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Like Lara Croft, with rice bags

By TINA ROSENBERG
New York Times
Sunday, January 1, 2006

Last April, the U.N. World Food Program introduced a computer video game it hoped would teach children something about global hunger. "Food Force" (http://www.food-force.com/) quietly made its debut at a children's book fair in Bologna, Italy. To the organization's shock, it soon had so many hits that the Web site kept crashing, and it has become the most unlikely of cult sensations.

No one shoots anyone in "Food Force." Rebels are negotiated with, not blown away, and the women are sensibly dressed aid professionals -- although one character does greatly resemble Lara Croft in "Tomb Raider." Yet "Food Force" quickly has become the second-most downloaded free Internet game, after the Army's recruiting tool, "America's Army."

More than 3 million people have downloaded it so far (at www.food-force.com, for both Macs and Windows) -- and it is only now being translated into languages other than English and Japanese.

"Food Force" also has attracted an unlikely partner in the NFL Players Association, which promises a trip to the Super Bowl for the child with the highest score.

The game is this: The fictional Indian Ocean island of Sheylan has been ravaged by drought and civil war; millions of people need food. The player joins a World Food Program team and must airdrop food from a C-130 Hercules; pilot a surveillance chopper; navigate a supply truck through land mines and guerrilla checkpoints; coordinate shipping and prices for rice, beans and oil on the world market; design a nutritionally balanced food package for the hungry; and use food to help rebuild a community.

Sponsored video games are becoming more popular as advertisers look for young consumers where they are spending more and more of their time. Many advertisers pay to place their products in computer games. Others design their own games, from Coke to the National Christmas Tree Association, which promotes real trees over plastic ones in "Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees."

"Food Force" is one of a very new category of peace games. One of the pioneers, "Pax Warrior," puts its players in charge of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide there.

Another in development is won by solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and MTV is asking viewers to design a video game about genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

"Food Force," which cost the World Food Program $350,000 to develop ("America's Army" cost the Army $7 million) is a natural for an agency filled with real Lara Crofts -- doing airdrops, confronting doped-up 13-year-old guerrillas, driving convoys through terrain filled with land mines.

If anything, "Food Force" is unrealistically non-violent: Sixty World Food Program workers have died in the line of duty since 1992, including Paola Biocca, the first person at the World Food Program to work on developing "Food Force."

"Food Force" is an attempt to make children, who can be fundamentalists about saving the world, aware that one person every five seconds dies of hunger, most of them children. It also tries to demonstrate that concrete steps can help, and that working on hunger is exciting and cool.

"We're looking with intensity at the next generation, trying to engage them early," says Jennifer Parmelee, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Washington. "We need people who will stand up and say, 'This is not acceptable in the 21st century.' Right now, this is not a battle we're winning."


Tina Rosenberg wrote this column for The New York Times.