculture

*This article was written for One Hour One Life version 76. Tech and balance updates are released weekly.

Introduction: Building Society One Life at a Time

I recently have gotten really into an independent computer game titled “One Hour One Life” after reading a Vice article about the unique, experimental game. One Hour One Life is a game of survival and parenting. At it’s heart, it is a multiplayer crafting game which focuses on building a civilization. The unique feature of the game is that players are born as a baby and have to be taken care of by another player. Every minute in One Hour One Life is a year of your character’s life, and you cannot live past sixty.

Three generation sin One Hour One Life
Three generations

There is only so much a person can accomplish in one life, and then they can only respond as a random new character. While keeping yourself alive, you work to create a sustainable colony and continue the life of your family. So far, the longest “natural” bloodline has been 31 generations which is around 10 hours of game play by many people. [though people using voice chat intentionally got it to 111 with intense social engineering policies.]

The nature of the game involves depleting resources over time, in order to reflect the environmental degradation caused by human activities. Many things in the game are truly permanent (such as over-hunting rabbits), or otherwise reset every epoch (sixty real minutes). Unsurprisingly, soil is one of the most important depleting resources. Jason Rohrer, the game’s creator, has expressed the importance that it be difficult to survive thirty generations with depleting resources and the possibility of “environmental collapse.”

One person on the games’ forums, mentioned in passing in an otherwise intense thread that the rate of soil degradation is unrealistic. The argument was that civilizations have continued to have fertile soil for thousands of years, and that it does not just run out over time. [I don’t mean to call this person out nor do I remember who it was.]

In a way, that is true, but it is only true with the sort of labor-intensive resource management that was practiced in traditional east Asian farming. By historical standards, 30 generations is plenty of time to destroy soil. This is a huge part of the reason civilizations rose and fell throughout history, often in well under 1000 years from erosion, salinity, or other problems of bad agricultural practices. In fact, cotton production in the American South was so destructive for a period families moved farther west to virgin land ever 20-30 years.

The game is right to have soil loss as a major limiting factor for a civilization, both historically and to maintain a challenge. However, with hard work and concern for the future it should be possible to use soil perpetually, as was done by the east Asians, and support a high population on a small amount of land. For example,  in 1907 rural population of American was 61 people per square mile of “improved” farm land, whereas in Japan it was 1922 per square mile of farm land (King, 4.) The Oriental countries had been maintaining these populations for centuries with no appreciable loss of fertility, whereas American farm land in the Great Plains had already horribly eroded from fifty years under the plow.

This essay will explain a small part of the history of agriculture, as it relates to One Hour One Life, and will include suggestions for a more advanced One Hour One life agricultural system which more accurately reflects the experience of human agriculture.

[I want to add, this game is still being balanced and I don’t consider this a major problem. However, I felt compelled to respond to the idea that societies don’t collapse due to bad soil in within 30 generations, but also wanted to propose solutions to soil degredation in the game that doesn’t rely on soil inherently and irreparably degrading.]

A note on recipes: Recipes in OHOL essentially work like any crafting game and will be spelled like an equation.

For example:

[Stone + Large Stone = Sharp Stone]
[Sharp Stone + Flint = Flint Chip]
[Flint Chip + Wild Gooseberry = Gooseberry Seed]

You get the idea. (though compost recipes will be more complicated.)

Creating a bow and arrow in One Hour One Life
An example of crafting in One Hour One Life

Gathering and the Beginnings of Agriculture

In One Hour One Life, Eve spawns in a true state of nature: naked in Eden. This means every society begins as hunter-gatherers. There are a handful of important foods in the game, most notably wild gooseberries and wild carrots, both of which can be easily domesticated. Recently, two new one-time use plants were added to make establishing less “stressful”, wild onion and burdock. The challenge is rapidly setting up a farm before local resources deplete- generally with a child on your hip. This is  a lesser challenge with the new foods but it remains difficult. (Part of the designer’s challenge here is balancing the difficulty of the early game and the late game.)

