Folks, I’ve seen some sick and twisted video games in my day, but I hereby award the cake to a dark little perversion of the human imagination entitled Fetching Water, a finalist in the MTV/Reebok Darfur Digital Activist contest (darfurisdying.com) for games designed to “raise aware-ness and stop the genocide” in Sudan’s Darfur region. Currently playable in demo form at MTV’s new college-targeted broadband site, mtvU (mtvu.com), Fetching Water casts the player as a cute Darfuri child dodging heavily armed militia gangs through the five kilometers of desert between home and the nearest well. Fail to outrun the militiamen and the game ends, with “kidnap, rape, and murder” listed as your likeliest fates; make it to the well and back, and maybe your family survives another day of drought. Is there even a rating for something this fucked-up?
And yes, I know: It’s all about context. The other two finalists are arguably even more perverse. Ashanti Ambassadors, pitting Sudanese student activists against government gunmen, is a first-person shooter that doesn’t let you shoot; Guidance reimagines the complexities of murderous ethnic conflict as a Tetris-like abstraction of sliding colored dots. But since all of these games are intended to raise awareness, stop the genocide, and perhaps thicken the ozone layer, no one will ever confuse their abundant violence with that of the typical commercial video game. Broaden the context, however, and you might start to wonder which use of game violence is sicker: the game companies’ exploitation of adolescent aggressive impulses in pursuit of unit sales, or MTV’s exploitation of adolescent social conscience in pursuit of ad revenue. Say what you like about Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat, but neither of them was ever so cruel as to delude anyone that playing a game might change the world.