The struggle of the African farmer, from the safety of your own home

Suit up, it's time to take on world poverty, with your game pad

Suit up, it's time to take on world poverty, with your game pad

Thanks to Kerry Brennan at the Innovations for Poverty Action blog, I’ve discovered my new favourite computer game: Third World Farmer!

From the game’s website:

In the game, the player gets to manage an African farm, and is soon confronted with the often difficult choices that poverty and conflict necessitate. We find this kind of experience efficient at making the issues relevant to people, because players tend to invests their hopes in a game character whose fate depends on him. We aim at making the player “experience” the injustices, rather than being told about them, so as to stimulate a deeper and more personal reflection on the topics.

OK, sounds a little preachy, but let’s give it a go.

  1. Turn one. My name is Eyakobo (which I quickly change to *Matt*). I’m married with two children. I own a hut and my family is in good health. I’ve got some cash ($50) and a field, so let’s get the planting started. I plant mostly maize (corn) with a couple sections of peanuts (high risk) to diversify my crop portfolio.
  2. Turn two. Rats! A drought year! I lose all my crops and am now $12 in debt. My health has suffered.
  3. Turn three. No cash, so we go without proper food for a year.
  4. Turn four. A seedy businessman offers to let me grow opium (?!?!) on my plot, I do so and quickly turn a tidy profit of $152. I buy a shed, some chickens, and another diverse set of crops.
  5. Turn five. Rats! a drought year! I lose all my crops, and now have no money to plant more, just my chickens.
  6. Turn six. Rats! My chickens died! My health is low. No money for food.
  7. Turn seven. “Some paramilitaries hear of your relative success as a farmer and raid your farm, taking everything.”
  8. I die. My wife dies. I send my daughter away to work (and get $1 in return). My son is old enough to run the farm himself. I find him a wife. The wife has, as a clickable option: have a baby (the demographic economists go wild).

I could keep on going about the epic story of my son’s family, but it’s much of the same. Just when things look like they are going well, you get slapped down by the unjust hand of fate (anything from rising input prices, higher costs of living, wars, famines, dumb neighbors, diseases, chicken-specific diseases). These shocks seem a little too convenient (just when I was doing well, something bad happens). It’s a bit like an African Oregon Trail (without the perpetual dread of fording rivers).

I’ve got mixed feelings about this game. On one hand, the game feels like “Poverty Porn: The Game, African Stereotype Edition”. On the other hand, it does at least a minimally decent job of modeling the sort of  decision-making economists like to think about (it’s a good year, do I have a child? What sort of crops do I plant? Should I buy crop insurance?). Give it a whirl and post your experiences on here!

Wow: how about we have the most prominent development economists compete to see who can do the best? Development bloggers, who’s in?

One thought on “The struggle of the African farmer, from the safety of your own home

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    October 2, 2009 at 1:00pm

    My Zanzibari internet connection isn’t fast enough to make the game playable, unfortunately. I love the fact that after your chickens died and your crops failed, the paramilitaries thought you were doing ‘relatively well’. I guess the others had resorted to cannibalism by then?

    what were the graphics like? I have this image of a Carmen Santiago-style 2-D thing with some evil paramilitaries scampering across the screen and chickens dying in their paths, complete with comical-evil music.

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