In general, this aspect of the game represents a very rapid transition to a settled farming society. Historically, many tribes remained hunter-gatherers for hundreds of generations. That said, low survival rates, as is seen with feral Eves, was often the general case in these hunter-gatherer groups. In One Hour One Life, there are dangers of food collapse in civilizations of any size (neglect can rapidly turn to tragedy) which lead to complete extinction, and the end of a family line.

I’ve recently been reading a book called, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Making of Island County Washington, by Richard White. This book provides an in-depth look at the environmental and social history of Whidbey and Camano Islands in the Puget Sound. The first Indians moved into the area right after it was formed by glacial retreat at the end of the Ice age. There are signs of human habitation on glacial tilth, before the first layer of humus developed. This means the Salish Indians survived in relative abundance for close to 12,000 years without developing advanced agriculture. [I should add, as a point of interest to OHOL players, the book mentions a farmer’s wife beginning the domestication of gooseberry on the island by digging up a plant and transplanting it next to their farm house.]

Nez Perce camas root
A woman from the Nez Perce tribe prepares the camas root harvest.

While the Salish did not collect and replant seeds, they did take part in some important practices which are close to agriculture. Most notably, the Salish used fire to thin out the forests and then dug, separated, and replanted the camas root, a staple in the diet of Indians in the Northwest United States. Camas root stores for a long period of time and was crucial to the food security in the absence of formal agriculture.

This premise could easily be added to One Hour One Life, to allow alternate development that is not a rush towards farming. In many ways, having a farming civilization brings with it many problems, and has the constant risk of catastrophic crop failure (due to user error/neglect, not any element of randomness in plant growth within the game.)

By making hunting and gathering more long term viable splitting burdock root could be added to the game, with the formula [burdock root + flint chip = 3 cut burdock] [cut burdock + sharp stone = planted young burdock]. If burdock took an epoch to occur and about half as many of them spawned I don’t think the difficulty would greatly effect the civs. This would allow nomadic tribes to set up over a broad region and multiply the burdock so there could be long term food supply for future generations. However, it would take long enough that it would be a challenge to set up the area for future large populations.

cain and abel
Since the time of Cain and Abel there has been conflict between settled farmers and nomads.

By reducing the scramble to farm (for non-players: getting a water container to farm requires some doing as wild foods deplete) and the reliance on farming, more camps would be started by competent players who set out to start a camp at a young age and aren’t instantly absorbed by child care like an Eve. Further, this would create a situation where more people are nomadic, and could create interesting conflict between settled and nomadic people (most likely over raids for tools by nomads and burdock usage by settled tribes.)

In general, it seems after 30 generations a family would have spread out quite a bit, and their genetics continuing would not be wholly dependent on one city-state. It is true that over-population followed by colonization, famine, or disease has been the course of history- thus difficulty sustaining a civilization is a proper feature of the game (and the nature of the challenge). [I should add, I seem to be the leading anti-Malthusian on the game forums, I don’t see any problem maintaining large civilizations if people actually work.] However, historically not everyone took to settled life at once, or stayed there. Most of all, moving to new territories for resources has always been crucial. Far from a flaw in the design, the general concept of resource depletion making sustainability very difficult over a long enough time line is one of the strongest features of an amazing game.

[One current aspect of the game which would have to change to accommodate hunter-gatherers is the current requirement of a metal knife to cut the meat of hunted wild mouflon, technology hunter-gatherers would only get through raiding. ]

True Agriculture and the Problem of Soil Depletion

Once, in a horticulture class, the teacher mentioned his wonder at the first people who realized if you planted a seed you would get the plant. I thought that was silly, as just from looking at a maple seed sprouting it becomes clear what it is. You can see it fall off the tree and then develop the same leaves. Still, in the abundance of the wilds it was some time before humans started intentionally selecting and planting seeds. Currently, in One Hour One Life you basically just grab wild carrot seeds and they are ready to plant.  This is probably fine for the game’s purposes, however plant traits that change over generations could be interesting (wild carrot seeds produce semi-domestic carrot seeds, semi-domestic carrot seeds produce domestic carrots, which are more nutritious.)

