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People who think video games are just for mindless procrastination and aren't productive to society are being proven wrong.

The number of games with positive messages and role models is steadily increasing and becoming widespread. With the emergence of socially conscious gaming, gamers find themselves in the unique position to address real world conflicts in the virtual world. As the line between programmers and activists blur, many see the trend in social gaming as the beginning of new and innovative ways of imagining social change.

WASHINGTON- Joe Zaki isn't your traditional superhero. The skinny, unassuming 22-year-old character is a nutritionist with the U.N. World Food Programme. Yet hundreds of thousands of people know of his relief efforts on the crisis-stricken island of Sheylan.

Zaki doesn't actually exist, nor does Sheylan. But the platform on which Zaki and his fictional homeland are presented, the WFP's "Food Force" video game, is one of the hottest downloads on the Internet.

The game is a humanitarian effort comprising six relief missions that mirror real-world aid efforts going on around the world. It's one of many pro-social video games aimed at showing young people that heroes aren't always supersized and brains can trump brawn in getting out of dangerous situations.

"It's a reflection of our organization because we're a multi-cultural organization - [we] work in 80 countries all over the world," said WFP spokeswoman Brenda Barton. "There was very much a conscious decision to choose characters in ways that are reflective to provide good role models so that everyone knows they can do what they want to do in our world."

Besides Zaki, who is Asian-American, the other main characters in the program include a Nigerian food purchasing director, a Brazilian pilot and a white female American logistician. The diversity is reflected in the widespread popularity of the game, according to Barton.

"Kids all over the world are playing it, but we were surprised that we had … kids from South Korea to Latin American countries," she said. One newspaper account in India said that more than 800,000 copies of the game have been downloaded.

Games like "Food Force" tend to be the exception rather than the rule in the video gaming world, according to recent studies. A 2001 study by a research group called "Children Now" found that white males played the hero role in the most popular games 86 percent of the time. A 2000 study by the group found that almost half of the most popular games contained some sort of negative messages about females, like "unrealistic body images and stereotypical female characteristics."

"Female characters, while being strong, also have to be sexual objects," said Dr. Nina Huntemann, assistant professor of communication and journalism at Suffolk University in Massachusetts. Huntemann produced "Game Over: Gender, Race and Violence in Video Games," a film that explored stereotyping and gender roles in popular video games.

"Video games are repeating [gender and race stereotyping] history if you compare it to television and film," Huntemann said. "'Grand Theft Auto' would be the 'Birth of a Nation' form of stereotyping." "Birth of A Nation" is a 1915 film in which white actors with painted black faces depict black characters and is perceived to have glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

"Grand Theft Auto," one of the most popular video game series, rewards players with points for anti-social behavior such as patronizing prostitutes and killing them.

A representative of Rockstar Games, which publishes "Grand Theft Auto," declined to comment for this story.

Huntemann has seen some positive representations of diversity in video games, but not from sources one would expect.

"'Doom' or 'Quake,' even though they're violent, they offer a diversity of characters you can play - you can play a female or a person of color, but the violence part is a whole another issue," Huntemann said. "[These] games [are] at least offering players opportunity to choose and that's what important."

Part of the homogenization of heroic characters comes from a sameness in many design labs, according to Huntemann.

"One of the ways that might improve [games] is if the game industry itself was more diverse in terms of its employment," she said. "It's still overwhelmingly white and male."

One game that takes advantage of a diverse creative staff is Midway's Mortal Kombat series, says company spokesman Riley Brennan.

"The guys that work on this have a diverse taste - everything from sci-fi to kung fu theater to the latest thing you see at the movies," said Brennan, noting that the staff is culturally diverse, like the characters from which a gamer can choose in the game. "We have a Bruce Lee-type character, a [Jean-Claude] Van Damme-type character, a big, ripped black guy…we didn't consciously say we want a diverse game but it reflects the influence on the game."

Diversity is more than just race and gender. "The Sims" game series offers characters a chance to experience something that, while recognized by the game, is not recognized by federal law: same-sex marriage.

"The Sims was created to allow players to put themselves into the game," said Will Wright, the game's creator. "If a player came from a single-parent household, or a household with gay parents, the game should allow that. There should be no judgment in the game."

Increasingly, games are being designed with social agendas and education in mind. But this diverse group of characters is showing that those who want to kick back and escape reality are more able to do so with characters that resemble them. And in the end, that choice is what is important to Huntemann.

"It may not be important for a black teen to play a black hero," said Huntemann. "But it's important that they have that option."

-Eric Crouch, Medill News Service

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