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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Serious Games Summit: Roche on How the United Nations Fights Hunger with Food Force

After lunch on the first day the summit began to really hit its stride... at least in my experience, the following sessions were the reason I attended...

For the fourth breakout I attended Justin Roche's How the United Nations Fights Hunger with Food Force.

The session opened with some amazing, amazing statistics. Though the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP) is feeding 90 million worldwide, 60 million of them children, there are 800 million that need food! The WFP owns 20 planes, 40 ships, and 5,000 trucks. "Thousands and thousands" of people work for the WFP, and while the US is the biggest donor in total, he Netherlands are per capita. Every 5 seconds a child dies of hunger.

There is a great need to mobilize people behind the efforts of the WFP. But, why develop a game like Food Force? Roche suggested that it has a powerful effect on children (and young adults, and people of all ages it turns out), and the WFP is targeting future decision makers. (Their target was 8-15 year old students). Though there are ways that students can help right away, this is an investment in the future of the program.

The development of the game was an effort to match the distribution profile of America's Army which can boast of 17 million downloads since 2002 (and which absolutely drives the Serious Games Summit). This has certainly been successful: the WFP's game, Food Force has been downloaded 2.2 million times in 200 countries since it was released this past spring. (There are 500,000 hard copies in circulation, and it has been the #1 action and adventure game at Apple.com.) When it was first released, BBC Technology ran the story and the Food Force servers crashed with the first 10 minutes. :) They approached Yahoo for support, and got it. Yahoo still hosts the game for free, a donation that amounts to something in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 thousand dollars each month.

The story behind the game's design was as bitter sweet as the work of the WFP. Apparently the game was conceived in 1999 by an italian lady (whose name I could sadly not capture while taking notes... should've been recording all of these), but she was tragically killed in a plane crash in '99. It took another year for the passion to transfer to others... and another two years before the funds were found. (They could, of course, not use funds earmarked to feed hungry people!) Roche, then, was brought on to finish development and launch the game, which came online in April 2005. The game was developed for about $475k dollars, but the commercial value (had many not donated their time and resources) would probably have been 5 times that.

At this point in his story, he showed us a demo. The missions are structured to help teach about specific aspects of the WFP's work, and each has four components...

1.) A briefing
2.) The actual mission
3.) Feedback on player performance
4.) A video that explains the real world consequences of WFP's work (and which also serves as the motivation and reward for finishing missions).

The six missions are related to jobs performed by the WFP: air surveillance, creating energy pacs, air drops, locate & dispatch, the food run, and future farming. My primary critique remains that the game interface in these missions really has nothing to do with the point the WFP is trying to get across in the game. Still, it is undoubtedly successful. Roche shared that he often has kids tell him they want to work for the WFP. Even I had that reaction when I played it! In fact, Roche considered this desire for players to work for them to be their best feedback on the effectiveness of the project when asked how they evaluate their success.

Due to the success, several big name gaming companies are now helping them localize food force in other nations... Konami in Japan, Shandra for China, Ubisoft in French, Rai Television in Italian, and the TNT Corp in dutch. Naturally, Roche said further partnerships were necessary as well. He says they attract the attention of these partners because it is a good deal for them... they can frame it as part of their corporate responsibility and they can have their brand associated with a proven product in the educational and serious games marketplace. This is something of an inspiration for similar games in the future, or for future installments of the Food Force "franchise", which Roche suggested is possible, though unfunded at this time.

In addition to the serious game, the WFP also provides online educational resources and and works with a variety of educational partners as well: Feeding Minds Fighting Hunger, the American Federation of Teachers, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and others. Roche mentioned that the website offers a community for teachers. (Actually, now that I click on the "Discussion Area" link in the teacher menu, it turns out this vitally important read/write web feature is only "coming soon"!) Students are encouraged to use the website to post their scores (which is easy to find) and to discuss the game and the real world issues. (Although, now I realize I can't find a student discussion area either).

While the web site seems to still need some work, Roche also talked about next steps for the game... more partnering, CD-ROM production for distribution, and more language translations. He said they realize they may have a franchise, and that they obviously want to move toward a multiplayer game. Later he suggested he'd like a mobile phone version and a console based version - perhaps on playstation, or as an XBox 360 Live downloadable game. Perhaps most importantly, he said, "there are definitely more stories to tell." He was also using the session to recruite developers who want to contribute. Unfortunately, all of this is currently unfunded.

As far as lessons learned for others, he suggested identifying the needs of your partners, and to simply keep pitching a great idea.

Incidentally, and as always, any errors or inaccurate reporting in this post are mine. :)

-Mark

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