UNICEF ambushes gamers with an unplayable game based on real life in South Sudan

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There are a lot of difficult-to-stomach things happening in the world today that mainstream media outlets just aren’t covering. You probably know quite a bit about the Charlie Hebdo tragedy that happened in France last week, but do you also know that people in South Sudan have been suffering the ills of war – including rape as a tool for oppression and control – on a daily basis for the last decade?

Probably not.

So to get the word out about things that need attention they’re not getting, drastic measures are sometimes taken by organisations interested in bringing to light the plight of those suffering amidst almost unthinkable circumstances.

Late last year, the United Nations’ Children Fund sent an actor, two camera people and two South Sudanese youth to a games conference in Washington, DC, where they attempted to sell a roomful of eager gamers on the idea of a game about a seven year old girl who, over the course of the game, would endure atrocities so bad that many of the gamers present got up and walked out.

No-one wants to play a game where rape, familial murder and selling oneself into prostitution before the age of eight to simply survive are integral elements of the gameplay.

But those awful things had actually happened to Mari Mellek, one of the South Sudanese youth sent to the conference by UNICEF. She stood up at the end of the presentation to say the pitch was fake, and that she was there to raise awareness that those sorts of awful things didn’t just happen to her, but they’re still happening every single day to thousands, if not millions of other South Sudanese children, due to the civil war that has raged in her country for more than ten years.

Hard to swallow

The tag line in the video is “What’s too much for a game, is happening daily to children in South Sudan”. That’s kind of hard to swallow… which is very much the point.

UNICEF’s video was posted on YouTube in December, and has racked up just over 300 000 views in the subsequent month, so the tactic has worked to a degree. But it’s still nowhere near as successful as it needs to be to highlight the suffering of the South Sudanese people to the point where people in positions of responsibility, and even just regular folks like you and me, might actually do something about it.

Still, it beats the deafening silence of mainstream media outlets on the subject, so it’s a good start.

Here’s the clip:


In 2011, a similar shock tactic was used to highlight the awful goings-on in another African country, this time the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was done in an effort to not only raise awareness of the rape of Eastern Congolese women and children, but to also call on mobile phone manufacturers to rethink their use of “conflict minerals” obtained from countries where mining has been known to fund the militia groups and gangs who commit atrocities.

A short, six-minute film called Unwatchable was shown to journalists, activists, critics and community leaders in London, depicting the unflinching brutalisation and rape of an unsuspecting British family in much the same way as had happened to a real-life Congolese family.

Unwatchable truly is exactly that, and is perfectly orchestrated to inspire the maximum amount of indignation from its intended European audience. You can watch it here, but be warned, it’s really not for the faint of heart.

Bad, right? But it did the job, inspiring a dialogue that led to an increased awareness of the use of conflict minerals in manufacturing. Because of films like this one and other activism efforts, the US’s Securities and Exchange Commission implemented a new policy stating that companies must declare whether their products contain minerals obtained from conflict-prone countries by May 1, 2014. The theory is no conflict mineral cash, no militias and gangs looking to control productive regions by any means necessary.

Shock tactics may not be pleasant, but they’re apparently necessary to raise awareness of things that for the most part, the world at large would rather not know about and which mainstream media outlets don’t want to touch with a long stick.

By using gaming as the platform from which to launch its latest awareness-raising campaign, UNICEF is being quite smart. Games can be even more violent and gritty than even the most explicit movies, exposing gamers to some pretty horrible imagery in the name of entertainment, but even the worst of what they see on-screen pales in comparison to the everyday realities faced by people in places like the DRC and South Sudan. It’s a very sobering thought indeed, and a powerful message that more needs to be done to give people living in those areas a better life.

Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.


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