A U.N. agency is taking advantage of children's love of video games to teach some important lessons about what it takes to combat hunger. U.N. officials say the online video game, devoid of violence, has attracted the attention of more than one million children around the world.
Dramatic techno music, the sound of helicopters circling overhead, talk of drought and civil war. Despite all that, this is not your typical violent and bloody video game.
Food Force, developed by the United Nations World Food Program, or WFP, educates children about the different steps involved in getting food to populations threatened by starvation.
The idea for the game came from a young former WFP aid worker, who has since died in a plane crash in Bosnia.
Jennifer Parmalee, a Washington-based spokesperson for the WFP, explains how the game evolved.
"The idea was really to get kids of the next generation involved in the issue of world hunger, and the whole idea was how to get them engaged in a way that is fun and interesting, and not too depressing," she said. "Because, of course, when you look at the broader issue of global hunger, it is indeed very grim, so this was how the idea was hatched."
Ms. Parmalee says the statistics behind global hunger are difficult for the developed world to comprehend.
"If you look at the U.S. where we are sitting, the picture of global hunger is grim. It's a problem. It's huge," she explained. "We estimate that more than 850 million people every day are chronically hungry. That means, they are struggling to get one meal a day. And this is a reality that people in the developed world really can't grasp. It's impossible to imagine the depth of hunger to which people are in. And 300 million of that number are kids. That's roughly approaching the population of the U.S., 300 million, and one kid every five seconds dies of hunger."
The video game is designed for children between the ages of eight and 13. It exposes them to the challenges aid workers actually face by presenting them with a series of missions explained by a team of WFP characters.
The players are thrown into a virtual world where they are asked to be part of a team of Food Force aid workers. Their mission: to feed the starving population of the fictitious drought-stricken, war-torn island of Sheylan in the Indian Ocean.
The six scenarios range from piloting helicopters to assessing how many people need food, to driving a food convoy and negotiating with armed rebels along the way. Players must also decide how much food is needed and how to provide it within an allotted budget.
Steven Hansch, who teaches courses on humanitarian aid at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities, praises the game's ability to highlight the technical challenges that go along with aid work.
"Here's the message it conveys. It conveys the point that the challenge of giving aid is interesting, that the work of Americans doing aid work overseas is technically challenging," he said. "It's every bit as challenging as fighting a war. That's a point that is often missed. A lot of people, when they think of aid work, conjure in their head Mother Theresa, and, I think a lot of people find that romantic, but boring. They don't conceive of all the logistics and choices and complicated tradeoffs and planning that is required."
Each game has a time limit and players are rewarded for good decision-making and fast and accurate reactions. However, WFP's Jennifer Parmalee emphasizes that if children don't do well on a mission they can play it again for a better score.
"Educators have told us repeatedly that what they like about this game is that, if you don't do so well in distributing the food - these are aid workers who are struggling against civil war and natural disaster to deliver food - if you don't do so well the first time, people don't die in this game," she noted. "We didn't want to give kids that message. You get a chance to go back and do it all over again and improve your score. Educators like this, because kids do want a happy ending. They want to help, and they have a natural empathy, which is a good partner for this kind of game."
Since the WFP launched the video game at a book fair in Bologna, Italy, in April, the online game has attracted more than one million downloads from children in 40 countries across the world. Many educational Web sites have also linked to the game.
WFP is working with teachers in Washington, D.C. schools to integrate the video game and Web site with information and links to global hunger into their curriculums. The aid organization plans to work on a more sophisticated version of the game that will cater to college students.
It is currently only available in English, but translations in other languages will be available soon.