Can videogames really be used for social change?

These games want to change attitudes and make a difference in the real world. But are sims about Darfur too much of a stretch?
  • @memphisbarker

Things don't go brilliantly on my first attempt at MTV's online videogame Darfur is Dying. The task ought to be a simple one: direct your character, chosen from a family of eight refugees, to and from a well outside the notorious camp's borders – without being seen. I select Poni, a 13-year-old girl in a pink dress, as my avatar, and as I hammer laptop arrow keys she pegs it across a cartoon desert, flask in her hand.

Disaster strikes 900 metres from the well, when a truck full of Janjaweed militia catches sight of Poni and veers her way. I try evasion but in a kerfuffle press the space bar (“hide”) – leaving Poni crouched on the sand in open view. The truck catches up – and a Game Over screen like none I've ever seen before appears:

“You have been captured. Girls caught by the Janjaweed face abuse, rape and kidnapping.”

I'm asked if I want to play again.

Well… yes and no.

“Games for change” – the title given simulations like Darfur is Dying – are on the rise. Packaging sour social problems in sweet addictive formats, their makers hope to shock.

The pick of this year's bizarre hits has players live the life of a conscience-plagued drone operator. Another transfers fantasy football's principles to the US election.

And next month a blockbuster arrives. Half the Sky – a book by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn – will be transformed into a colourful Facebook game where the decisions players make channel sponsors' money to a number of charities for women.

Of course, there's room for scepticism here. Online games tend to be short-lived and faddish; causes like Darfur the opposite. And some might find the mix of real-life horror and a “fun” pastime uncomfortable.

But to me this misses the point. As somebody who spent more time as a kid playing videogames than pretty much anything else, it's exactly the blend of cutesy graphics with grim material that can give these games their emotional wallop.

When I reload Darfur is Dying, for example, Poni is ghosted out, unable to select, dead. And for the first time that makes me feel odd – at least enough to check out the “how to help” tab.

If they get the balance right, then, “games for change” could socially charge a booming market. Fifty-three percent of Facebook users play games; in the UK alone people spend 21.5 million hours per day doing so.

It might just be austerity talking, but it seems today's young people are more receptive to social causes than ever before: these strange simulations offer just one way to press their buttons.