Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Can Saving the World be Fun?

Friday, September 21st is a day that means nothing to a good portion of the world. To many, it’s the end of the work week and the start of the weekend. But most don’t know that Jeremy Gilley put forth immense effort to have September 21st recognized by the United Nations as Peace Day.

And succeeded.

September 21st is officially Peace Day! This isn’t news, though. Peace Day has been around for over a decade, but the news hasn’t reached our ears yet. How can there be peace if no one knows it exists? Part of the problem is spreading the word, but the other half of the problem is that awareness can only go so far, and that distance is about 30 feet in any direction.

We hear about social issues all the time. Organizations try to catch our eye with emotionally appealing commercials and guilt trips. Sarah McLaughlin’s depressing song does wonders for reflexes as we trip over ourselves to change the channel. They may be able to put some tears in our eyes, but as soon as Friends comes back on, the tears evaporate. God forbid you should be walking by the university library on the day someone’s advocating global warming. In which case, you get something like this:

Can you spot the students? Eight of them are in this picture.

The problem isn’t us (sort of)—it’s the medium. Television doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Advocators are annoying so we avoid them. And donations, while helpful, are just a way to clear out the change. “Well,” you say. “You sure are talking high n’ mighty there. If you know so much, how do we fix it then?”

Simple—with video games.

Now, I’m not the first to say that, and I probably won’t be the last, but using video games as a medium to not only raise awareness, but also involvement, is an excellent option. Beneath the bloodshed and the grenade explosions, the nymphs and the dragons, there’s also a desire for peace. We want it in video games. We want to restore the world to a proper state, where all its inhabitants can be happy. So why not merge one of the most expansive mediums with some of the more engrossing social issues?

The United Nations’ World Food Programme(WFP) released its first PC game—Food Force—in 2005, for the fight against hunger. The game itself registered over 10 million users, prompting the WFP to cozy up with Konami Digital. This led to the 2011 release of Food Force…for social media. Playable on Facebook, the game takes advantage of this social media perk by leading the player, and their chosen Facebook friends, though six levels where they face obstacles while sending out humanitarian aid, growing crops, and raising farm animals in order to create a “real world impact.”

Not unlike Food Force, Zynga, a social media game developer, helped raise money for Water.org by offering a blue water bison for purchase, raising $300,000 for the organization!

Yeah, all of these are organizations dedicated to helping social causes, but what if I told you it's not just lobbyists and hippies*?  MTv has put their best foot forward in an attempt to raise awareness about the problems in Darfur. In 2006, MTv released Darfur is Dying, a video game aimed at illustrating the lives of Darfurian people in refugee camps. You play as 1 of 10 characters, each of which has to increase the survival of the camp by doing things like foraging for water. The game does a good job of interweaving action with purpose, having dire consequences for failing, such as losing a character to death or possibly even rape. As you play, the back story of the Darfur conflict unwinds.

Games like Darfur is Dying revolve around survival, but there are also games that promote peace. After the September 11th attacks, NewsGaming.com unveiled its first game, September 12th. In the game, the more violence you use to stop terrorism, the more terrorists are made. The goal of the game is to decrease violence and also to show how "current US tactics on the war on terror affect the civilian population and generate more terrorism." After the Madrid bombing, NewsGaming.com released Madrid, which paid homage to the victims.

People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance
Steve York also created A Force More Powerful, based on the 1999 documentary, which is credited as being the "first interactive teaching tool in the field of nonviolent conflict." Players used several nonviolent strategies and tactics like boycotting and protesting to successfully solve conflicts around the world. The game has since been discontinued, paving the way for The International Center for Nonviolent Conflict to create a more updated game based on the same principles, People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance. This one is far more personal, as you embody a leader of a popular movement.

Funding is an issue. It's always an issue. For an advocacy video game to be interesting, it needs to look good and feel good. Making a commercial video game can cost more than most films. In fact, A Force More Powerful required $3 million dollars, while the game sold for about $20. Darfur is Dying was created on a
$50,000 grant and despite its much smaller budget, it gets the point across. Funding will affect the reach a game may have, but it doesn't detract from the deeper sentiment of the game.

Video games reflect a billion dollar industry. They're growing with this generation and are just begging to be put to work, even more so then what's already out there. Just in commercial games alone, you find the need for peace and the binary of morality. Games like Deus Ex and Infamous don't reward you for being good. Actually, being good is difficult, and in some cases, way harder than being good (i.e. sneaking around to avoid casualties).

And yes, there are violent games. Just like there are violent movies and violent books and violent music and round and round we go. But those games that can be classified as more violent than others--shooters in specific--are not the top selling genre(granted they're the second, but only one genre of many).

The complexity of our cultures and our world is what makes video games so accessible, interesting, and personal. Such intimacy created between game and gamer is a strong one. It puts you right there, in the area of conflict. Sometimes you're in trouble. Sometimes only you can save the world. In this case, only we can save the world. This type of interactive intimacy brings us closer to the issues people face every day, to the community, and to ourselves. It's time to get serious about gaming and connect with the millions that are already playing them.

Can saving the world be fun? Yeah, why not?

*Don't hit me.


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