A cluster of teenagers gathered around a small table, and passersby could hear them exclaim, “Asian! Yeah, I knew it!” and “Aryan? That seems ridiculous.” They hovered over two iPads in the Grand Gallery of the Museum of Natural History during the Margaret Mead Film Festival, playing a game called “Guess My Race.” It was one of five video games in the Mead Arcade; the others included “The Cat and the Coup,” which traces the downfall of Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and “Sweatshop,” in which you hire and fire workers for your loathsome factory.
Aiding the swarms of museum patrons who stopped to play were volunteers from Games for Change, a New York City-based nonprofit that encourages the development of what it calls “social-impact games.” (All of the games at the arcade are also available for free through the organization’s Web site.) I sat down at a laptop to try my hand at running a sweatshop. To a bouncy techno soundtrack, the boss floor manager, who keenly evoked Hitler, spewed insults and directions—”Lazybones! How are you today? Shh-h-h-h. I don’t care!”—and the orders started pouring in for shoes, shirts, hats, and bags. [...]
In 1940, Margaret Mead created a card game along with her husband, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Called “Democracies and Dictators,” its cards contained instructions such as “Dictator! Crippled Industries: You have put your leading industrialists into concentration camps. (lose a card in 5).” Mead wrote that it was based on “the basic ideas that democracies and dictators play by different rules and work with different values.” She tried to sell the idea to Parker Brothers, but it was never produced for public consumption. The games on display at the Mead Arcade have been markedly more successful. “Sweatshop” had a million plays during its first three months, and “The Cat and the Coup” has received acclaim from gamers around the world—including one German reviewer who wrote that it is “like Monty Python being dropped in a bowl full of Persian kitsch.”
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