Food Force

We play video games to be entertained. How you define “entertained” is, of course, up to you; games can offer an adrenaline-fueled contest, an immersive fantasy, or a momentary distraction. For most of us, though, “entertainment” is synonymous with “escape”. Games and other forms of entertainment provide us with a means of getting away from the daily grind, the wearying hassles forever being thrown at us by that unrelenting nuisance that is real life. We can’t spend every waking minute of our day dealing with the whole world and all its problems; burdens like that were meant for Atlas, not mere mortals. It’s too much, and so we look to — among other things — video games to provide us an outlet, a temporary lightening of our load.

Not every developer of video games is interested in merely assisting us in our quest to get away from it all, though. Games may not be as culturally entrenched as, say, movies, but they are still awfully popular, and a medium with the broad appeal of games will sooner or later have broad appeal with people who want to use games as a vehicle for delivering messages, rather than as an escape from them. Educators have been doing this for nearly as long as video games have been popular, feeding schoolchildren a steady diet of bland flash-card programs with the occasional Oregon Trail or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? for dessert. Even with these purposeful, productive games, however, entertainment is a goal; kids don’t play Carmen Sandiego because it teaches them about geography, they play it because it provides a fun and engrossing mystery to be solved. Any learning that happens is purely incidental, almost subliminal.

Advertisers are, of course, experts at slipping subliminal messages into entertainment, at hiding brands in plain sight. Games would seem like a natural playground for advertising messages, a mass medium aimed mostly at demographics with lots of disposable income. It’s kind of a surprise, then, that in an age where you can’t even go to the bathroom without being sold something, video games are still a terribly awkward platform for advertising. Licensed titles range from the underwhelming (Kotex’s Ms. Match) to the embarrassing (Ralston-Purina’s infamous Chase the Chuck Wagon), and in-game advertising is only now beginning to catch on. One notable entry in the world of games-as-advertisements (or games-as-propaganda, if you like) is America’s Army. Like the more successful educational games, America’s Army wouldn’t be half as popular as it is were it to blatantly insert recruitment pitches into its levels. Instead, it simply offers as much entertainment as it can, letting its pro-military message be implied through gameplay.

While it comes from a very different place politically, Food Force‘s goals are similar to those of America’s Army: to entertain, educate, and persuade. Commissioned by the United Nations World Food Programme, Food Force is designed to fill players in on that organization’s mission to combat hunger worldwide, and to demonstrate some of the difficulties of that task. To that end, the game takes you to the island of Sheylan, a fictional cross between Sri Lanka and Somalia that’s been wracked by famine and civil war, leaving its citizens with little shelter and less food. Over the course of a series of mini-games, Food Force explains the relief process, from emergency food drops to ongoing sustainability programs.

It can be compared to America’s Army in its persuasive intent, but Food Force is more similar to Wario Ware in its actual execution. The six stages of the game all have very different play mechanics: in one, you fly a helicopter over the region, steering with the mouse; in another, you drop supplies from the back of a plane, clicking on the button to center and launch your payload. Some games, like mixing ingredients to create food rations or scheduling shipments from donor countries, are over almost before they even begin. The game’s final two stages, steering a supply truck through hostile terrain and a Sim City-like projection of future self-sufficiency for a rebuilding village, are a little more fleshed out, but are still on the underdeveloped side.

What Food Force lacks in gameplay, however, it more than makes up for in talk. Each mission is introduced by a WFP specialist (these fictional staffers are, needless to say, carefully chosen to represent a wide range of nationalities), who goes into a long spiel about their particular area of expertise before presenting you with the instructions for the game you’re about to play. In quite a few cases, it takes more time to listen to the instructions than it does to play the game. Afterwards, your supervisor comes back to offer more information about the WFP’s work, along with some stock video footage of children being fed and such. It’s fine as an infomercial, but tedious as a game.

Unlike Carmen Sandiego and America’s Army, Food Force makes no effort to disguise its message or intent by burying it beneath an engaging or distracting play experience. In one sense, this should be commended; people are rightfully suspicious of hidden messages or assumptions that are built into their entertainment. At the same time, however, it fails to make use of the medium to its fullest: its flimsy gameplay makes you wonder why they bothered to design it as a video game at all, rather than as an infomercial or something. Of course, the reasoning here is obvious: by dressing its content up as a game, the WFP gains an audience it might not otherwise have; even if that audience is disappointed by the game as entertainment, they’ve at least received the message. Ironically, by being so pedantically focused on its content and making only a token effort at being an entertaining experience for the player, Food Force becomes a game that’s ideologically transparent, but artistically dishonest.