Could video games be the new humanitarian ambassadors?

One of the challenges we faced with our new blogosphere initiative, Silence is the Enemy, was how to mobilize people to do something about the plight of rape victims. It's not that people don't have empathy for rape victims; it's that the experience of living in a war-torn nation where rape and murder are routine facts of life is so foreign and horrifying to us, we tend to tune it out. Part of the way to deal with this is to give people a clear mission - something simple they can do; in our case, donating to Doctors without Borders (as I am for the month of June), or writing to Congress, or getting involved with one of the many other organizations I listed in my initial post. But here's a new idea: Could games be what we need to mobilize public awareness, outrage, and assistance to the victims of humanitarian crimes in nations like Liberia, Rwanda, the Congo, and Darfur?

NYT op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof - the very same Kristof whose column on Liberia inspired Silence is the Enemy - thinks so. In his keynote address at the Games for Change Festival, Kristof made the case for games as an "entry point" by which people can become more informed and involved in causes.

According to the New York Observer,

Mr. Kristof said he and his wife were inspired by other online games like Darfur is Dying, a browser-based game developed by mtvU, University of Southern California students and African aid workers in 2006. Users act as displaced peoples in a virtual world and are required to complete tasks like fetching water and running from animated Janjaweed thugs to aid their camp. He cited Food Force, a 2005 game published by the United Nations' World Food Programme, as another example.

"We just saw how people can use games as this entry point, make this emotional connection, learn a little about the complexities and truly become engaged in an issue," Mr. Kristof said.

That doesn't sound fun to me at all, but these games aren't really about entertainment - they're about experience and empathy. Kristof likes the idea of humanitarian games so much, he has teamed with a game development company to create one to accompany his upcoming book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

Again, a game about oppressed women struggling to recover their dignity is not exactly my idea of relaxing after work. And my initial response to Kristof's argument was to wonder if real-world cases of oppression, rape, and genocide are really appropriate subjects for games at all. There is a very disturbing spin one could put on this - that is, that Americans connect more emotionally with video games than with mere stories about suffering in the third world, and only by turning humanitarian issues into games, by trivializing them, can we mobilize a response.

But I think that's an oversimplification. Our rational, NYT-op-ed-reading brain centers are not necessarily the ones that most effectively motivate us to take action. First-person experience almost always generates a more powerful emotional response than a third-person account. And a virtual experience that helps a player appreciate what it is like to be a child in Darfur is going to make every story they hear about Darfur, or refugees in other nations, much more immediate. In addition, while adults may be able to make analogies to their own experiences - as many readers of Sheril's initial post on Silence is the Enemy have done - children don't have that reservoir of experience to draw from. Games like Darfur is Dying could help them understand a little about how their peers in war-torn nations live, hopefully without traumatizing them with details they're not ready to handle.

I don't have anything against video games; my boyfriend has both a Wii and a PS3, and I drive a mean Mario Kart (I own Coconut Mall). But video games, like human nature, run the gamut. Remember when I asked if rape was an appropriate subject for a game? Well, there are some profoundly horrific games out there, such as RapeLay - a truly sick game that for some time I have been trying to pretend doesn't exist. So I find it comforting that video games can serve prosocial functions as well. In fact, the Pew Internet and American Life Project has found that certain kinds of gaming activities correlate with more civic, political and cultural engagement (see Amanda Lenhart's presentation). Our challenge is to ensure that for every RapeLay on the market, there is a game like Darfur is Dying - and that humanitarian causes get their fair share of promotion from social media, technology, and innovative, creative games.

To convey the urgency of this challenge, Kristof told the story of two women whose home in Darfur was invaded by the militia, who enslaved and repeatedly raped them before murdering their father (who had angered the militia by begging for his daughters' release) in front of them. The women survived in a refugee camp, where an American aid worker eventually got to know them. On returning home to the U.S. for Christmas, the normally stoic aid worker saw birds eating seed in a birdfeeder and completely broke down. In Kristof's words,

"She realized that she had won the lottery of birth by having the chance to grow up in a country where there was not only security but there was such ample resources that people could devote a little bit extra income to make sure that wild birds didn't go hungry in the winter," Mr. Kristof said.

"So that's my charge to you, I hope you will take on these causes, get more involved, and keep it up those people who are, not only because it will make a huge difference with these causes and not only because I think it will truly make you happier, more fulfilled, but simply because I think that is going to be the best way possible that we can get more Americans to understand their own place in the world and ultimately your target has to be to get Americans to look at a birdfeeder and just fall apart." (source)

So say we all.

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Our challenge is to ensure that for every RapeLay on the market, there is a game like Darfur is Dying - and that humanitarian causes get their fair share of promotion from social media, technology, and innovative, creative games.

I expect we're up to the challenge--we've only just begun...

I think I have rather mixed feelings, excepting that as you mention - there are already games that depict this sort of thing from a very different perspective (I was unaware of the one you mention - speechless). And I suspect that you're right. Pictures, words, even pictures from words as profoundly moving as Kristof's pieces so often are - they only go so far for most people (though his earliest piece on Darfur actually ended up making me physically ill - big time) and then they've past and gone.

While I doubt that games will make it last that much longer, I think that the impact will be more intense. It is a lot different to read about how people are experiencing life, than it is to try to live like them - even if only on a screen.

As long as I don't have to play the father who waits in the bushes while his youngest (and therefore most expendable) daughter fetches water for the rest of the family and hopes the Janjaweed murderers aren't waiting on other bushes, to rape and killer her.

Or maybe that's the point and that's what will drive it home. I know that after nearly six years, that image - the one painted by Kristof's description is burned deep enough in my brain that it still gives me nightmares.

Very interesting review of the NYT game theory on education. I am involved in a doc that is releasing later this year about the world of pro video gamers, or how the young pros, are sort of taken for a ride by the sponsors...they dont have proper representation structures...but gaming (even though I have little time for it) is here to stay as an educational paradigm in my view and its not for nothin that it outstrips the film industry by a country mile...