Thursday, April 21, 2005

Bang, bang! You're fed

From The Independent:

You're engrossed in a computer game, flying a helicopter mission at high speed, when the order comes through to drop your load and get back to base.

So what's in the chopper? Bombs? Napalm? No: your cargo is high-energy biscuits. There may be armed rebels a-plenty in Food Force, a new video-game release, but it's not your job to massacre them; instead, you have to negotiate with them to ensure that starving refugees get life-saving food supplies. Welcome to the world of ethical gaming.

Food Force is the brainchild of the UN World Food Programme (WFP). It's a free, downloadable game that teaches children aged eight to 13 about the logistical challenges of delivering food aid in a major humanitarian crisis. The game is set on a fictitious war-torn island, Sheylan, where thousands of people are in desperate need of aid. Players undertake one of six virtual missions that can involve anything from air-drops to rebuilding villages.

The man behind this novel approach to teaching children about humanitarianism is Neil Gallagher, the WFP's director of communications. "Communicating with children today means using the latest technology." Dressing up a lesson in international aid as a computer game seems a canny way to get both children and parents on board.

Gallagher says: "We believe Food Force will generate kids' interest and understanding about hunger, which kills more people than Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. So many parents complain about the blood and gratuitous violence kids are so often exposed to in video games.

This is a fun, action-packed alternative."

Although the UK games charts are dominated by war games aimed at over-18s, ethical gaming is getting a foothold. Another example is Pax Warrior, a computer simulation of the dilemmas faced by UN peacekeepers during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which is being piloted as a teaching tool in classrooms in Scotland.

The idea is to use new media to develop students' decision-making skills and to teach them about the circumstances that led to 800,000 Rwandans being put to death in 100 days. Despite the efforts of the peacekeepers, very few Rwandans were saved, and that's reflected in the simulation. The children are given similar information to that available to the UN. Based on that, they have to make choices that will have consequences for the rest of the simulation.

Andreas Ua'Siaghail, Pax Warrior's designer, believes that teaching children through ethical gaming is highly effective. "Kids are using books less, and there are also different kinds of learners. Some learn visually, some learn through auditory stimulation and some from reading text. We are using all three methods."

The simulation was first trialled at James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh earlier this year.

The headmaster, Alex Wallace, was impressed. "One of the priorities is that we teach students what it means to be a global citizen. They got a real opportunity to improve their social responsibility."

Similarly, a CD-Rom called President For a Day is an educational game that casts players as the president of a fictional African country, taking it from independence to the present day. Players receive advice and opinions from officials, but make key decisions themselves. It aims to teach children about the dilemmas facing the Third World: issues of social justice, equality, wealth and poverty, reconciliation and peace. President For a Day costs £12 but, as it's aimed at children of 12 or above, parents may be happy to stump up.

The games seem unlikely to become "must haves". Lofty though their ideals are, the average gamer is more used to unleashing war than preventing it.

It's not just teachers and charities who have realised that free, downloadable games are a great way to target people. The US Army spent $7m developing America's Army, a free internet game for the PC released last year. In its first six months, 1.5 million people downloaded the game, and a CD version is available at recruitment centres.

Games with ethical messages also don't tend to make the switch from the internet or PC to the mainstream games consoles such as PlayStation 2 or Xbox. In this week's UK game chart, the Top 10 include Doom 3, a violent adventure set on Mars and peopled with demonic enemies; Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, an ultra-realistic war simulation; and The Punisher, where the vigilante hero assassinates criminals in bloodthirsty ways. The total software sales for the week ending 9 April was £23.4m, and it's this money that games developers and publishers are interested in.

Nick Grange, the head of public relations for Xbox, thinks ethical gaming has huge potential, but that it would mean publishers taking risks and spending money. "There's definitely room for more ethical games, but they need to be sophisticated and really enjoyable if gamers are going to buy them. If a game had an amazing plot and graphics, people would play it."

But until ethical gaming makes it on to a console, it will always be marginal. "No one's made a truly ethical game for a console, and ethical gaming is never going to get into the living room until it's on a console." Grange is also unconvinced by the didactic tone of some "edu-tainment" games.

However, it's not all bad news in console games. Although there aren't many titles out there about saving the rainforest or building schools in Africa, more mainstream games now give players the chance to make moral choices.

Whiplash, launched last year, is a console game from Eidos, the creators of Tomb Raider. Aimed at younger gamers, it's about helping animals to escape from and then to destroy an animal-testing lab.

The main selling point of Fable, a roleplay game released in September, is that for every choice the player makes, there is a direct consequence. If you kick a chicken, you begin building up an "evil" score. If you kill another character, people will shun you. But if you help people, you become a hero.

Be warned though: the games industry's idea of games based on ethical and moral choices can leave much to be desired. Next month, 7 Sins is set to hit the PC and PS2. It's a game where players have to behave as badly as possible in order to tick off every sin to ensure they win.

Unless "sloth" is something that parents want their children to explore further, it's probably better not to buy them this title.

Five places to look for ethical play

1) The United Nations' free game, developed by the World Food Programme (if you have trouble finding this site, visit and follow the links)

2) Free games are available from the children's section. All are based on saving or protecting animals

3) Free, simple Flash games are available on this site: subjects take in ecology, animals and science

4) Go to this link to order a copy of President For a Day.

5) The CBeebies section has games such as It's a Green Life, where children can assess how eco-friendly they are