An egyptian plowman
From as early as man started tilling soil, degradation became a problem.

More important to the game than domestication is soil depletion. When man first took up the plow there was great organic mass in the soil developed over the millennia. This quality soil held large volumes of water and had great fertility. Similarly, in early agriculture in One Hour One Life there are great volumes of fertile soil, in this game kept in pits and moved in baskets. Soil in the game is depleted in four ways: seeding carrots consume their soil (and wild carrot seeds no longer renew), wheat consumes its soil, gooseberries are permanent and die (wasting the soil) if they are not watered after being emptied, and milkweed (the main fiber) permanently uses soil and is permanently gone if ever picked outside of the fruiting phase.

There is currently only one way to create soil. The recipe at this time is [Wheat straw + bowl of mashed berries and carrot + water + worm = composting compost pile] [composting compost pile + time = 4 fertile soil]

Wild wheat is available initially, but runs out, meaning the wheat requires one soil to create for this recipe (however, the grain is also useful.) It also takes a full gooseberry tree, which only respawns once an epoch. Beyond that, there are three worms per empty fertile soil pit, meaning this cannot be done infinitely in one region. Every time anything consumes soil it is ultimately less soil that is available in that area and over time it the cost to replenish will be increased. [That said, other players seem to massively downplay the practicality of sending men with carts on expeditions for soil, seed, and worms.]

Historically, problems with fertility led to “temporary” villages and farmlands in many areas, especially forested areas. This was often done in a fashion known as “slash-and-burn”, which is still practiced in many tropical areas. As the name implies, this is chopping down a forest and setting it on fire for increased fertility. In traditional English agriculture, villages and farms would often be moved every century or so after soil had lost fertility. The general practice was to slash-and-burn a new section, and follow it with three courses of buckwheat (which can be one season) to prepare the soil and keep it clear of weeds.

slash and burn
Traditional slash and burn agriculture. This has a high environmental impact, but allows farmers to alternate land between fields and forest.

This could be implemented into the game relatively easily, if burning the remains of a chopped down tree (all three) leaves one fertile soil. Some process for regrowing limited trees could be added, potentially by filling an empty wormy soil pit with something besides soil. (or by getting two soil from the slashed tree and needing one and something else to regrow).  Since the trees have other important usage, it would make resource allocation more complicated, and increase the risk of deforestation. There are a lot of trees, if it created an overabundance of soil it could require watering and waiting or [water + one item + time.]

The Rise of Civilization

Over time, the beginnings of agriculture and small increases in technology led to new kid of abundance and a greater division of labor. Professions became specialized, a surplus of food was stored, walls started going up, militaries grew, and the role of the King began to be abstracted from the patriarch of the tribe.

mesopotamian irrigation
Intensive agriculture and irrigation allowed population growth in Mesopotamia, but irrigation led to soil salinization.

All of this was made possible by intensive settled farming. The anthropologists say in the earliest settled societies in the Middle East were greatly egalitarian. Most houses had granaries, instead of central storage- though I question the idea that this truly demonstrates egalitarianism, as opposed to limitations in building technology. They could have still been shaken down for grain plenty. With food surplus came wealth, with wealth came increased threats, and with increased threats came people who thought they deserved to rule. [This aspect of OHOL has played out beautifully.]

As agriculture developed in the Fertile Crescent large irrigation canals were dug in order to increase arable land.  As in One Hour One Life, they found that carrying water to their fields all the time was inefficient. Floodwaters from the canals deposited sediment, but with that sediment came salinity. This is especially true in warm climates, where there are high levels of evaporation and salts absorb into colloidal clay soil.

