In 'Darfur Is Dying,' The Game That's Anything But

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006

In the online game "Darfur Is Dying," launched at yesterday's Save Darfur rally on the Mall, atrocity is a click of a mouse away. A player can be a 14-year-old girl in a blue dress with white polka dots named Elham, in search of water for her camp, chased by gun-carrying Janjaweed militiamen. Run, Elham, run!

Suddenly a game that takes no more than 15 minutes to play seems too real and not real enough at the same time.

Sponsored by Reebok and MTVu, the college-oriented TV network, and designed by a group of students at University of Southern California, "Darfur Is Dying" is part of a growing but still nascent "games for change" movement within video games. This movement is not about the alien fighters of "Halo or the sprawling fantasyland of "World of Warcraft" or the action-packed "Madden NFL." It's about "very serious subjects that are meant to be taken seriously," said Susana Ruiz, 33, one of the game's designers. "Food Force," a game about world hunger developed by the United Nations, served as a model for her, Ruiz explained.

The game is available free at The game is available free at , and yesterday Joey Cheek, the Olympic gold-medal speedskater who donated his $25,000 prize money to the children of Darfur, was on hand to be the first to play the game, which has a simple, two-level structure. The player is either inside a refugee camp, collecting food and building shelter, or is outside foraging for water.

"We got captured by the militiamen!" Cheek, 26, said to no one in particular. "We gotta get the water!"

Standing less than five feet from Cheek, not too far from a guy walking with a poster that read " 'Schindler's List,' 'The Killing Fields,' 'Hotel Rwanda' . . . 'Darfur, 2006' . . . Don't wait for the movie,' " was John Keenan, a freshman at George School, a Quaker boarding school in Newtown, Pa. The 15-year-old said: "I'm a gamer, but I don't know how I really feel about making a game out of what's going on. I mean, I don't think you can get a real experience of being a Darfurian refugee by playing a game on the computer."

Added Loren Berlin, 28, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina: "I'm not a gamer, but I know that having a game about Darfur reaches out to lots of young people out there who are clueless about what's going on. But on the other hand, in this age when so much information is on the Internet, do we really need a game -- a game -- to remind people that something so terrible is happening in the Sudan?"

Among the hundreds of college and high school students gathered at the rally, Berlin and Keenan represent the Facebook-MySpace-Friendster generation of young activists who have used the Internet as a crash course on everything they know about the crisis in Darfur. Via message boards and instant messages, they share what they know and show where they've been. Online, the world seems smaller, more immediate, more personal, they say. Anne Eichmeyer and Ryan Pfeffer, for example, were busy taking digital pictures of the rally to post on their Facebook accounts. "It's for our friends who couldn't make it here," said Pfeffer, who like Eichmeyer is a student at the University of Wisconsin. They've both heard of the game and are eager to give it a try.

Zac Childers, a senior at American University, is eager to play the game, too. But he's one of the those guys who'd rather skateboard down Constitution Avenue -- he skateboarded his way to the rally -- than play "Tony Hawk's Underground," a popular skateboarding game. The 23-year-old is skeptical of the game, how "real" and "unreal" it might feel as he plays it, how it "seems to objectify and trivialize" what he considers "something that has to be as serious as possible for all for us."

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