Friday, November 9, 2007

The Video Game That Changed the World?

As one of those Luddites raised without a television, video games have never been my forte. But two recent games that seek to raise awareness about the plight of refugees and migrants caught my attention. This week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released "Against All Odds", a video game that seeks to educate youngsters by placing them in the shoes of a refugee. Players can also read stories and watch movies about individual refugees. And in January 2008, Breakthrough, an international human rights NGO that uses education and popular culture to promote social change, will release ICED!, a game in which players live the life of an undocumented immigrant teenager. Being chased by immigration officials, landing in detention and being separated from one's family -- the player undergoes all of these virtual experiences. It turns out these are just the tip of the iceberg: Darfur is Dying, put together by organizations including the International Crisis Group, simulates the life of a displaced Darfurian facing challenges to the survival of her refugee camp; La Migra puts the player in the role of an immigration official deciding whether or not to let immigrants into the United States while Crosser, modeled after my all-time favorite video game (yes, yes, even the Luddite has a favorite), Frogger, the player tries to cross a river and then runs into border patrol agents who send him back to Mexico. A new game, Squeezed, will put the player in the role of a tree-hopping frog who leaves home to seek work abroad picking fruit. There's even a support network, Games for Change, that provides visibility and shared resources to creators of these social justice games. These games are certainly a step up from the violent video games that have been shown to increase violent thoughts and behaviors. And they are a creative and sympathetic way to introduce children to the important issues of our day. But do they trivialize the plights of refugees and migrants? And the Luddite inside has to ask whether this is any substitute for giving children a good book on the migration experience or introducing them to a migrant willing to share their story? Perhaps, but perhaps by speaking in the language of popular culture, these video games truly do offer the possibility of changing the world.

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