In April 2005 at a small book fair in Bologna Italy, the World Food Program (WFP) launched a free video game called Food Force. Six months later the game had been downloaded from the internet three million times, and within that same time it was translated into Japanese and Chinese.
By May 2012, the game had been downloaded six million times and has versions in English, French, German, Italian, Brazilian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Suomi and Korean. Food Force was conceived as a cheaper and effective advertising (and mass education) tool, targeting particularly (though not exclusively) young children between the ages of 9 and 14. The thinking is that as future decision makers, it was important to target children early and to help them understand the problem of world hunger, because in the future their help would be needed to offer solutions. Such a media tool offered as a game also aims to make humanitarian work and concerns more attractive to people. The WFP official who is the program manager for the game said at a conference that, since the release of the video game Food Force, many young children had expressed interest in working professionally in humanitarian agencies such as the WFP. Other children have even done their own fundraising on behalf of the agency, doing things like selling cookies in their schools (Justin Roche, Report from the Serious Games Summit, Washington D.C 2005 ( www.gamasutra.com).
With the growing popularity of video games, advertisers thus discovered another medium and market – the players. And so they began, first to embed short ads (stills and motion) within video games and the players did not seem to mind.
It was only natural that they would go further, producing entire video games to market an idea. This tactic seem more relevant today when less television is being watched and kids spend more time either playing video games or surfing the Internet. The public is sought where they are – in front of the video game monitor!
It is also a much cheaper means of advertising, because while 30 seconds prime-time slot on popular television can cost about half a million dollars, it takes much less (in the case of Food Force, $475,000) to develop a video game. For the same amount of money, one can produce a video game that is distributed an infinite number of times to an ever widening audience base.
The Food Force initiative is an example of how deeply the video game culture has penetrated society. They may still be a source of entertainment, but evidence is showing that video games are fast becoming the latest and more advanced means of communication.
The idea for Food Force came from Paola Biocca, a WFP worker who died in the line of duty in Kosovo in 1999. An Italian game developer “Depend” produced Food Force using Macromedia Director and donating part of its time and expertise to the WFP on this project.
Here is how the World Food Program describes Food Force, a race against time resolving a food crisis situation:
“Set on a fictitious island called Sheylan riven by drought and war, Food Force invites children to complete six virtual missions that reflect real-life obstacles faced by WFP in its emergency responses both to the tsunami and other hunger crises around the world.
“With tens of thousands of Sheylan’s residents displaced and in urgent need of food aid, players are required to pilot helicopters on reconnaissance missions, airdrop high energy biscuits to internally displaced person (IDP) camps, negotiate with armed rebels on a food convoy run and use food aid to help rebuild villages.
There are six missions in the game:
-Air surveillance, which involves making a trip by helicopter to scout the crisis zone in order to determine the number of people and localities that need help;
-Energy Pac formulation, using a combination of food such as rice, beans, oil, sugar and salt in specific quantities and on a budget-limit to prepare a balanced individual ration;
-Air Drops, where the player “rides” on a WFP plane and is responsible for making the actual food drops on the correct zones. The step involves both speed and an accurate compensation for wind direction;
-Food acquisition, buying the required food on a fixed budget. It involves juggling between distance of food source to destination, estimated time of arrival and cost, both of the food and of transportation. One would also have to decide when it is best to reject food donation because of transportation cost and time;
-Ground transportation involving the movement of trucks, sometimes through hostile territory; and finally ensuring the inhabitants of the imaginary country can be self-sustaining through
-Future farming, helping local inhabitants to be self-sustaining through initiatives such as offering food to adults as payment for development work; feeding hungry children in school and helping to develop agriculture for longer term sustenance.
At each stage of the operations (missions), the WFP rationale is clearly spelt out to the player, who learns more about WFP in the course of the game.
Points are given for good decisions, fast and accurate game play and for saving as many lives as possible.
The introduction to the game challenges the player to, “ Remember, millions of people are now depending on you for help. This is more than just a game. Good luck !”
Many people are convinced of the teaching capabilities of “serious games”. Suzanne Seggerman of the NGO Games for Change says that one of the learning features of the game is its pervasiveness. Her NGO promotes games “with a social conscience”.
The only other game downloaded more than Food Force, is the US army recruiting (tool) game, America’s Army, which has had more than forty million downloads by 2007. Today it has 12 million online players who according to the US Army have “fired billons of rounds” in ammunition. The latter is a “realistic” war game that puts the player through recruitment, mission planning and execution. The challenge for the WFP and others was to make a video game that had no violence and yet remain entertaining.
There have been a lot of initiatives in this respect. The Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D. C. has a project called the Serious Games Initiative, whose aim is to find ways by which governments and non-profit groups can address important issues through video games. There are non-violent games promoting so-called non-violent conflicts
These games cross the technical barrier, subtly entering the more sophisticated communication field, attempting a sort of “social modeling”. In the case of the political activism game (A Force More Powerful ), players have to make policy decisions based on how they perceive social issues such as women’s rights, voting rights, free movement across borders, and taxes. The ability to juggle well these decisions eventually determine how many and which people join the “political campaign”.
The Food Force website extends the lesson on the World Food Program by providing incentives for continued learning such as educational aids and links for teachers, update on current crisis situations worldwide, how to launch fund raising campaigns for the WFP, how to help raise awareness on humanitarian situations, as well as opportunities for contact with other people around the world sharing similar concerns. The launch and subsequent growth of the Food Force video game earned the WFP several key mentions in many Western news media (International Herald Tribune, The New York Times; USATODAY; The Economist; Time; Financial Times; The Independent; BBC News; The Wall Street Journal Europe).