Salinization was a direct cause of civilization collapse in lower Mesopotamia. I didn’t put the effort in to find a source I love, but here is an explanation of what happened to agriculture due to salinization:

To handle soil salinization people replaced wheat by more salt tolerant crops. Thus, Jacobsen and Adams (1958) indicate that about 3500 B. C., the same proportion of wheat and barley were cultivated in southern Mesopotamia. Because barley is more salt tolerant, one thousand years later, it accounted for 83% of the crop. About 2100 B. C., barley accounted for more than 98%, and by 1799 B. C., the cultivation of wheat ‘had been abandoned completely in the southern part of the alluvium’. The same decline of barley yield took place. At about 2400 B. C., the average yield was 2537 lt/ha. In 2100 B. C., it had diminished to 1460, and by about 1700 B. C., ‘had shrunk to an average of only 897 lt/ha’. (Silting and Salinization)

The change in Mesopotamian agriculture is recorded both in the extensive financial records of the era and in the archaeological record. The city states held on as long as they could, but were ultimately depopulated as the soil became unable to sustain the population based on local production.

The specialization of labor as farming advanced created a necessity for long-distance trade. While local farming was still important, the large cities were never able to become food independent. This became a major driver of imperialism, as empires like the Romans and Parthians spread out and needed every more food to feed their growing populations and armies.

Far from in being unrealistic in One Hour One Life that a city struggles to live for 30 generations in isolation, it is true that long distance trade and caravans are fully necessary at that point. While cities in One Hour One Life may run into soil and supply problems, some of this can be dealt with through the creation of outlying farms and trade. Much has been calculated at written about food efficiency in One Hour One Life, but little has been said about the movement efficiency of pies for trade. Each rabbit carrot pie feeds one player for quite some time, and thus the sixteen that can be transported with a cart and backpack makes having farm and bakery colonies viable to allow the cities to focus on artisinal pursuits and building (even more efficient with horses.) This has always been a necessary condition for the growth of cities. While the cities in One Hour One Life do not necessarily produce a large volume of consumable goods desired by the farmer, the farm can still be viewed as a colony in service to the big city. However, over time that farm will also lose its fertility or the population will grow to big, and food will have to come from a different place, possibly farther afield.

The East Asian Solution

Europeans and Americans have constantly fought a losing battle against fertility loss However, in traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean agriculture that loss was prevented and soil was improved. The intensive farming practices of the Orient allowed for a family of 10 to live off of one hectare of good land. The brilliant and effective details of Asian farming practices are explained in the book “Farmers of Forty Centuries” by F.H. King, an agricultural travelogue through the regions in the early 20th century.

There are several interesting things about Asian techniques for soil preservation. However, they all come back to one guiding principle: use everything. For starters, China has an enormous system of ancient canals which are used for irrigation and transportation, reducing water problems and greatly improving the ability to get goods to market. Unlike many other regions, China is blessed with a wet growing season, so the necessity of salinity inducing irrigation water is limited.

Chinese farmer with grass fuel
The Chinese gathered organic matter from wild areas for fuel and compost.

Almost more important than water management was the obsession with conserving all organic matter. Of highest priority was “night soil”, a euphemism for human excrement which was a crucial fertilizer. Human waste was mixed with earth and straw and left to settle and compost, in order to making the compost safe from fecal born disease. Farmers would also consistently scoop mud out of irrigation canals for the extra soil. They went out to all the wildlands and harvested bundles of organic matter. Most interestingly, in some areas known as “The Gravelands,” the Chinese had been burying their ancestors in soil mounds for thousands of years, which created fertile soil beds and increased the surface area appropriate for farming.

Chinese farming was so intensive that as much as 70 tons of canal mud was sometimes added per acre (King, 9.) And this is, at best, scooped in buckets by hand and moved by a draft animal. Other farmers reported applying several thousand pounds of carefully prepared finished compost per acre. This required a massive number of hours of hard labor. But most of all, it required running around gathering things, something OHOL players are very familiar with.

The Oriental farmers did not only make the best use of all organic matter and waste that they could find. They also took advantage of the relatively mild climates and growing-season rain. This allowed for multiple crops to be grown in succession, ensuring that little time was wasted in the fields. If a food crop was not to be grown in that season a cover crop such as rye or clover was grown to maintain the soil, increase fertility, or produce feed.

Basically, in traditional Asian farming the farmers worked very hard constantly, with a view of maintaining permanent fertility.

Piles of earth and compost in China
Earth and compost in China. A great concern for soil building made traditional Chinese agriculture sustainable.

