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Genocide for the Digital World

As the genocidal crisis grows in Darfur, Sudan, attention paid to the conflict ebbs and flows, mainly depending upon what else is making news in a given week.

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MTV wants to stop this, and has helped develop an online video game called “<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Darfur is Dying,” aimed at educating teens about what they can do to help stop the genocide.
 
The game simulates conditions inside a Darfur refugee camp. The player chooses an identity and then “negotiates forces that threaten the survival of his or her refugee camp.”
 
The game was the result of a contest sponsored by MtvU, the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, and the International Crisis Group. Five students from the University of Southern California developed the game, which is aimed at raising awareness in the hopes of increasing activism to eventually stop what’s happening in Darfur.
 
To begin the game, the player must first choose a refugee. You can be an adult male, an adult female or a variety of children, ranging in age from 10-14. Each character comes with his or her own physical assets and liabilities as you forage for water. For example, the young boys can run faster, but they carry less water. The adult women can carry the most water, but she is susceptible to increased attacks by Janjaweed militia on account of her being a female.
 
The game controls are simple, and even an inexperienced gamer like me found it easy to learn and play. Once you fill your jug with water and make it safely back to camp (while hiding behind bushes and rocks from marauding rebels), you must then water small farm plots in order to grow food for your village.
 
You can click on various question marks (?) to learn facts about life in a refugee village, such as what sheiks are, and what an NGO is. Likewise, you learn personal stories from villagers who have lived through Janjaweed attacks and lost loved ones.
 
The goal is to survive for seven days inside of the camp, which is threatened by militia attacks. If attacks occur, you must make bricks with the water you found and try to rebuild. Of course, when you go for water again, you must run and hide once more.
 
Throughout the game, players have a chance to “get involved” and can click on links to write President Bush or contact their Congressperson about Darfur. Such activities blur the lines between reality and virtual reality as they take the player to real websites that actually do the aforementioned actions.
 
The game is an incredibly useful tool, and was designed to be spread virally, as in one person playing it and telling a friend, and then that person playing and telling a friend, and so on. By doing so, enough people will eventually hear not just about the game, but also about the genocide. Then, the hope is that this critical mass of people can sway the powers that be around the world to act on this important issue.
 
Ariah Fine, a socially aware Christian who works with teenagers in Nashville, finds the game very unique. “The target audience of the gaming community is another big step in raising awareness to an audience that might not have otherwise heard about Darfur,” he says. “I work with high school students and they aren’t constantly checking BBC news for the latest humanitarian crisis, but they are playing plenty of games online. This project helps them hear about the issues in Darfur.”
 
Even though the game is packed with facts and stories in the small print, the die-hard gamer may not stop to read them all while playing. But, the simple fact that the game exists, coupled with MTV’s backing, is a conversation started in itself.
 
Says Fine: “A game like this is a great ice breaker and tool for bringing up the conversation with a group that might not otherwise care or know about the issues in Darfur.”
 
With George Clooney’s recent trip to the U.N. on behalf of Darfur getting mainstream media coverage, unconventional methods of raising awareness are needed to bring this genocide to the forefront of the American and international psyche. Likewise, churches can and should program for youth in a variety of ways based around this game.
 
Teens spend untold amounts of time on the web, and that is unlikely to change. The challenge for parents and youth ministers is to get these students to spend time on something that matters while online. “Darfur is Dying” does just that.
 
For other activism opportunities, visit http://www.mtvu.com/on_mtvu/activism/.
 
Sam Davidson is executive director of CoolPeopleCare, Inc.