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UN agencies use video games to raise awareness

UN relief agencies turn to video games to raise awareness of world’s ills

From the crippling toll of hunger to the desperate plight of refugees, United Nations relief agencies are turning to video games as a vivid tool with realistic simulation to raise awareness of the world’s ills among the more affluent nations.

With one person dying every five seconds from hunger and related ailments, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has teamed up with the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) in launching a video contest in the United States to bring home to children in the richest country on Earth the crisis afflicting 852 million chronically hungry people worldwide.

“We have to take our campaign to fight hunger to every sector of society. We especially look to the future leaders of tomorrow to involve themselves and ultimately help us come up with a solution,” WFP’s Director of US Relations Judith Lewis said of the contest.

“It is unconscionable that in this era where food is cheaper and more plentiful than ever, that even one child should die of hunger. Worse, we are in danger of losing this battle,” she added of Food Force Bowl 2006, in which the top prize will be an all-expenses-paid trip for the winner and a chaperone to the big Bowl football game in Detroit in February.

The video game, Food Force, introduced by WFP last spring, simulates the challenges of aid workers reaching poor people with food in times of crisis, set on the fictitious island of Sheylan. Children face a number of realistic challenges to urgently feed thousands of people, piloting helicopters on reconnaissance missions, negotiating with armed rebels on a convoy run and using food to help rebuild villages.

Players must locate refugees, plan appropriate food packets based on nutritional needs of the population, and figure out how to deliver the food and air drop it to people in remote villages. The biggest challenge comes at the end when they must select from limited resources to help a village become self-sufficient within 10 years.

Since its launch on the web at www.food-force.com, Food Force has been downloaded for free at least 2.5 million times – second only to America’s Army among Internet-based video games. It is being translated into four languages to start (Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian) and has been embraced by educators throughout the world because it is not only entertaining and challenging, but offers a strong ethical message.

“Food Force has also proved an appealing alternative to teachers and parents concerned about overt violence and sex in commercial video games,” WFP says.

The contest will be introduced publicly on Monday at the Patria Mirabal School in New York City’s Washington Heights and will run throughout January.

For its part, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) yesterday launched the Norwegian-language version of ‘Against all Odds,’ giving young people a virtual experience of what it is like to flee one's home country and become a refugee. It takes participants through the asylum process and the challenges of starting all over again in a foreign country.

Among the different scenarios, players must overcome obstacles to leave their homes in search of protection and assistance. Once in exile, they must cope with difficulties at school, not knowing the language and making new friends. They also experience what refugees go through when facing discrimination on the streets, applying for a job and generally starting a new life.

“It is important that all of us who value tolerance fight against rising intolerance and irrational fears – that we can accept differences,” High Commissioner António Guterres said at the launch. “This is a problem everywhere. ‘Against all Odds’ is one tool to struggle for tolerance.”

The game was originally launched in Swedish. Translations into other languages, including German and French, are currently under way.

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