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Game Explores the High Cost of Living in Rural Poverty
Eleanor Lang, 18 Oct 07
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When the leaves start to turn and the air becomes clear and crisp, I think about those little orange 'Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF' boxes that we carried around as kids with the same nostalgia others reserve for candy corn. Having been named for a famous humanitarian, collecting change instead of candy wasn't really a choice for me, but more of a right of passage; even though I was a kid, I could still do something for other kids not fortunate enough to live in post-war American wealth. Of course, I didn't understand why some kids didn't live in nice suburban homes or shop at Waldbaums supermarket, but those little orange boxes provided an introduction to the concept of social activism to me and to a generation of children.

Fortunately for UNICEF and the children of the world, the technology of the internet has brought a greater sophistication to the UN organization, in terms of raising both funds and awareness of the conditions many of the world's children live with (although the very low-tech orange boxes are still available.) UNICEF has such a wealth of information on its site that it would be hard for a kid to process it all. This includes a number of games (a bit buried on the site, unfortunately). Some are incredibly simple, illustrating easy concepts for very young children, and some are more complex.

Best among them, and possibly the best game for change I've seen to date is Ayiti: The High Cost of Living. The game, named after the local Creole moniker for the Republic of Haiti, challenges players to discover what it's like to live in abject poverty, struggling to stay healthy and get an education

In the game, the player is responsible for a family of five in rural Haiti. You start by choosing a strategy: health, education, happiness or money, so it's possible to play repeatedly for different outcomes, which may be mutually exclusive. The game includes a great deal of information and the player has four game years, divided into sixteen seasons (four per year) to help the Guinard family confront of the high cost of life. There are different victory conditions depending on the strategy you choose, but if both parents die the game is over.

It's pretty hard not to die. At the start of each season, the player can choose to send family members to school, work within and without the family farm, rest at home or go to the hospital. There are costs or benefits to each activity; for instance, going to the clinic costs money, but the hospital more. Going to work will earn money for the family, but can cause health to fail and might require a trip to the store to buy luxuries, such as shoes; and in order to work hard enough to keep the family going, someone will most certainly get sick. There really isn't a way to educate all children in the family, let alone the adults.

"The high cost of living" is a very apt subtitle for this game, since simply surviving storms and illness is nearly impossible; I've yet to educate some of the kids without ultimately sacrificing, sometimes literally, at least one other. The game was conceived with Haiti as a case study and setting to explore poverty as an obstacle to education, and even many of the jobs available to adults require a basic level of education that is hard to accomplish.

The animaition in Ayiti: The High Cost of Living is simple, with a minimal landscape showing the basic places you can go and giving family statistics for health, happiness and education. Play is a basic point-and-click: you click on the family member you want and click on the place you want them to go, where you have choices about level of work, level of education, and level of care -- each with its own cost. Like other educational games, Ayiti: The High Cost of Living contains lesson plans, links and forums that allow kids to talk about their thoughts and experiences with the game.

Like some other games about serious subjects, Ayiti is difficult to win and can be frustrating to play. Like life in the real-world Haiti, it's hard for a kid to stay alive, let alone flourish. "I thought it would be played in the classroom, under supervision," explained lead designer Nick Fortugno. "Part of the point of the game was that your assumptions about education are shot down in a dramatic way. If I had known that so many people would play it on their own, I might have framed the experience differently, so that people would be prepared for that failure and there would be less of a barrier to replay."

Ayiti is a true collaborative effort, in the very best sense of the term. It's part of Unicef's Voices of Youth site, which is guided by the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and which seeks to link children from different cultures around the world who want to learn more and do more about the world around them. It was developed with the input of high school students at Global Kids, a project to teach kids media and game design skills to eventually develop socially conscious games, and designed by Nick Fortugno, formerly of the critically acclaimed Gamelab Studio, and now the Chief Creative Officer of casual game start-up Rebel Monkey. Ayiti: The High Cost of Living was developed with support from Microsoft. It's a great example of what can be accomplished by different people with different talents who all have one thing to say.

This Halloween, my teenage daughter will take her kid sister trick-or-treating. She's too old to ask for candy, but she'll be carrying her little orange box, and if she comes home early enough, I'll sit her down and get her to play a game.

[Emily mentioned Ayiti in a recent column about linking empathy and sustainability. -- Ed.]

Image: Rural school in Haiti. Credit: flickr/Ali

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Comments

All the links on this post are BROKEN!


Posted by: Mason Inman on 20 Oct 07

Great review of Ayiti. Thank you. Please link the Global Kids reference to the page about the students who were in the after school program: http://www.holymeatballs.org/p4k.htm
Also, the game is actually called: Ayiti: The Cost of Life.
Barry Joseph
Global Kids


Posted by: Barry Joseph on 20 Oct 07

Great review of Ayiti. Thank you. Please link the Global Kids reference to the page about the students who were in the after school program: http://www.holymeatballs.org/p4k.htm
Also, the game is actually called: Ayiti: The Cost of Life.
Barry Joseph
Global Kids


Posted by: Barry Joseph on 20 Oct 07



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