There's a thin line between promoting their kids' global awareness and overwhelming them; between developing their capacity for compassion and engendering a sense of futility. (Fundraisers are well aware of how difficult adults find this balancing act, especially at times of disasters when charity burnout can run high.) But even very young children can understand and be involved in the world around them on some level. When they're aware of a humanitarian emergency, they may want to help out -- an ideal opportunity for adults to carefully channel their energies into simple things like canned food drives, or donating toys and books to children who have lost their own.
By the time they're in high school and college, though, kids are usually ready to handle the more complex and difficult issues, like environmental destruction, world hunger, and genocide. That's the brilliance of MTVU, the MTV site aimed at college-age students. In addition to music and videos, MTVU has a pull-down menu for activism, which includes information about scholarships and grants, as well as an "ecomagination" challenge. There is also deal of information about the killings in Darfur, including ways that ordinary kids can make a difference, like contacting their elected officials or creating a video. To show what's possible, MTVU features the winner of their Darfur Digital Activist campaign: Darfur is Dying.
Although it resembles a game, MTVU calls Darfur is Dying a "narrative based simulation," a more accurate description that highlights its strengths: as a digital tool for advocacy, Darfur is Dying is an astonishing and effective project. It's free and Flash (thus nothing to download and install), and in a mere 15 minutes of gameplay, it conveys anxiety, despair, hope, and a sense of connectedness with people halfway around the world. Darfur is Dying also includes a great deal of background information, and there's an easy option to send the game to a friend.
When you visit the Darfur is Dying site, you're invited to "start your experience" rather than play. The first experience is to go out in search of water. You chose which member of a Darfuri family of eight between the ages of 10 and 30 you wish to send. Movements are controlled by arrow keys, and you, the player, are told how far and in which direction you'll need to go to find the well. Sounds easy? Well, you have to do it while avoiding capture by the janjaweed militia, who ride around in jeeps while you try to run for cover on foot, out in the open. If your Darfuri is captured, you'll be told what their fate is likely to be based on their age and gender. It might take the sacrifice of several family members before water is both drawn from the well and brought back to the village.
When you finally manage to bring back water, you go on to the game's second mode, the top-down management of a refugee village, where the goal is to keep the village going for seven days. Here you use the water to grow crops and make huts, although the interface isn't terribly clear about how the player should go about accomplishing these tasks. If you run out of water, you need to go out for it again.
It's nearly impossible to win, which is to largely the point. As with Ayiti: The High Cost of Living, if you do succeed, it will most likely be at the expense of some family members, an unthinkable choice that's all too real in many parts of the world. It's also a staple of Philosophy and Ethics 101 classes, as well as the subject of films like Hotel Rwanda and Schindler's List (and, on a more personal level, the novel and film Sophie's Choice).
When MGM released a console game of Hotel Rwanda, it came under harsh criticism and ultimately pulled the title from the market. While I never had an opportunity to play it, I suspect that most objections were to the concept, rather than the quality (or lack of the same) of the game. We think of games as "kid stuff," and therefore inappropriate for certain serious subjects, but personally, I'd love to see more games about difficult concepts and difficult choices. When you do something rather than just hear about or read about something, it always has a greater visceral impact, so playing a good game can raise more awareness and quickly give the player more information than reading a dozen articles. Just a few minutes of gameplay can be enough to remind you that the unnamed people in news accounts of unthinkable horrors in other places are human, too.
Genocide is as old as human history; some scholars consider the destruction of Carthage (149-145 BC) to be the first genocide on record, while others think it's much older. The impulse comes from a very human ability to see another person or group as alien; it was probably an important ability when tribal identity was necessary for survival.
Whenever people can form a construct of "us" and "them," it doesn't matter if it's Jews and Germans, or black and white, or educated and uneducated; it's really about human and less human, and the stage is set for hatred, slavery and genocide. If a game can close that divide, it truly has the power to be world changing.
In Human Dawn, Nicholas Wade theorizes that genocide is tens of thousands years old-- chimps get more territory by raiding another clan's territory and killing males, females, children. He thinks that we humans only gradually stopped doing that with agriculture. Our skulls, he notes, became thinner about 30,000 years ago.
In the bible, Joshua 6:21 says that heroic Joshua "destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old". Not to worry, though-- it was cool by God, who gave the city to him in verse 6:2.
I think that was before 149 BC.