Adults sometimes criticize the computer and video games that young people love to play as a waste of time. But many educators believe that video games have enormous potential as learning tools if the games are fun to play and if the virtual worlds they present are both interesting and relevant. That's the idea behind "Playing 4 Keeps," a New York-based project that helps kids conceive and produce their own electronic games.

Recently, at Brooklyn's South Shore high school, a group of teenagers unveiled for their peers their newly created video game, called "Ayiti: The Cost of Life." The game's development took more than a year of library research, software design, and test runs after school hours.

Ayiti, which means "Haiti" in Creole French, is a computer game set in a fictional village in that impoverished Caribbean nation. Players assume the role of various members of a rural family that is trying to survive in Haiti's difficult economy. They must balance factors such as the season, the weather, farming conditions and international politics with various life options, such as whether to go to school or work, whether to work in the fields or in a factory, and whether to seek health care. Their choices create various futures for this virtual Haitian family.

"The game helps people realize there [are] a lot of hardships out there," says high school senior DeWayne Baker, one of the teens who developed Ayiti. "In Haiti, people don't really have what certain people do here in New York. Money is tight. Education is tight. Jobs don't come if you don't have a good education."

Baker says players make choices throughout the game. "You can start working on the farm at one house. You can have the mother rest if she gets tired. You can also get sick and go to the hospital, but it's going to cost you some money." The idea is to make decisions that help a family flourish. "You make the wrong decision, you can get a bad outcome."

Ayiti was created by students taking part in a program called Playing 4 Keeps, a project of Global Kids Incorporated, a non-profit group dedicated to teaching disadvantaged students about international affairs and civic engagement. Global Kids teamed up with the Microsoft Corporation, which funded the project, and Gamelab, the game software developer that actually wrote the computer code for Ayiti. But the game's focus on education and its Haitian locale came from the students themselves.

"Delving into the world of digital technology and video games is really going into the students' world," says Global Kids senior trainer Afi French.

He says the kids have learned a great deal about Haiti by taking ownership of the virtual world they created and identifying with the people in it. "It's one thing if they are in a classroom in a school setting where it's primarily a teacher lecturing?. It's a whole other level of understanding when you experience it yourself," he says. "Then you can understand it, you can analyze it, you can critique it, you can explain it, and then you can share it with others."

Creating Ayiti was also a way for many students to learn about their immigrant roots. Many of South Shore High School's families come from Caribbean nations such as Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

"The information I got from my mom and the news, I gave it back as ideas for the game," says Theo Pamphile, whose parents come from Haiti. He told Global Kids, for example, that "there are a lot of rocks and not that much grass," and that schools in Haiti are generally smaller and in worse shape than they are in New York City.

Creating the game required many learning styles. Some students were drawn to the technical aspects of "Ayiti"'s design. Others wanted to focus on Haitian culture and politics. Still others found an outlet for their artistic imagination in creating the backgrounds for the village.

By focusing on the challenges in one imaginary community in Haiti, "Ayiti" led students to think about development issues all over the world. And the game taught some to appreciate educational opportunities in their own hometown of Brooklyn.

"I thought that being a young black male, I didn't really need school or nothing like that. I didn't know it was going to take me anywhere," says DeWayne Baker. "But designing this game, it made me realize that there are people out there that really don't get the chance to get this type of education. These people gotta pay for education, and I'm lucky to get mine free."

"Ayiti: The Cost of Life" is available free online, along with teacher lesson plans for incorporating the game into the classroom.