Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

DEVELOPMENT: U.S. Teens Take a Virtual Journey to Haiti

Amy Bracken

NEW YORK, Nov 8 2006 (IPS) - Brooklyn’s South Shore High School is no walk in the park. Low test scores combined with periodic stabbings, beatings and theft have made it one of New York’s most troubled schools. All but two percent of the more than 2,000 students are minority. Many are low-income and almost half never graduate.

So it was strange to hear some students there talk about how fortunate they are.

It was a Monday evening in October and they were in their weekly after-school class called Playing 4 Keeps, a video game design programme run by the New York-based non-profit citizenship education organisation Global Kids.

The 24 teens in the programme had just launched their latest creation, a game that teaches players about global poverty.

In “Ayiti: The Cost of Life”, the player heads a family in rural Haiti, and, with extremely limited resources, must figure out how to achieve happiness, money, health and/or education. One goal is often sacrificed for another, and few players ever achieve all four.

Educational, or “serious”, video games are on the rise. Recent years have seen the development of games in which the player tries to dispense food in a war zone, tries to make peace between Israel and Palestine, tries to escape warlords in Darfur, and much more.

But even in this pack of progressive educational tools, Ayiti stands out. It was actually designed by kids. And not only did student designers develop computer literacy in the process, they were forced to develop a deep understanding of the subject matter in order to build a game around it.

“It was a lengthy process,” said Global Kids Senior Trainer Afi French about how the students decided on a theme for the video game. She began the class last fall by helping the students understand the concept of human rights. They studied the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and explored rights violations that relate to poverty, such as violence, racism and barriers to education.

For the past 11 years, Global Kids has worked with the New York City schools to help youths be better students and global change agents. But Playing 4 Keeps at South Shore High only began last year with a 500,000-dollar grant from Microsoft Corporation. Aytiti, launched this fall, is the first game to be developed in the programme.

French, who grew up in this part of Brooklyn but has lived as far afield as Mozambique, said the students chose to focus on poverty because they live in an economically depressed area, but learning about the degree of poverty in Haiti seemed to change their world views.

“Exploring [global poverty] really made them look at the opportunities available to them,” she said.

Nineteen-year-old Sanji Johnson agreed. She described her current surroundings as drug-infested and violent, but she said designing Ayiti taught her to not take her education for granted, and she wishes her friends would play the game too. “I want them to see what it’s like to not have an education, and what it’s like to not have any money, what it’s like not to have anywhere to go,” she said.

Haiti has few free schools, and with an average per capita income of less than two dollars a day, most children never make it to the fifth grade.

Though some Playing 4 Keeps students have Haitian family or friends, many entered the programme last year knowing little about the country or about conditions in the developing world.

Nineteen-year-old Dewayne Baker said the programme taught him to be more respectful of those suffering in Haiti and elsewhere. “I was one of those stereotype persons,” he said, referring to those who look down on people from poorer countries. “But you know, stereotypes can be very wrong, so doing all the research and going deep into what Haiti’s really about and knowing about the Haiti people, it changed my whole mentality.”

Such introspection is fairly common among Ayiti’s designers, but Monday’s class included 28 new students in a different mental place. For some of them, Ayiti was just one of many games they love to play. Some go back and forth between peaceful role-playing games and extremely violent shoot-’em-ups.

Some even like the wildly popular game Vice City, one segment of which instructs the player to “Kill the Haitians”.

Sixteen-year-old Diondra Bailey likes all kinds of games. Belying her polite manner, she enjoys blowing people away in a game called “Bush Shoot-Out”, in which U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defend the White House against terrorists, but she also likes the challenge of keeping a family alive in Ayiti.

Barry Joseph, director of Global Kids’ Online Leadership Programme, sees no contradiction here. To him, video games, whatever the type, have an essential common goal: They must be fun. Besides, he said, “I think it’s hard to argue that Ayiti is not a violent game. Your family gets attacked by disease and hurricanes and robbers and whatnot, and they die, and in many games you get three lives and you come back. In Ayiti, you don’t come back.”

In the first class of the second year of Playing 4 Keeps, Joseph described the challenge of making a game educational and fun.

“We were talking about a pretty heavy issue with Ayiti,” he told the class. “We were talking about poverty in Haiti… How do you do that without making it so depressing you don’t want to play it? How do you keep it fun? Serious games have a responsibility to not only reflect the real world in a way that doesn’t trivialise the issue, but [also to still be] fun to play. That’s what it’s all about, so it’s kind of hard to make serious games that work.”

Reviewers widely call Ayiti fun, but many also complain that it’s too hard, and gratification is suspended long enough to be discouraging. Indeed, in spite of the upbeat music and colorful graphics, Ayiti can be extremely frustrating. Others claim this just means the game accurately represents reality.

But in addition to being fun (and educational for the player), Joseph said serious games can be a powerful teaching tool for their designers. In Ayiti, if one has fun at Carnival, there might not be enough money to go to a doctor when sick. That might lead to the loss of more money when that family member can’t go to school. But spending money on a bike might make it possible to take a far-away job.

“When you make a video game, you are making a model of a system,” Joseph said, “and to make a model of a system means you have to understand the constituent parts of that system and how they inter-relate. What better way to motivate young people to learn about a real-world issue?”

Ayiti is available for free on gaming sites for kids, educational sites for teachers, and the UNICEF site for non-profits and other organizations. It is accompanied by workshops, lesson plans, and other materials, including the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and a map of Haiti.

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