The grandson of a Ghana king and a 19-year-old programmer in Atlanta both agree on one thing: The Western world doesn't understand Africa. Their solution? Make a video game about the continent.
In December, "Africa" the video game will join the universe of massive multiplayer online realms like "World of Warcraft" and "City of Heroes." The game's backers hope players will be enticed to pay a monthly fee not to live among the usual fantasy heroes and elves but to delve into a land of 13th century African civilization and mythology, crossing the virtual Sahara on a camel, journeying to Timbuktu and fighting as a Zulu warrior against the lion equivalent of a werewolf.
"We felt very strongly that video games can help increase understanding and education about Africa and get the unmotivated public fired up about what is going on with Africa," said John Sarpong, grandson of Ashanti king Prampeh of Ghana, exiled by the British from 1895 to 1924. Sarpong has spent recent years running Africast, a company that broadcasts African programming over the Internet.
Less reserved, Adam Ghetti, the teenage creative director at Rapid Reality, the company actually creating the game, said he hopes the game will right some wrongs. "The white American board developers of the large MMO development companies out there right now don't honestly have the right background and knowledge on the continent of Africa and its lore, mythology and rich history, and quite honestly neither did I," said Ghetti, who is white. "They just don't teach it over here." The game is designed, in part, to change that.
Many gamers have been to virtual Africa before, even if they don't realize it. Possibly they were too busy shooting. The military spy adventure "Metal Gear," released in 1987, was set in South Africa. The opening battles between Master Chief and Covenant aliens in 2005's "Halo 2" are waged on the African island of Zanzibar. More identifiable use of the African landscape has been equally ballistic: "Black Hawk Down" centered on gun battles in 1990s Somalia, and "Call of Duty 2" soldiered players to World War II-era North Africa.
None of these depictions quite matches the game plan cooked up by Ghetti and Tracy Spaight, the game's 35-year-old lead designer and a decade-long visitor of online worlds. "Perhaps you could be the mansa, the king of Mali, or the emir of Morocco if you were well enough organized and had a tribe of people that backed you," said Spaight of the possibilities "Africa" will offer.
That doesn't just mean the game presents a different way to play Africa. It also, as Sarpong and the Rapid Reality team note, presents a different way to be black in a video game. "Everybody was kind of getting sick of jacking cars and pimping people," Ghetti said.
When bucking industry trends, it doesn't hurt to be brazen. That's a quality plentiful in Ghetti, who Spaight said is "from another galaxy" and jokes is just 14. Five years older than that, Ghetti protests. He does acknowledge that half a decade ago he was already figuring out how to make MMOs by "basically taking them apart." Ghetti now boasts that Rapid Reality, an upstart with no games published yet but a few dozen employees including some MMO vets, can outperform the majors.
"The average cycle on MMOs is two to four years," he said. "We can turn out the same content, better graphics, better gameplay in eight months to a year." He said games from his company, including "Africa," will have graphics that surpass the current industry gold standard of the Unreal Engine 3. When he talks about the ability for every computer-controlled character in "Africa" to react uniquely to each human-controlled character, he scoffs at prospective doubters. "They say it's impossible. Maybe if we were doing it in the archaic way everyone else tries to do it."
"Africa" will be a vessel for Ghetti and Spaight's ambition. They want a virtual world that functions dynamically: antelope that find new pastures when grassland is scorched, drum music fully customizable by players and used — as in real ancient Africa — as an alternate langue. They want players to be able to become famous and change the map. More flexible than the mostly developer-controlled "World of Warcraft" but more restrained than the free-living "Second Life," "Africa" would let a tribe of 100 players establish their own officially recognized empire, but only after the equivalent of 12 hours of play across 48 weeks. For the less hard-core, play can be done casually as a fighter, merchant, musician or even a human who can turn into a bird.
Ghetti said he thinks the setting will present gamers a welcome and surprisingly rich change of scenery. "The African mythology back from 1200 to 1400 A.D. is thousands of times richer than the J.R.R. Tolkien series of novels," he said. "Don't get me wrong, he was an amazing individual with brilliant ideas. But that's been milked for 80 years now."
Sarpong has an extra hope for "Africa": He envisions it being played in Africa. He knows that MMOs are typically the terrain of those with the high-powered computers that are required for entry. But "Africa," which will be distributed via the Internet, will be designed to run well even on the less powerful computers frequented by Africans in their countries' cybercafes. "For the first time they can have the experience as well," he said. "That is something that excites me greatly."
And just as "Africa" might give Africans a new window to the virtual world, Spaight spins a theory on how it will affect views of the real. "I think MMOs could literally be a tool for world peace and better understanding," he said. "Maybe you make a rich, immersive environment where you could walk around these great classic cities and explore these empires and you'd get a sense of what the way of life would be like in the glorious path of these societies."
For more on "Africa," visit Africa-MMO.com.