Global Video Games for ‘Serious’ Gamers

[MONTRÉAL] I’ve always been a fan of video games, sometimes spending hours scouring through medieval landscapes blasting the crap out grotesque monsters or evil sorcerers. But I’ve recently come across a few video games that have a purpose to them other than pure entertainment. Rather than divert a player’s attention from the real world, these ‘serious’ video games attempt to bring a sense of reality to the screen.

(source: Serious Games Interactive)One such gaming developer is Copenhagen-based Serious Games Interactive, which was founded in 2006 “to revolutionise the use of computer games for purposes beyond entertainment.” They initiated a series of video games called Global Conflicts that challenges 13- to 19-year-olds to be critical and reflective citizens in a globalized world. They offer two versions of the game: one based in Palestine and the newer one in Latin America.

The Global Conflict: Palestine was released on July 5, 2007 and takes an interesting approach to gaming. The player takes on the role of a journalist within a simulated environment in contemporary Jerusalem. When I played the demo available for free download, I was assigned to write a story about checkpoints in the city. It began with me meeting my editor in a café who sends me off to research a story. In the demo version, there is only one story idea option: to write an article about the checkpoints. All the research comes directly from other characters the player/journalist meets and interviews within the Jerusalem gamescape. Another demo version of the game can be played directly online and is set in Latin America.

There is a notepad to copy direct quotations from people interviewed. You can see which characters are interactive because their names are tagged beside their characters within the game. The choice of questions to ask are limited. The player also decides which answers or comments come from those interviewed. The objective is to be as neutral as possible and to get as wide a perspective as possible so that an ‘objective’ article can be written. You even get to choose which newspaper to write for, either a Palestinian paper, an Isaeli paper or an international paper.

A second game I cam across is Food Force, an interactive game produced for the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). It can be downloaded for free from their website. The game has six missions for the player to accomplish that relates to the six stages related to the delivery of food aid in a crisis situation. The six missions are chronological to follow the logistical steps for delivering food aid from the beginning of the need of food aid until the recipients are no longer in need. They include: 1) Air Surveillance to assess the crisis, 2) Energy Pack for creating a formula for nutritious meal; 3) Air Drop to deliver emergency food aid by air; 4) Buy and Deliver of food aid from around the world; 5) The Food Run to overcome land obstacles to deliver food; 6) Future Farming to help the fictitious country feed itself over a 10-year timeline.

The game does a pretty good job at portraying the varying stages of food crisis aid from the perspective of the United Nations. The game is basic but good for elementary or secondary  school-age kids, but for those interesting in digging deeper into UN food programs, they have a ‘The Reality’ link to video clips, a photo gallery, and links to WFP programs and to the WFP website for more detailed information. Unfortunately, the game maintains a Euro- or Western-centric perspective where mostly-white people help black people get out of a food crisis on the fictitious island of Sheylan in the Indian Ocean. The only black man has an American accent that resembles the voice of a polite Eddy Murphy. The attitudes of the “Crack Squad” project managers of the WFP crisis mission in Sheylan seemed modelled after American army types that makes the game’s WFP desire to solve the food crisis more cynical in line with US foreign policy as we are used to seeing it.

The third video game can be played online. Darfur is Dying was created as a result of the Darfur Digital Activist Contest that was launched by mtvU in partnership with the International Crisis Group and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation. This type of foundation is typically set up to associate a corporate brand name like Reebok with words like ‘human rights’ in response to bad press relating to its reputation as manufacturing its shoes in factories with less than stellar working conditions, as this report from China labour Watch describes. I’ve been searching the net for documentation but their campaign is obviously working because it is difficult to find reference to this show company without its foundation getting in the way. Websites that advocate for worker rights in the clothing manufacturing sector include: Behind the Label, Maquila Solidarity Network & Sweatshop Watch, whose website is no longer online.

In the image above, a screen shot taken while the character ( a young girl from a refugee camp) runs around looking for water for the camp. In the image, she is hiding behind a rock while heavily armed Janjaweed drive past. If they catch her she is taken away and can no longer help out at the refugee camp. The player is then forced to pick another refugee to seek water.

The three games have very different esthetics and objectives but provide an interesting approach to dealing with global issues using video games.

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