This applies to One Hour One Life quite well, as the permanent fertility was maintained by harder work and more concern for the future than was held in most farming cultures. These are the featuress which should allow a civilization to survive. Further, OHOL already has many of the items the Chinese used for fertility.

The current composting formula of [wheat straw + bowl of mashed carrots and berries + water + worm = composting compost pile] [composting compost pile + time = 4 fertile soil] works well for its purpose of limiting soil creation with the constraint of three worms per empty fertile soil pit.

However, a slower more intensive method of soil creation could be added which rewards those those who think towards the future. There are three good ways this could be implemented which are relatively faithful to traditional Asian agricultural methods. These solutions would need to be balanced to the rest of the game, but some or all of them would work.

1) Full trash pits can become soil.

The formula I envision for this is something like [full trash pit + pine + leaf + water = prepared trash pit] [prepared trash pit + clay = covered composting trash pit] [covered composting trash pit + epoch = one fertile soil]

This only adds a small amount to the total soil, as trash pits don’t fill quickly. It would add an incentive to create, use, and fill trash pits so with extra work (running around finding things to fill it with) it could add to a greater soil increase. This has the added bonus of doing something with trash pits, which as far as I know are currently a permanent obstacle.

2) Intensive composting in empty soil pits.

The recipe for new soil in empty soil pits can closely follow the actual Chinese composting methods with existing in-game items.

Here is my recipe idea: [Empty fertile soil pit + 1 fertile soil + bowl of mashed carrot & berry + straw or reed + fresh grave + X leaves or pine + 1 clay + water= unmixed fresh compost pit] [unmixed fresh compost pit + shovel = mixed compost pit] [mixed compost pit + adobe = sealed aging mixed compost pit] [sealed aging mixed compost pit + epoch = 5 fertile soil]

fertile soil pit
A fertile soil pit in OHOL provides five empty soil and does not respawn. It cannot be removed from the map, however, it can be used to store other soil.

The advantage of this is that it IS difficult that most people will not remember the recipe or care enough to make the effort. It involves benefits that cannot be gained within a life time and the process should be started before soil is scarce. This makes it possible to continue a civilization without fertility loss, but at a price many are not willing to pay.

3) Cover Crops

This feature could easily be worked into the existing game, though once again, possible balance issues.

Green grains are a great cover crop in real life. We already have access in game, since domesticated wheat goes through a green phase. This could be implemented with the following formula:

[green domesticated wheat + sharp stone = cut green wheat] [cut green wheat + shovel + water =extra fertile soil]

“extra fertile soil” doesn’t expire the next time you harvest domesticated wheat or carrot seeds, giving you the option to use an extra two water instead of one soil.

This would greatly reduce the scarcity of wheat, however it also requires greater care and leads to soil waste if the wheat not cut at the right time.


There is a Greek proverb which states, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” This greatly applies to sustainable agriculture, resource management, and thus, One Hour One Life. The mechanism of timing things to respawn after one “epoch” (sixty years, the maximum lifespan), ensures that players are making resource management decisions based on the needs of the future generation. This system applies to many aspects of regeneration in the game, such as milkweed stalks returning and rabbit holes repopulating. It has become ever more important with changes to domestic gooseberries, which now do not bear their first fruit for one epoch.

Domestic gooseberries only ever use a single fertile soil if they are cared for, and are a “permanent agriculture.” A couple of people who choose to spend a life time building a large gooseberry orchard can help keep a civilization alive for tens of generations, such as the ancient olive groves in Palestine.  Similarly, by adding the feature to split burdock, hunter-gatherer societies could plan for a future where they can sustain a greater population, such as was done with camas by Indians in the American Northwest.

This “epoch” principle works excellently for permanent soil fertility. In order to make it possible but remain balanced it must be an arduous task with only a long term payoff. More importantly, the process needs to begin while soil can still be spared, so it requires very long term planning, genuine responsibility, and care about the future of your people.

I wish big agriculture in America was done with a view to the soil remaining good for future generations…

A small farm on One Hour One Life
Farming is great, but what do you do when the soil goes bad?
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