Walking a virtual mile in someone's shoes
The hottest online games are exercises in empathy and put an activist twist on immigration, hunger and other social issues.
By Jean Hopfensperger
The Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 14, 2007
It's the latest addition to the immigration wars raging in this country: an award-winning computer game designed to let players walk in the shoes of five young immigrants -- including taking a hike right out of the country.
Players maneuver through the often tricky terrain of immigration law. Report domestic violence to police, and you risk arrest if you're here illegally. Shoplift a loaf of bread and you might end up in immigration court. Join the military without proper legal status and you can be all that you can be -- back in your home country.
Called 'ICED!', a bit of wordplay on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the nation's top immigration agency, it's among the growing genre of online computer games that focuses on serious social issues.
'People are really ready for new kinds of games,' said Mallika Dutt, executive director of the New York-based human rights organization Breakthrough, which oversaw creation of 'ICED! 'What we're trying to do is create a whole new genre of video games, games about real-world issues with real-world impact.'
Free and downloadable
About 100 games with social themes have hit the Internet in recent years, said Suzanne Seggerman, president of the New York-based Games for Change, which supports developers of socially conscious games. They are typically free and downloadable.
'Darfur Is Dying,' about hunger in Sudan, is one of the most popular, with more than 2 million visitors, Seggerman said. Others include 'Ayiti: The Cost of Life,' which allows the player to be an impoverished person in Haiti; 'Food Force,' which lets players become humanitarian workers on a famine-stricken island, and 'Peacemaker,' in which players may be the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president.
The creators of these titles aren't your classic game designers. 'ICED!' and 'Ayiti' were conceived by high school students participating in an after-school project run by Global Kids of New York, a nonprofit education organization. 'Food Force' was created by the United Nations World Food Program.
'ICED!' generated buzz in the blogosphere and national media after winning a Games For Change award this summer. Advocates say the game, and others like it, are excellent tools to reach young audiences. The goal, Dutt said, is to let players know the intended -- and unintended -- consequences of immigration reforms that expanded the types of crimes for which legal and illegal immigrants can be detained or deported.
Players can assume the lives of one of five teen characters: an illegal immigrant, a worker holding a green card, a college student on a student visa, someone seeking asylum and an immigrant who thinks he's a U.S. citizen.
As they roam around a large city, visiting a grocery store or riding the subway, they face choices. Make the right choice and you get points. Make the wrong choice and an immigration agents pops up on the screen. Depending on what the law says about that particular offense, you might be sent to a jail or a deportation hearing.
'We've been amazed at public response,' said Dutt, 'and the game hasn't even been released.' The game is slated for release this month or next, she said.
'ICED!' is the antidote to anti-immigration games surfacing on the Web, such as 'Border Patrol,' in which players shoot as many Mexicans as possible as they run across the U.S. border. The game's objective: 'to keep them out at any cost.'
Officials at ICE say they haven't seen it. But they say such computer entertainment shouldn't be confused with reality. 'This is a video game, and most people realize that video games are a work of fiction,' said Tim Counts, a spokesman for ICE's Bloomington office.
But for immigrant rights groups, 'ICED!' could be a useful new tool to catch the attention of their technology-savvy audience.
'I think it's really good idea,' said Alondra Espejel, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, which frequently works with high school and college students.
The activist-game trend got a boost in June, when Microsoft and Games for Change announced a joint commitment to explore new ways to unite the worlds of digital gaming and social change. Microsoft issued an 'Xbox 360 Games for Change Challenge' to college students worldwide to create the best game about global warming.
Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota, said the key to the success of socially conscious games is how technologically advanced they are and whether they accomplish their political objectives.
'Some of the serious games I've seen are either too serious or so complicated that it's hard to even get in the game. Other ones that are clearly focused on some particular message or outcome can be more effective.'
Paul hasn't seen 'ICED!' yet. But she admits she couldn't resist playing 'Darfur Is Dying.' Game designers hope others get hooked, too.
Said Seggerman: 'We think these games have an extraordinary potential for good.'
GAMES WITH PURPOSE
For more information on games with a social message, go to: