Acton Institute Powerblog

Playing at Poverty

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Yesterday at, a leading social media site, an article entitled ‘5 Fun Games With a Higher Purpose‘ was featured. The article noted that these types of games attempted to combine fun with some sort of societal impact. One game, Darfur is Dying, allows the player to simulate life in a Darfuri refugee camp for a family. If one family member leaves to get water and is killed or captured, the player must choose the next family member to send out. The game prompts players to make donations to humanitarian organizations.

Another game, Survive125, challenges folks to survive on $1.25 a day, with choices like sending one’s young daughter into a factory job or selling her to a prostitution ring. At the end of the game, the player is once again enjoined to make donations to various charities.

While the main purpose of these games seems to be to heighten awareness of global issues that plague much of the world’s population, there is something decidedly distasteful about playing at poverty. Every human, in every living situation, has dignity, and their lives are not games. Despite living in a refugee camp, a woman has dignity. A man trying to support his family on mere pennies a day has dignity. The image of a person casually punching their smartphone while playfully dodging bullets or sending a daughter off to a life of prostitution – real occurrences in some people’s lives – leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth…and perhaps a callous on one’s soul.

These games don’t do a darn thing, except provide a form of vulgar entertainment. A person may or may not be moved, at the end of play, to make a donation to an NGO or charity. If a donation is made, will it make a difference? What stands in the way of that donation and making a difference in Darfur or another place in the developing world? Corruption, lack of rule of law, lack of private property rights, lack of adequate education….the list goes on. The donation of money to foreign countries is not, and has never been, the answer to these issues. One need only look at Haiti (note this post and this one) to see that foreign aid not only doesn’t help but often hurts.

Such games foster the illusion that a person playing a game, who knows nothing of what it means to live in war-torn country or eke out an existence on a sub-standard income, is more able to alleviate and solve the issues in the developing world than those in the developing world themselves. What the people in these circumstances lack is not donations from the players of Darfur is Dying. What they need are the tools to create a safe, sustainable existence for themselves, supported by those with the capacity to offer real partnership. Games don’t solve poverty; hard, dignified work done by real people with creative minds does.

This article is cross-posted at

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • C.H. Dyer

    I agree with the premise of Ms.Hilton’s article. It is written from a field operative’s perspective with the purest form of development and best practices in mind. However, I think from a marketing perspective these games may have some value. Gaming culture is a huge industry with billions of dollars spent and millions of young people under the age of 35 participating. It is a segment that needs to be introduced to the concepts and dilemmas that Relief and Development professionals face. I am not a gamer, I have no experience with any of these games listed, but I do know the difficulty of building advocacy and creating funding partners. If these games move people along the continuum toward engagement and high impact giving then I celebrate the gaming industry attempts to join in mix.

    • I agree with the premise of the post as well, but you have a good point too. A gamer might never be exposed to any of these issues if they aren’t presented in their “language”, which is games themselves. How those games present themselves is another matter entirely. These aren’t made for people who are already actively involved in poverty campaigns, they’re made to show people what it might be like living in those conditions without actually dumping them off in an African country with $1.25.