Playing for Social Change

By Cheryl Mahoney

Who doesn’t love games?  I know I do.  I consciously avoid video games because I just don’t have that kind of time, but a free online game to spend five minutes on when I need a brief break from thinking…perfect.  And if it’s a game that, say, feeds the hungry while I play, better and better. and are games like that.  They’re also not what this post is about, because I’ve already written about them.  This post is inspired by a blog post I saw on Social Edge, titled Revisiting Social Games, written by Charles “Hipbone” Cameron.


Cameron discusses the idea of social games, games that are designed around social concerns.  He provides links to a few, then encourages people to share their experiences playing them.  He also links to Games for Change, a website that provides games on pretty much every subject of social concern I can think of: global warming, violence in Darfur, the problem of obesity, homelessness, refugees…if you can name it, it’s probably here.

In the interest of research, naturally I tried a few games.  First, Nuclear Weapons: The Peace Dove Game.  You try to disarm the countries with nuclear weapons by deducing from the facts provided which country is being referenced, and then launching a Peace Dove to the right country to disarm their weapons.  With cute cartoons and doves with personalities, this is a fun game–and I found out there’s a lot I don’t know about the nuclear weapons situation in the world.  I did pretty well on this one anyway–I didn’t manage to completely disarm the world, but I don’t feel too worried about France and the United Kingdom having a few hundred weapons each.  If you play, be warned: it’s hard to tell at first that some of the European countries are options!

Next, I tried Climate Challenge, where you play the president of the European Nations and make policy choices that affect climate change–but you have to be mindful of your approval rating and your budget too.  You apparently have a very long term of office, because you can make decisions for an entire century.  I only played for twenty years, because I realized by then that if I didn’t stop playing, I’d never get anything else done!

Last game I tried: I love Third World Farmer.  Just like it sounds, you play a family of low-income farmers.  You can make choices about crops to plant, animals to buy, and how you care for your family.  You make choices for each year, see the results of your decisions, and then move on to the next year based on those results.  Crops are better some years than others, sometimes illness strikes or your chickens die off.  I swiftly discovered that, most years, I could afford to plant crops OR buy medicine OR send the kids to school.  I’m sure this is a sadly true situation.

I have to admit, these games don’t actually meet my above-statement about being a break from thinking.  That’s kind of the point.  They’re fun to play and they feel like a break, but they’re making you think too.  And while they’re mostly not feeding the hungry while you play, they can teach you something about why people are hungry, or make you think a new way about how to deal with climate change.  So that seems to me to still be working for social change–or, to be more accurate, playing for social change.  And if Third World Farmer ends up inspiring people to donate to help a farmer…all the better.


UPDATE: After I finished work yesterday, I spent an hour and a half of my free time playing Third World Farmer.  It ended tragically a couple of times, but on my third try I am happy to report that we successfully lifted the family out of poverty.  By planting corn and wheat we scraped along and started making a little better income.  I was able to send the children to school most years, so that the son had seven years of education and the daughter nine (he was a bit older so we needed him on the farm for a couple of years while she could stay in school).  The mother fell badly ill one year but we made enough on the crops to pay for medicine, though it took almost half our income (and no one went to school that year).  Eventually, we started to make a bit more money, and could buy chickens, and then pigs, and eventually cows.  We built a well one year which saved us when there was a drought, and when things got really good we were able to buy a tractor, and fund a clinic and a school.  I played for twenty years and successfully arranged marriages for both children.  All in all, I think my third world farmer succeeded in life, by providing for his children and improving his community–his grandchildren would find it much easier to get an education and obtain medicine, thanks to the clinic and the school.  One thing I found interesting: by the time we could build the school and the clinic, we didn’t really need them.  The children were grown, and we could afford medicine.  There isn’t a community-aspect inherent in the game, but I’m sure that’s the implication.  One prosperous farmer can then make the situation better for his less fortunate neighbors.

If you’re not playing this game, you really should be.  It’s heartbreaking when it goes badly.  One bad turn of luck and it’s almost impossible to recover.  But it’s exhilirating when it goes right, and you watch the family grow increasingly prosperous.  Which direction it goes is largely luck.  Every year some “Event” happens, usually bad ones (occasionally a bumper crop).  If all the cattle dies off and you didn’t happen to have cows, you don’t have a problem.  But if you invest all your money in corn and then a corn blight destroys the crops, you will probably never recover.  The sad thing is, I expect that’s accurate.  But the good thing is, owning a few chickens or a cow, or having a local clinic, really can turn a family’s prospects around.  So check out Third World Farmer; it’ll be fun, and maybe it’ll make you think about how you can help a farmer too.


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