I remember playing a demo of this some time ago, but mtvU has today announced the official launch of Darfur is Dying, a game developed by USC students who won the chance to develop and distribute the game as winners of the Digital Activist competition.
In light of other "political" games recently in the news that have used their game mechanics to disseminate offensive stereotypes, it's important to think about this game and how it works to communicate its point. Fortunately, this game is refreshingly smart about its subject and effective in its delivery.
In water fetching mode, the player chooses a representative to run for water. In strategic terms, young girls can move faster and carry more water than boys, but the consequences of their being captured are more severe.
The game features two modes of play: fetching water and managing the safety and health of the camp. The player's goal is to keep the camp running for 7 days, and in both modes, the message seems to be communicated most clearly through a rhetoric of failure. When searching for water, the player must select a representative from among the camp population and avoid heavily Janjaweed militia by hiding behind rocks or other items on the landscape. The mechanic is constructed in such a way that it's rather difficult to avoid capture and the poignancy of the situation being simulated is driven home by the fact that the most efficient water carriers are young girls. When your representative is captured, the heartbreaking details of what would likely happen force the player to reconsider their strategy -- do you send out more young girls who are likely to be raped and killed or boys who may be less likely to get captured but can carry less water?
The management mode of play is less straightforward, and in the first playing of it, I was struck with how my initial confusion at the relatively small number of tasks and variables to maintain mirrors in some ways my relationship to the actual situation in Darfur. Knowing little about the politics involved, I can respond most vividly to the images and stories of human suffering. Similarly in the game world, it took some time for me to figure out what I was supposed to do to produce and harvest food, but I was immediately confronted with tragic stories of the status of my camp and its gradual destruction by Janjaweed militia.
Overall, this game is not fun, but its goal is motivate players to take action and do something about the real world situation being depicted. Though the play mechanics in themselves are not particularly groundbreaking, their use in the context and the way the game balances interaction with information succeeds well in delivering its messages and it presents several pointers to a page of information about getting involved. I was a little surprised to see a list of high scores (I assume that's that it is -- I only saw one name, so perhaps there's only that one player so far who has made it 7 days), but it does serve as a reminder that this is, after all, just a game and we need to go do something about it.
The list also serves to emphasize the gap between success and failure in this game. In other words, having just failed, we see the success of others and want to try again, an attitude which, if mapped onto the real situation, provides a sense of hope that our effort can make a difference.
The press release for this game uses the term "viral" to describe its planned distrubution method, and it will be interesting to see if that kind of "passing it on" takes place. With the backing of mtvU, it's certainly possible that this will "go viral." Let's hope it succeeds.