Darfur is dying: save it with a video game

Just a spoonful of interactive pixels helps the need for social welfare and reform go down. Such is the philosophy of the recent mtvU Darfur Digital Activist Contest. The contest, which called for groups of college students to create video games that would help increase awareness of travesties in Sudan, is in its final stages. One of the four finalists is by a group of five CMU (more specifically, Entertainment Technology Center) masters students.

The team, consisting of Camilla Kydland, T.J. Jackson, Clay Reister V, Albith Delgado, and Sam Spiro, was hurriedly put together last December, and now stands a chance of winning $50,000 to further develop their game.

The Reebok Human Rights Foundation, the International Crisis Group, and mtvU have joined forces to sponsor this contest, aimed at the college demographic. “We partnered with our audience to help spread awareness because college students have always been the engine for social change,” said Ross Martin, head of programming for mtvU. “mtvU is simply amplifying the message of our audience.”

Upon being asked why the contest focuses specifically on Darfur, Martin said that “millions of people are dead and homeless, and the genocide continues.” He recognizes that “there are lots of problems in the world, and this is one of them,” but feels that the Darfur situation is both something college students are concerned with and something they need to know more about.

“I feel video games have an incredible ability to spread awareness and make a difference...,” Martin said. “[The finalist games] are actually sort of fun to play, and in the midst of that fun, you realize that the world you’re playing in is not so simple.... Each game becomes something that starts out as fun, and turns into a call for action.”

Out of more than a dozen initial entries (a lot, considering what it takes to make a video game), the prototypes were judged by a combination of college students and employees of mtvU, International Crisis Foundation, and Reebok Human Rights Foundation. The games with the most viral potential and the games most effective at getting their message across made it into the final round. Martin said that everyone at was “really impressed with the submissions.” He also said that they expected CMU to enter the contest because of the university’s “incredible game development talent.”

The ETC group was put together by the game’s producer, Camilla Kydland. Kydland traveled to Africa this past summer and witnessed first-hand some of the awful things that people do to each other. “The most important part [about my trip] is that it drives me,” she said, “because I see the people there as individuals — I know people there.”

Kydland had been looking to help people in similar situations when she arrived at the ETC in the fall. When she heard about the mtvU contest in October, it sounded like the perfect opportunity. The team formed in December as finals were coming to a close, and they were able to make the game quickly, Kydland said, because of their experience at the ETC: “We had taken Building Virtual Worlds together, so we had experience in making video games, working in a team, and making a prototype quickly. We were trained to figure something out from start to finish in a short amount of time.” And she meant it — Guidance, a game by T.J. Jackson which became the Darfur game, was created in three days.

“The team did some modifications to Guidance to fit closer to the theme of the contest,” Jackson explained. “The idea behind the proposal is to create a series of mini-games, so Guidance would just be one of many.”

Kydland believes that, out of the finalists, her group’s game is the best choice because “it has a start, a finish, and concrete direction.” They paid close attention to the theme and how the game mechanics worked with it. “The other games didn’t seem to have a personal effect on me,” Kydland continued. “I think games that show just a struggle and don’t give a feeling of hope won’t do as well [at getting the message across]. Our game is about empowering the individual. Whether you win or lose, you still learn something.”

And win or lose, the group from CMU will still have taught us something. The contest demonstrates what video games can do for society besides shut their children up. A step up from Reader Rabbit, video games can be used to educate college students about social issues outside of their dorm and motivate them to help the situations.

“If we win, we get a grant for $50,000 and would have to become a more formal team to develop the game,” said Sam Spiro. Although this specific game may not be a best-seller, all those involved agree that this is an important step into the future of social awareness. The ideal reaction of a gamer, said Ross Martin, would be “now that I’ve played this game, what can I do?”