Darfur is Dying — can a video game help resolve a humanitarian crisis?

Darfur is Dying is a free online video game created to build awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and motivate people to take action in addressing it.  I discovered the game through an episode of 3 Minute Ad Age which featured segments of a keynote presentation made by Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, at the recent Games for Change annual festival in New York.

Darfur is Dying

Mr. Kristof has become an enthusiastic proponent of video games as a force for engaging mass audiences.  He was so impressed with Darfur is Dying that he will produce an online game to accompany the publication of his new book, Half the Sky — Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women World Wide. While Antonio Neves, the 3 Minute Ad Age host, calls this a new form of journalism, it’s really more about cause-related communication or education.

Mr. Kristof says that one of the things that makes the Darfur is Dying game so effective is that the player identifies emotionally with an individual Darfurian.  It didn’t feel that way to me.   To play the game, you first select from one of several Darfurian avatars, but they are no more than cartoon figures.  Perhaps if a fictional profile for each of the figures had been provided, it might have had that effect.

I also wondered if transforming such things as foraging for water or hiding from the militia into game objectives could potentially backfire and desensitize people to the plight of Darfurians.  But perhaps I’m over-thinking that.

It’s a great idea with great potential.  Nobody will be spending hours playing Darfur is Dying in order to “keep their camp functioning,” the stated goal of the game.  But of course that isn’t the point.  I imagine the greatest value of this game, and others like it, will be to engage a mass audience of young people in social issues and causes — an audience that is less accessible through more traditional communications channels.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Darfur is Dying — can a video game help resolve a humanitarian crisis?

  1. This is as offensive as it is hilarious! Notice how all the children have the same face, just with different hair and clothing. Are they saying that all African kids look the same? ‘Cause that’s just a very anti-PC road to go down. Can you imagine if they had a Holocaust video game? Or maybe one about Rwanda or Yugoslavia? People would be outraged, but a game about Darfur is fine, for some reason. The only way this could be more inappropriate is if they let you pick between Darfuri, JEM, SLA and Janjaweed avatars.

  2. Stephen Rothman

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I visited your blog and you are clearly well informed and steeped in the activism behind the save Darfur movement. Your objections to the game are well taken. But presuming these and other issues could be addressed, can you see any value in this gaming format, even if only as a communications tool to help kids or young teens become aware of Darfur or similar humanitarian issues? In the 3 Minute Ad Age segment, Nicholas Kristof mentions a school class that contacted him with a request to come and talk about Darfur. It was the game that motivated them to do so. I suspect a teacher might have been involved in using the game as an educational device for helping these kids to understand Darfur. Does this use of the game have any legitimacy in your opinion?

  3. While I appreciate the potential educational value of a revised version of this game, I’m still very uncomfortable with anything that makes kids associate a humanitarian crisis with fun. I agree that it could possibly desensitize kids, but I’d add that, when kids are given something as frivolous as a game to learn about a crisis, it speaks volumes about how seriously the adults in charge are taking the lesson, and kids may think “Oh, adults aren’t taking this seriously, so neither should I.”

    That said, I’d like to know if kids who found out about Darfur through the game are better informed or more excited about the issue than kids who found out about the game through “traditional,” channels, i.e. teachers, the internet, a book. I doubt they’re better informed, but if they’re more excited about getting involved in activism due to this game then maybe it would be a worthwhile educational tool.

    Finally, I’ll just point out that kids don’t need to have fun to learn. I remember exactly three learning experiences from 7th grade: That time my teacher brought in actual shackles from a slave auction, that time I learned that Sarah Jones hits really hard and our class trip to the Holocaust Museum. None of those were fun, but all were very educational.

  4. If you give a video game to a kid that has an educational value, they were learn. Its that simple.

  5. Mark,

    It most certainly is not that simple. This game has great potential for spreading misinformation, and we need to pay attention to what kids are learning from these video games and not just assume that any education is helpful. Are they implicitly learning that Darfuris are just interchangeable characters in a game? Are they learning to understand the crisis in Darfur in the absence of any historical context? Are they learning that living in IDP camps is fun? For the game to possess true educational value, its creators need to think seriously about what lessons it’s teaching kids.

  6. Stephen Rothman

    Hi Deontologist,

    if you haven’t already, you should get in touch with and make your concerns known to Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. According to the 3-Minute Ad Age episode, he is highly involved in raising awareness about Darfur and is enthusiastic about this online video game as a way to do that. So clearly he is someone with influence with whom you would want to share your point of view.

  7. Dear Socialmediasoapbox,
    Maybe a little off topic, however, I finally took the trip during my spring break, I have been wanting to go for ages.

    On level 1 after I got my passport, I was not impressed. I was like I know all of this and why would anyone cry about this stuff ti is all about Hitler… but by the time I left I was in tears, each level gets more and more personal and more and more devastating.

    My person died, she never had a chance to tell her story…someone else did. My eyes opened and I realized just how serious a genocide could be which makes Darfur even more upsetting. This stuff still happens today.

    …For those who have not been, beware. I am far from the crying type, it takes a lot to make me shed a tear and I did. To get the full affect you have to read and watch the videos do not skip over stuff.

    I also wish they would have went more into the personal lives of some, it didn’t talk much about how family would even fight for food at times, or how some were being raped.
    All the Best

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