Activists Build Video Games

You are a frog who happens to live on a farm. Your aim is to pick up as many grapes, oranges and other harvest fruit as you can in as little time as possible. But the fruit is quickly going rotten, and you’ve got to compete with worms, donkey and dragonflies. What’s more, the farmer might decide to spray pesticides, which puts you in such a drunken stupor that picking up fruit off the ground is a challenge. Whoever grabs the most fresh fruit wins.

If this were an ordinary video game, the description would end here. But in “Squeezed,” a socially conscious video game developed by students at the University of Denver, there’s another reason, aside from earning points, to continue to the end. You may be just a frog, but you also have a family and community to support in a country far away. The “juice” you collect from the fruits you pick up is paying for schools and medical clinics back home. Without it, your family may starve.

“Squeezed” is part of a growing trend of socially conscious games that are as much about spreading awareness as entertainment. A small group of activist game developers is trying to give the joystick generation a political education through gaming. “Games are growing up,” says Suzanne Seggerman, co-director of Games For Change, a nonprofit organization that promotes developers of socially conscious games. “They’re mature enough now to finally sustain real world content.” This year’s third annual Games for Change conference, held last month at The New School in New York, included 240 participants, up from 40 in 2004, when the first conference was held. “I think we may have 10 really good games right now, which is much bigger than it was even two years go,” says Katie Salen, a director of graduate studies in design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design. “It may not sound like a lot, but they provide really good models of how to get these games in the hands of the players.”

Like many activist games, “Squeezed” is intended to raise awareness among relatively well-off young people by putting them in game situations that resemble those of immigrants and poor people in real life. The frogs, donkeys and dragonflies that work the farms in the game serve as stand-ins for migrant workers from Latin America. The game’s objective, says Mohammed Albow, a Ph.D. student at the University of Denver who helped develop the game, is to allow players to empathize with the immigrant experience in the United States. “We wanted to make a system that creates an emotional response from the players,” he says. “[The game] is not meant to send a message for this side or the other, but we want players to explore the views, to think about the subject.”

Activist games are starting to get some big-time attention. “Squeezed” comes out in September on MTVu.com, MTV’s 24-hour college network Web site. (MTVu and Cisco Systems gave $25,000 to the developers of “Squeezed.”) In August, MTVu will hold a contest for the best idea for a videogame about AIDS/HIV. Last April, MTVu released “Darfur is Dying” on its Web site, which students at the University of Southern California developed to raise awareness about the genocide. The game features Sudanese refugees searching for water in the desert while trying to escape the Janjaweed militia. MTVu was originally hoping the game would attract 200,000 visits over its lifetime, but in the seven weeks since its release more than 700,000 people have played.  “The best part of the game is that no one is hitting you over the head,” says Stephen Friedman, general manager of MTVu. “You don’t need to know anything about [the genocide], but little by little, it gets under your skin. It puts you in the shoes of the Darfurians who have to protect other Darfurians in a day-to-day basis.

Other organizations are also getting into the act. The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict invested $3 million and allied with commercial game developer Breakaway LTD to create “A Force More Powerful,”, a strategy game that is intended to teach budding activists how to use non-violent methods to influence government policies. “It allows you to plan your own activism strategies and test them out,” says Hardy Merriman, the director of programs and research at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. And in June, Global Kids, a New York-based non-profit, released “Ayiti: The Cost of Life,” which, according to the developers, is “a role-playing game which models poverty as an obstacle to education in contemporary Haiti.” Even the United Nations has gotten into the act. Last year UNICEF released “Water Alert,” in which players have to ensure that the residents of a dry village have access to healthy water. In the World Food Programme’s “Food Force,” also unveiled last year, players have to complete a series of missions ranging from dropping food parcels from the air to using food aid to rebuild a country’s economy. The free game was downloaded more than 1 million times in its first six weeks online, according to the agency.

Although these games can’t compete in excitement with the likes of “Madden NFL 2006,” “Pokemon Emerald” and “Gran Turismo 4,” some of the games make it by being controversial. The developers of “PeaceMaker”, for instance, have tried to simulate the violence and political turbulence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Players choose between the role of an Israeli prime minister or a Palestinian Authority president, making policy decisions and communicating with the international community while dealing with unexpected violent events. “[The game] is a very good approach to a very hard conflict to resolve,” says Oren Ross, 23, who played the game for the first time at the Games for Change conference. “You really get to experience that both sides want two different things.” The game’s developers Asi Burak, a former Israeli intelligence officer, and Eric Brown, a game developer, recently formed a firm, ImpactGames, to develop and market the game. “We want to get as many people as possible to play it and learn something that they haven’t learned before,” Brown says. Developers are currently testing the game in limited pilots in the United States and don’t yet have a release date.

Despite the excitement coming from activists and digital game developers, most experts agree that these activist games will probably not do well in the marketplace. Entertainment, after all, is not the first priority. Mike Hong, a junior at MIT who has played “Darfur is Dying” online, says activist games are just not stimulating enough to catch his interest. “People might buy these games for charity, but playing them just for enjoyment? I don’t think so,” he says. Susana Ruiz, the lead developer of “Darfur is Dying,” just hopes that the game will have a small part in spreading awareness. First get the joysticks moving, then see what develops.