A large part of development is marketing. It’s all about making the public empathetic and hence willing to support a cause. Charities and development organizations enlist a variety of methods, from concerned celebrities to depressing Sponsor a Child campaigns on television. However, a combination of poverty porn (exploitative photos or news coverage or poor people designed to encourage donations) and compassion fatigue has made it increasingly difficult for people to empathize with humanitarian issues. In response to this, several aid organizations have turned to the internet in order to engage donors through interactive media.
One such campaign is a series of animated computer games developed by the UK’s Department for International Development’s (DFID). The Race Against Global Poverty website features a series of games portraying a day’s work for a development worker. In one game, the player maneuvers a car through rocky terrain to reach a tent village where they are told three problems the villagers are facing. It is then up to the player to decide what three items the village needs most. Problems range from contamination of the village’s water supply to an outbreak of disease. In contrast to real world humanitarian aid, the problems depicted in the game require little to no consideration as they are relatively simple to figure out. A child could easily glide through this game in a heartbeat.
In a similar fashion, the game Third World Farmer allows the gamer to determine a farmer’s crop decisions on a year-to-year basis. The gamer then has to tackle a series of challenges such as drought, civil war, raids, and even fluctuation in market prices. Despite the poorly chosen name of the game, Third World Farmer gives a fairer depiction of how difficult it may be to keep success sustainable. Even when making seemingly right decisions, unforeseeable problems can easily arise.
Perhaps a more popular example is mtvU’s Darfur is Dying which aims to raise awareness of the genocide occurring in the Sudan. The game allows the player to simulate life in a Darfur refugee camp. Users choose between four female and four male characters of varying ages before setting off to forage for water. The point is to make it to the well and back to camp without being spotted by the Janjaweed militia. If caught, the player loses that character to violence or rape. Once safe at the camp, the player must face eminent threat of attack by the Janjaweed and supporting life at the camp. The intent of the game is all well and good; however, it fails to fully encapsulate the horrors of the Darfur genocide. It’s too easy to get caught up in playing the game without fully understanding the reality behind it. It’s questionable whether it is even possible to illustrate something as horrific as genocide in a game without losing its gravity.
While the impact of these games and websites is still unknown, they do provide an interactive way to learn about development work. Many people’s eyes glaze over as soon as commercials with sad, hungry children come on the television. In contrast, these interactive tools actively engage the attention of their audience. However, while these online sites provide an alternative method for marketing aid, they also convey the unfortunate impression of aid being easy and may, as a result, further desensitize people. If a child can do it then why can’t the professionals? Development work is never as simple as it seems. It is not always so clear-cut to determine what and how much a community may need. This is evident simply by how difficult it is to market aid effectively. As Tales from the Hood illustrates, even full-blown honesty, while refreshing, may not be the right answer.
Perhaps, all that can be said is that while these tools are a step in the right direction, there will always be room for improvement. Games are certainly more engaging than the real world, but they can’t help with real problems unless there are platforms to get involved past the virtual development scene. Transitioning from winning games to winning development will be the next step on the computer monitor, er, horizon.