Op-Ed

Op-Ed
3rd World Farmer - One bad year

Joe Blancato | 6 Jul 2006 11:18
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"The right now's in chickens, kid," I say to anyone who will listen. "Worry about the future when it comes." I say this because you can feed a family of eight for an entire year off the proceeds of one chicken. Use the chicken to raise chicks to sell at a market, use the non-fertilized eggs to feed the kids, use the manure to fertilize the cash crops you grow in the fields. It's protein-based subsistence farming. This is the yearly miracle I work, not because I'm divine, but because I have to.

I'm a man from western Africa. You know, the place with the warlords, AIDS and staggering illiteracy rates they talk about on the news before going over to Tom with the weather. I can't count my living kids on one hand, and I can't count the ones who died before entering adulthood on two. I've had six wives; the previous five starved to death. I've brushed up against the same fate a few times, but luck's been on my side so far.

It seems, whenever the family shrinks down to just me, something comes along to bail me out. One year, the despot du jour held a paramilitary recruitment drive: $80 per annum, enough to get the farm back up and running. Another time, a drug lord paid me $5 an acre to grow poppies for him; I survived air strikes launched by one developed nation or another and started growing cotton the next year.

But it's not all bad. My current wife is healthy, and she's given me seven children. Only six are around the farm, still. One lives in the city, now. A man paid me $65 to let her go with him, onto an education and a better life. She doesn't call or write, but then again, I don't have a phone and I can't read. We pray for her.

But things around here have been pretty good, at least lately. Like I tell everyone, we grow chickens mostly. I have a coop out back. Guerillas seem to love breaking it apart so I can't grow more; they call this "interdiction" because it "keeps me from giving food to the communist/fascist/leftist/pro-American/pro-Islamist regime, those bastards." I call it "them being dicks." But either way, provided they don't bust up the coop right before a bad plague rolls through the area, I can usually recover the business and keep our heads above water.

While the chickens do their thing, I try to dabble in the local cash crops, peanuts and cotton. I have 18 acres of dedicated farmland, but it's rare that I plant more than two acres each. Sure, after a few good seasons, I could fill up all my land with cotton and peanuts, putting the $1,000 it took me 20 years to save into the ground and hoping for a good harvest, but I could lose everything to a drought. All it takes is one bad year to kill three of my children.

After losing my first wife and two kids to an over-extended venture like that, I learned my lesson. Out here, it's not about getting ahead. It's about getting by. It's about surviving plague and the financial hardship I had to endure after paying for patented medicine; it's about dealing with guerillas and national bank closure; it's about keeping the chickens and cows and pigs alive through a disease outbreak; it's about getting through today so my family can see tomorrow.

I'm a 3rd World Farmer. Off and on (more on than off) during my workday yesterday, I planted crops, raised livestock, fended off guerilla rebels and dealt with huge corporations trying to bury toxic waste in my yard. I married, became a widower, had kids and lost them to famine and disease, all in the name of the annual $200 a good harvest would bring me, which left me with just enough money to plant next year's crop and do it all over.

It's a lot like the American Dustbowl of the 1930s, only with more warlords and less country music.

3rd World Farmer, developed by a small group of students based out of Copenhagen, is a "serious game," or, to use a slightly more colloquial clause: "A game that makes you think." Conjuring up images and occasions from sub-Saharan Africa, the game, based in flash, charges you with raising a family in one of the most dangerous regions in the world. I started playing on a lark, mostly. I made a joke about the game's name ("I wonder how much WoW you have to play") before even reading the instructions. But by the time my first chicken was stolen by refugees, I was hooked.

It didn't take long for me to fill the office with shouts of intense anger and despair when something bad happened to my struggling family. No matter how well I was doing from season to season, from year to year, I knew one bad harvest, one stroke of bad luck, could not only ruin my chances of making the top-10 players list but also kill my family and me in the process.

It's sim-style gameplay with an Oregon Trail vibe, and it does a great job of getting into your head via its straightforward objective and visceral imagery: When your pigs get sick, you're treated to a photo of a pile of dead pigs rotting; when men with guns come, you look at a photo of a man holding an assault rifle. The stark photography, real and gritty, clashes with the game's otherwise simple, cartoony art style, making the imagery even more stunning. Twenty turns in, I ended up not hoping for a "good harvest," which about doubled my take for the year, but instead just praying that some buffoon in a uniform didn't take away my farm equipment.

3rd World didn't make me think, it made me feel. I won't say I know what it's like to live with the fear those people do. I wouldn't presume that. Not after playing 3rd World, anyway. But I will say I want to know more about what's really going on in that part of the world, and it if it's possible to lend a hand in some way, if only so a real father doesn't have to live through what I simulated in my comfy office. And that should say something about what some kids in Denmark accomplished, here.

Serious game, indeed.

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