My name is Manal. I am a six year old girl in Syria. I have an older brother and three older sisters. My mother and father are salespeople. We are sunni muslims. Tomorrow I begin school…
So begins the life of my new character in the game "Real Lives" put out by Educational Simulations. A turn-based single-player game that uses real world statistics, the goal is simply to live the life of someone from birth to death. Bob Runyon of Ed Sim was kind enough to let me try out a copy of the game, after meeting him at Games for Change last week.
Here are some of my impressions after living several "real lives"….
An educational game designed to teach the player about the lives and environments of various people around the world, Real Lives is simple and compelling to play.
After installing and running the game (PC-based), you are presented with a splash screen with a single button labeled "Live." Clicking it generates a random character that could be born into any country in the world, blessed with certain talents and cursed with certain weaknesses and maladies. Drawing on real world data sources, the game places you into a culturally appropriate milieu and family, whether it be a remote village in Papau New Guinea or an urban highrise in Manila.
In the beginning, there isn’t much to do, since you are just a babe. You click a button called "Age a Year" and stuff happens to you and your family. Someone gets epilepsy, someone starts school, someone loses their job. Or things happen around you, usually bad things — typhoons, civil unrest, famine. You get running stats on how everybody is doing and what ailments they have.
The game throws out little statistics about your country every once in awhile, the local diet, religious practices or dwelling style. Not enough to get a rich picture of what life might be like, but interesting nonetheless.
As you get older, you get to make more choices for your life. Do you decide to quit school and start working to support your family? Do you get a boyfriend? Do you start smoking? Choices you make effect your opportunities down the line.
Lots of the events in your life center around health related maladies, whether it be whooping cough, goiter, measles, an accident or river blindness. Or your house gets robbed, or your bank goes under taking all your savings with it. It gets to the point that you are happy when another year goes by and nothing happens.
I got a bit ansy when my character got old enough and had enough wealth that I had to manage her investments. Luckily you have a fairly small number of options or I would start to panic. In the unstable financial markets in the developing world, often even "safe" investments end up losing and you are better off buying land or jewelry.
Of course, there is no "winning" the game, unless you count dying at an old age "winning." Like real life, you just try and make the best of the circumstances that are presented to you, which isn’t always easy if you are born in Sierra Leone or Bangladesh. There aren’t many perks the game gives you that echo real life "winning" — i.e. falling in love, seeing your children succeed, enjoying your retirement. You just sort of hang in there, hope nothing bad happens, and die at some point.
I make it sound like it isn’t fun. It’s actually pretty fun to play. You can create your own character and place him or her anyplace in the world you like, which is cool. I experimented with making bad choices and seeing how that effects me down the line: smoking, having babies early, quiting school. All the stuff I would never do in my own real life.
I found that one of the worst things to do in most cases is to be
politically active. You almost always end up getting kicked out of
school or losing your job. Once my character got old enough to be out
on her own, or she had her own kids, I started to think that all this
politics stuff is too risky. Which is a funny lesson to learn, but probably accurate given the levels of political repression around the world.
"Real Lives" seems like a great educational tool. I can see how this would be a great addition to a world studies curriculum in junior high or high school.
Some things I’d love to see in future versions of this game:
- Links to multimedia: Videos, music, art, and crafts from the country your character lives might help breath more life into the game. You are presented with a God’s eye view of the country map, which doesn’t exactly warm you to the richness of the local culture.
- Links to Real World Lives: There are a number of web links to get further statistics and information about the country of your character, from the US government, Lonely Planet and other Sources. Even better would be links to blogs of real live people in your character’s country. I could imagine a partnership with Global Voices Online for example, which has a lot of the global blogosphere already aggregated and organized.
- A Mac Version: Please!
You can download a trial copy of the game here.