Food | World

April 20, 2005

Craving Human Contact

The U.N.'s new food-aid videogame forgets that hungry mouths are attached to complex people.

Carl Bialik

Defuse mines, stare down rebels, and carry out complex air missions—in order to save lives. If videogame violence is your thing, skip the new computer game Food Force, in which players attempt to deliver food to a hungry, remote nation. If, on the other hand, you're hankering for some simulated humanitarian thrills, the game would seem to fulfill your atypical needs.

screen grabs
Stages of Hunger: Game players learn about the mission (1-3), create nutritionally balanced food packs (4), accept food donations from around the world (5), encounter rebels (6, 7), and seek to optimize a village's happiness with food.

It doesn't. A lot of effort and programming talent (and $150,000, according to the Wall Street Journal's in-depth article about the making of the game) adds up to a slick veneer with little substance behind it. As is typical for educational games, Food Force, launched last week by the United Nations agency World Food Programme, attempts to entertain and then, surreptitiously, teach its target audience of preteens. But the limited entertainment here is all derived from the educational material; the game play itself lacks suspense and doesn't tap much brainpower.

Here's the worst sin of all: Besides for fellow food-aid workers and one sneering rebel—more caricature than human—you don't encounter a single person on the missions. Food is a primal human need. Food aid is fraught with political and cultural tension. Food Force is chillingly inhuman.

The game is divided into six missions. Each one follows the same cycle: You fulfill a component of a feeding mission in the fictional war-torn, drought-ridden Indian Ocean nation of Sheylan, population 13 million (not to be confused with the island formerly known as Ceylon, pop. 19.6 million; nor is Food Force to be mistaken for Aqua Teen Hunger Force). After you're done, you learn about how the WFP fulfills that mission. It's a typical Trojan Horse model for sneaking education on unsuspecting fun-seekers, only there's little fun here. The missions mostly tax your mouse-wielding wrist, and the biggest suspense is whether you'll contract carpal tunnel syndrome.

In the first mission, you pilot a helicopter in search of hungry population centers. Next, you assemble food packs that are both nutritious and cheap. Then you drop food by plane. Next you fill out food supplies from nations donating and selling grub. Then you'll take to the road, directing a convoy of food-bearing trucks through mines and rough terrain. Last, you decide how to distribute food aid in future years to ensure villages don't go hungry again. Your companions are veteran WFP staffers Carlos Sanchez, Joe Zaki, and Rachel Scott, who looks like Lara Croft in aid-worker clothing.

In broad outline, it sounds like Food Force might be a thinking game in the mode of Sim City. The WFP must juggle the demands of the U.N. bureaucracy; recipient nations; and donor nations. Consider, for example, Zambia's refusal to accept genetically-modified food despite the starvation of millions of its people (BBC); navigating that issue would make for a fascinating game mission. If I were designing the game, I would dispense with all but the most rudimentary images and invest instead in writing intelligent scenarios that put the player in the mind of a food-aid coordinator

But instead we get into the body of a food-aid coordinator, if coordinators are surrounded by mediocre graphics and use a mouse for a lot of mindless clicking. Mission one: Click on dots on the screen. Mission two: Drag bars above different types of food up and down. Mission three: Drop food at the right angle, taking into account the wind—like kicking a field goal in an NFL game. Mission four: Drag food supplies from a world map into a box.

Mission five is the most complicated, and the most frustrating. The truck convoy hits a minefield, and to defuse it you drag the mouse all over the screen clicking constantly. Later the wheels come off the lead truck; you point the mouse at bolts and click to unscrew them, then screw a bunch back in. When you encounter a fallen bridge, you rebuild it by dragging six pieces into place; doing this right would have been tougher if they were labeled 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Finally, you encounter a rebel blocking the road and have to decide what to tell him so he doesn't jack the truck. Here the game comes tantalizingly close to interesting. Unfortunately, the multiple-choice questions were written in that style where the long, politically-worded answer is always the right one. A sample: The rebel asks, "Tell us what is in the truck?" Your choices are: "A. Lie—say there is nothing on board. B. Better not to answer, hit the gas and drive through the barrier. C. Explain you're with the United Nations World Food Programme carrying food for starving people." I was surprised not to see a choice D: "Give the rebel a wedgie and make fun of his mama."

Mission six is the most cerebral. You must allocate food in a village where there are competing needs, including nutrition, HIV/AIDS prevention, and training. This unfolds over a 10-year period, so you must decide which investments will yield the best returns. This is an intriguing concept with real potential. But the food recipients remain abstract, mere stick figures. And it's unclear exactly why the happiness bar waxes and wanes. Plus there's no time to make considered decisions; instead you find yourself dragging food bags as fast as you can, as simulated years elapse in seconds.

For those players who get through the dreary missions, the payoff is well-produced presentations about the WFP's work. Video from actual missions plays as a narrator explains how the WFP gets its food and then delivers it. The production values are high; the words could use more specifics and excitement. It's as if the game's producer, Italy's Deepend s.r.l., wasn't allowed to name actual nations or issues but instead had to stick to the fantasy land of Sheylan so as not to offend anyone. Gelf thoroughly agrees with Seamus Blackley, the Creative Artists Agency video-game specialist who, according to the Journal, told a WFP official who worked on Food Force, "It's just a really boring game. You're going to launch dead with this. This game has the smell of education."

Alarmingly, there's plenty of bad education that made it through quality control and into the demo version launched last week; programmers couldn't spell nor count at the grade level of the game's target audience. Let's hope that Deepend fixes typos like "utlize" and "theyll"—in fact, someone must have stolen the apostrophe key from Deepend's keyboards. Players are told food packs can cost up to 30 cents each, but the actual limit is set at 20 cents, and the bridge they must build is said to have seven pieces but there are only six. Worse sins: Navigating between missions is hard, buttons don't work, and the game crashed twice while I was playing it. There was no obvious way to save my score.

Another by-product of the sloppy programming gets to the heart of the game's biggest failing. The food-aid workers, including the hot Ms. Scott, don't look quite human, and their mouths move to a beat unrelated to the words leaving their mouth. It's as if the programmers have never seen real people on either side of the food-giving relationship. Absurdly, game players get more human interaction in first-person shooter games: In their brief lives before they're blown away, their victims have far more personality than the dots of Food Force.

Related on the Web

•Download Food Force here, and read about it at the website of the WFP.

•The Independent's Rebecca Armstrong doubts that Food Force and other ethical videogames will supplant their violence-ridden competition.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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