The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has found a new way to get the word out about its efforts. Food Force is a free downloadable video game (for the PC and Mac) designed by the WFP, in which the users will “Play the game, learn about food aid, and help WFP work towards a world without hunger.”
Within the context of the fictional nation of Sheylan, the player embarks on a series of missions intended to give users a feel for the way in which the WFP does business.
The overall goal of the WFP in fighting hunger is a noble one, and worthy of a great deal of public attention. While many flashier issues dominate global media coverage, hunger problems represent a true and dangerous threat to millions of people daily. And the good news is that there are real, achievable policies and actions available that could have incredibly positive effects.
The Copenhagen Consensus 2004, which brought together world-renowned experts in a variety of fields, determined that the challenge of malnutrition and hunger represented one of the key areas of potential action. The opportunity of providing micronutrients was ranked by a panel of expert economists as second only to the control of HIV/AIDS in the prioritization of responses to global threats.
According to the panel, “Reducing the prevalence of iron-deficiency anaemia by means of food supplements, in particular, has an exceptionally high BCR (benefit-cost ratio).” In this respect, the WFP Food Force does a good job of emphasizing the nutritional value of food, as one of the six tasks in the game is come up with a formula for food rations that maximizes both economic and nutritional value.
This “Energy Pacs” mission is second, and is preceded by the “Air Surveillance” mission, in which you control a helicopter and attempt to locate needy inhabitants of Sheylan. Points are accrued on each mission and combined at the conclusion of a game to give you a final composite score.
The six missions take you step-by-step through the WFP process, as needs are recognized, rations are made, and then emergency food drops are conducted in the third mission. The game play and timing of this mission is difficult, because the drops must take into account wind direction, which changes just before every drop.
The fourth mission is a logistical game, in which you match up the offered donations with the needs of Sheylan over a period of months. In an attempt to illustrate the difficulties of international politics, various countries may offer donations that do not fit with the specific needs of your fictitious nation. The WFP’s role as an international coordinating body is clearly at the fore here.
The second to last mission consists of guiding a convoy of trucks filled with longer-term supplies to hungry natives. This mission contains some of the elements which might be expected in a country embroiled in civil conflict, as guerilla groups vie for supremacy.
The final task is a future simulation, in which you project out the next 10 years of life in a Sheylan village, determining where to spend the money and food so that the infrastructure will be built up. The goal is to make the village self-sufficient after the WFP leaves.
One of the downfalls of this game is its interface, which is not all that responsive. This is especially true of the food drop mission.
Within the confines of the WFP’s modus operandi, Food Force attempts to provide the user with as much freedom to innovate as is possible. A number of the projects call for decision-making by the player.
While the game maximizes this ability, the overall game play is linear and deterministic. This, of course, is inherent in the bureaucratic makeup of the WFP in particular, and the UN in general. The future farming mission embodies this, as the course of the next 10 years for a village in Sheylan is determined by you in an autocratic fashion.
The correspondence between the fictional nation of Sheylan and the real-life situation following the Indian Ocean tsunami is hard to miss. In this case, a full five months after the disaster, we can see the inability of governmental organizations to adapt and fulfill their stated aims of reconstruction. Just this week the official in charge of governmental relief funds in Indonesia stated he was “shocked” at the lack of reconstruction progress in the Aceh province.
Kuntoro Mangkusubroto primarily blames bureaucratic wrangling for the delays. “There is no sense of urgency,” he said. Meanwhile private funding continues to flow freely as NGOs effectively implement their relief efforts.
Food Force skirts these thorny issues by setting up the situation in Sheylan in which crises in the local governments prohibit cooperation between the WFP and other aid groups.
Overall, Food Force serves its purpose well. It is primarily a tool for raising the issue of hunger in the minds of those in the developed world, and it should be relatively successful in doing so.
Larger structural issues about the WFP and the UN remain outside the scope of the game, but nevertheless are reflected in the game’s guiding ethos and makeup. We can only hope that the WFP’s stated commitment to the independence of those it helps is manifested by policies that actually give those in need economic freedom and the hope of development. Addressing the root causes of poverty can be the only real long-term solution to poverty, hunger, and the devastation brought about by natural disasters.
No word yet on the release of the UN Oil-for-Food program simulation or the much-touted first-person shooter, “Peacekeeper.”