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Opinion: Game Creators - Let's Burn Down Africa?

In Hollywood, worrying about the fate of Africa is "periodically chic," but Chris Dahlen points out that it's much more common in games to blow the place up. From Far Cry 2 to Halo 3, Dahlen examines how games have treated exotic locations,
[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen, originally crafted specially for Gamasutra's sister editor weblog GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]Far Cry 2 demos, presented by Creative Director Clint Hocking to a packed room of journos and nerds. Far Cry 2 takes place in Africa, in a made-up but realistically war-torn country. Trees and foliage swayed across the screen; explosions and fire filled the air. A rocket shot from the player's shoulder flew all the way up to a mountain and then, right before it shrank to nothing, took a dip, and knocked down a tree. The crowd went, "Whoa." Then there's the fire. While recovering from a bout of malaria, you have to traipse around a 50 square kilometer gameworld taking out the enemy, and one of your best weapons is fire - which you can set in the brush and grasses, where it spreads to surround enemy bases and burn across the landscape. During the Q & A, one fan got right to the point: “Is it possible to incinerate the entire game world?” If Bono had been there, he would have winged his sunglasses at the kid's head. Last year, the games biz was not kind to Africa. From Halo 3, where the Elites "glassed" half the continent, to the infamous Resident Evil 5 trailer that showed one white man gunning down mobs of (initially thought to be African, now possibly Haitian) zombies, games used Africa not as as culturally-nuanced, contextually-intriguing backdrop, but as an exotic new place to stage gunfights.

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In Hollywood, they take Africa and its troubles a little more seriously. But I'm not here to argue that gamers are callous. Rather, in the many efforts to turn Africa into a simulated free-fire zone, we might have found a useful contrast to Hollywood's coddling. While the world owes Africa a debt, we often make the mistake of seeing it as the same place we heard about from Bob Geldof's Live Aid or Sally Struthers' old TV ads - starving, miserable, and to be avoided at all costs. But instead of treating the entire continent as something to pity, games give us a way to engage. While the Africa MMO never shipped, we've seen safe, safari-style virtual tourist games like Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa, or Sony's upcoming Afrika. And Darfur is Dying became a breakthrough message game, though it's not exactly fun to play: it's next to impossible to win, and the UN never gives you a cheat code. But games could bring us even closer. Imagine if mainstream titles took their regular old gameplay to the new continent. Instead of setting Burnout Paradise in a bland American sprawlopolis, Criterion could have taken it to Cape Town. Darwinia already approximates a refugee flight situation. The compulsive roofhopping of Assassin's Creed's Damascus and Jerusalum could be even more eye-popping in Nairobi. And the greatest breakthrough would be a Grand Theft Auto set in Africa, that wove an intricate simulation around the foreign investors, the local gangs, and the challenges of daily life. I'd love just to run taxi cab missions over there; the radio stations alone could say more than a hundred Hollywood message flicks. Of course, this isn't about world peace. They'll still make us blow stuff up; that's just the nature of the medium. That kid I mentioned above, who talked about burning down all of Far Cry 2, probably wasn't a neo-imperialistic sociopath: he just wanted to study the place by taking it apart. Build us Mount Kilimanjaro, and we'll raze it; give us a life-like shantytown, and we'll admire the way the bullets richochet off the metal. Gamers show our respect for something by trying to blow it sky high. And along they way, they may surprise themselves with how much they care for the survivors. [Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]

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