Can Online Games Make Politics and Economics Fun?

sweatshop game

Sweatshop Game Screen Capture From Indie Games Ichiban

If you’re Britain’s Channel 4 Education, then you think the answer to that question is more than a resounding “yes”.

That’s because Channel 4 (owned by Espresso Education, not BBC4) recently launched a free online game designed to shine more than a wee of light on global fashion culture.

Game designers at Littleloud consulted the UK-based charity, Labour Behind The Label, for the facts and data underpinning the game. Players manage an offshore clothing manufacturer that feeds a ravenous and capricious fashion machine.

[T]his comedic game presents a series of moral dilemmas to the player, who must juggle the needs of clients with the welfare of workers. Should you hire a fire officer to prevent the risk of workers dying horribly in an industrial blaze or pack them in to get the job done? Should you train workers to make them more efficient and satisfied or fire them when they lose a limb in an industrial accident? How do you motivate workers: with generous treats and toilet breaks or with an iron fist, long hours and verbal abuse? Maybe you just want to buy a bunch of robots to do the job instead, forcing your human workforce into deeper poverty. [...]

With expert advice from UK-based charity, Labour Behind The Label, there’s a serious message behind the engaging game play and relentless gags. By the end of the game the player will have a deeper understanding of where their cheap clothes came from, and hopefully won’t have lost too many workers’ limbs getting there.

I’ve found two reviews, one at The Daily Kos and one at Indie Games Ichiban. The Kos review focuses more on the advocacy aspect of the game than Indie Games, which spends more time on mechanics. However, both pronounce the game to be “fun.” The Kos review notes the moral conflict:

Gets even more uncomfortable as it gets into the higher levels and you’re treating “worker loses a limb” as merely some negative points, a bump on the factory-management road to be contingency-managed [...] the fact that it’s actually quite possible to “win” is what makes it a bit disturbing…

Sweatshop is by no means the first game to tackle either politics or economics. It is part of a small but growing group of “video games” (we need a new name for this genre) that are slowly making their way into the classroom. For example, MIT developed Palmagotchi, which uses virtual pets (made popular by the Tamagotchi toy) to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution using Galapagos Island finches.

Gamification. I hate the word, but I’d rather kids play Sweatshop than Grand Theft Auto (also out of the UK, by the way).

Oh, how long do you think it will take for someone to create a game based on the News Corp phone hacking mess? And what about Wall-Mart, with its devastating impact on Main Street America; how might that bit of reality economics be integrated into a game like Sweatshop? The Wall Street implosion?

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One thought on “Can Online Games Make Politics and Economics Fun?

  1. Hello, I would like to provide you with a slight correction to your article. The game you have highlighted has been launched by ‘Channel 4 Education’ not ‘Channel 4 Learning’. The ‘Channel 4 Learning’ brand and its programming was purchased by Espresso Education around 5 years ago and it is no longer a part of the Channel 4 television broadcaster.

    Channel 4 Learning continues to provide parents, pupils and schools with a range of learning resources, inc. DVDs and CD-ROMs and websites. http://www.channel4learning.com/

    Thanks
    John
    Marketing Executive
    Channel 4 Learning

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