Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ben's Gaming Diary

The first social impact game I played was Darfur is Dying (which, to my surprise, was created by MTV). The storyline for Darfur is Dying is very straight-forward and simple: first one chooses a character (there are 8 from which to choose, with ages ranging from 10 to 30). The first task is forging for water, one made difficult by the roaming Janjaweed militia, which kills the character if it is found. In order to survive, one must run across a barren desert landscape, hiding behind plants to escape detection. Once the water is obtained, it must be brought back to the village, where the rest of the game takes place. There, one must manage the food and water supplies and the shelters (which are always in need of repairs), and try to produce as much goods as possible before militias raid and destroy it all.

When I played Darfur is Dying, I didn’t think it was all that great. As I was running around looking for water, I was caught by the militia. My character (12-year-old Jaja), I discovered, could no longer be used; I had to choose a new one, and it was at this point that I started to look at the game in a new way. Jaja was dead, and I was a little disturbed by this…kids in Africa actually die looking for WATER.

I was hit with a similar feeling when I tried to select Rahman, the 30-year-old man, to forge for water. A message popped up that said older men don’t usually forge for water because they are easily seen and caught by the militia. I was amazed; I just can’t imagine this game as a reality, yet it is a daily reality for so many.

The rest of my time was spent trying to keep the town functioning for 8 days (I never did). I was really impressed with the layout and user-friendliness of the game; the creators incorporated educational elements very effectively (in order to decrease the threat level for the town, one must choose between four or five different ways of actually contributing to the real Darfur conflict). I thought that of the three games I played, this one was the best, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

The second game I played was The Anti-Bush Video Game. This game was pretty goofy (the main characters are Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and He-Man, and there are random Star Wars elements incorporated throughout), but it was actually one of the more educational ones I came across. In it, one guides the characters through different levels of the White House, encountering “bosses” ranging from Tom Ridge (head of Homeland Security) to George HW Bush. The emphasis, though, is on the shortcomings of George W Bush as a president. Gamers are exposed to tons of information about the Bush administration, such as the effects of the actions of Bush and who benefits as result of them.

Most of my time spent on this game was not in actual play, but in reading up on the information. The best feature of the site was the menu bar at the bottom of the screen, which allows for the immediate transport to the informative parts of the game. I played the game for awhile (up until the part about the Estate Tax), and then decided to just read the rest. I think this game proved to me the effectiveness of game-based learning; my favorite part was the interactive graph that lowered as one learned the extent of the national debt, brought on by the actions of Bush.

The final game I played was 3rd World Farmer. It was similar to Darfur is Dying in that it simulates “third-world” conditions and gives the gamer a reality check. You start out with a family of 4, a little money, and a few slots of land on which to build buildings and grow food. You then purchase different crops, and your turn is over. A year’s worth of events are simulated, and you are given a progress report on your farm. You learn whether or not your crops did well, and there are many possible outcomes (but there is rarely a positive outcome, as in real life). Scenarios include militias raiding the farm and eating all the food to exporters demanding low prices, thus resulting in low profit.

The experience was definitely an eye-opener for me, because it made me realize the reason we have cheap fruit, vegetables and materials here in the US: exploitation. As I went through the many seasons, family members got sick and died, (I didn’t have health insurance to protect them, militias took everything I had grown, and the oppressive government limited my profit. I was offered money to sell some space where chemical waste would be dumped, and even though I never accepted the offer, it was enticing (and I know people struggling to put food on the table for their families in real third-world countries would have a much harder time turning it down). I strongly recommend everyone who has complained about overpriced food to take a few moments and play this game.

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