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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 July 2006, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Darfur activism meets video gaming
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

Darfur is Dying
The game is played online and is based around a series of tasks
The ongoing violence in Sudan's Darfur region has spawned many forms of activism. The goal is to increase public awareness of the conflict, in which hundreds of thousands have died and more than two million people have been displaced.

Now, that activism is going online, in the form of a video game entitled Darfur is Dying.

The idea of a Darfur-related video game came from mtvU, the music video giant's network for university students.

The network has an ongoing campaign to raise awareness of the situation in Darfur. But last October, executives decided that they wanted to add a new component, something that would hopefully increase the level of student activism.

'Under your skin'

"The first part of activism is getting something under your skin, and having a personal identification with it, and the immediacy of playing a [video] game can often do that," says Stephen Friedman, mtvU's general manager.

The network partnered with the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group. Together, they offered a grant of $50,000 (28,000) to anyone willing to make a video game about Darfur.

Young people don't necessarily know what Darfur is
Susana Ruiz, game developer

Susana Ruiz, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, answered the call.

Ruiz had been working on a possible game project about the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. But when she floated the idea to colleagues, some of them scoffed at the idea that such a game could be successful.

Then she heard about mtvU's announcement.

'Unbelievable'

"What MTV did was sort of told me that there someone that was like-minded, and that was just unbelievable," says Ruiz.

Darfur is dying
Gamers can choose their character

So, she switched gears, and decided to make a game about Darfur instead of Rwanda.

Her goal was to create a game that put people in the shoes of a Darfurian refugee.

She spoke with people who had worked in the refugee camps, and with genocide experts. Then, she teamed with fellow students to develop a game design and prototype.

MtvU put that prototype up on its website along with a couple of other entries, asking visitors to choose their favourite. Ruiz's game, which she titled "Darfur is Dying" won.

"We were always trying to make something that would be accessible to the audience that wouldn't go to see a documentary about Darfur, or wouldn't read a newspaper article," Ruiz says.

"Young people don't necessarily know what Darfur is, or even how to spell it. Where's Darfur? Where's the Sudan? Clearly the game is an oversimplification of the crisis. But it is an entryway into the crisis, and answers basic questions like that."

Darfur is Dying officially launched in April. It can be played by anyone, online, at no cost.

The game is set in a refugee camp.

To begin, you choose from a number of Darfurian characters of all different ages and genders. Once you have chosen your character, you begin with a very simple task: fetch water for the camp.

Barren landscape

Your character then dashes across a barren landscape, clutching an empty container. Along the way, you have to dodge trucks filled with gun-toting militiamen.

If you are lucky, you will make it to the water pump, and then back to the camp.

If you are unlucky and get caught, you are told what happens to your character. For example, a player learns that a young boy is likely to be killed or kidnapped by the militias, or that a young girl is likely to face rape and abuse.

MtvU says that more 700,000 people have played "Darfur is Dying" since the game launched. But some are asking if the game is doing what it was designed to do; namely, to increase both awareness of and activism around the situation in Darfur.

'Discussion'

Douglas Thomas, who teaches at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, says that "even just the idea that there is that game out there, that makes people say, 'Oh, there's a problem in Darfur,' even if it provokes that kind of discussion, we're miles ahead of where we were".

Others are more sceptical. "We want video games to take on big problems, like the problems in Darfur. But we want to be sure that it's really taking on those problems," says Ian Bogost, who teaches video game criticism at The Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States.

Bogost worries that MTV's involvement makes the game seem more like a marketing tool, not a teaching tool. He also wonders whether "Darfur is Dying" oversimplifies an incredibly complex conflict.

We must not be afraid of putting people in the shoes of groups or people or individuals that are not comfortable
Ian Bogost, Video game criticism teacher

"We must not be afraid of putting people in the shoes of groups or people or individuals that are not comfortable, that we don't like, or think we don't like," says Bogost.

He adds: "It's very easy to look at any one side in this conflict, and say these are the good guys and these are bad guys, but if we've learned anything in the 21st century already, it's that maybe there are no good guys and bad guys anymore."

"Darfur is Dying is a work in progress," according to the game's creator Susana Ruiz.

She wants to see that situation first-hand. Ruiz hopes to travel to the region and incorporate what she experiences into future versions of "Darfur is Dying."

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production




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