HYPHEN show 2017: David Fenton builds empathy for social issues through gaming

The industry that produces chocolate comes with a heavy human cost- yet it’s far too easy for Western consumers to turn a blind eye to injustices and hardships that happen far away from them, out of their sight. For his BA Design graduation project, David Fenton developed a video game that puts the player in the shoes of people affected by the West African cocoa trade:

“My project follows the philosophy that being playful about important issues is serious work. It’s a video game for the mobile gaming market, about a very serious issue, namely child slavery in the West African cocoa industry. The game is called Modern Cocoa Farmer, and we have a website as well, ModernCocoaFarmer.org, which raises awareness and educates about the plight of children in the cocoa industry in West Africa. It is intended to be used as an educational tool for children in the UK, to discuss and learn about these issues, and it’s based on real statistics.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some friends on the project: a programmer, a musician, who also created the sound effects for the game, and a pixel artist. So I found myself in the role of the vision re-iterator, the person who is trying to keep everyone focused, and turn the idea into a reality. We’re hoping that this form of empathy gaming will take off and become much more mainstream, as a way of talking about social issues.”

On choosing the topic of the project:

“I started looking at chocolate as a material, and I made various objects in chocolate, but I felt that the relationship between the object and its manufacture wasn’t expressed in the form of the object, so I wanted to know more about the way that chocolate is produced. After learning about the use of child labour in the industry, and the role of big businesses and multinationals like Nestle, I decided that I didn’t want to make these chocolate objects anymore, I wanted to create something which would tell that story, in an entertaining and visually attractive way.”

A brief tour through the gameplay:

“The game is based in Zegoua, a town in rural Mali. Zegoua is one of the towns implicated in the trafficking of children, a border town where they cross from Mali into the Ivory Coast. I wanted to find a way of building empathy, so it’s a strategy game in which you play a mother, and your job is to keep all of your children healthy, safe, educated and happy. The more children you have, the harder it gets to look after them, because there’s only so much money in the family pot, and you have one baby each year, because of lack of access to contraceptive care.

The setting includes a cocoa farm, your home, the market, a hospital, a well, a mosque and a school. Sending a child to school, to increase their education stats, for example, costs over three thousand Central African francs (about £50), which is a lot of money, and it puts all your other children at risk by reducing family funds. Let’s say our child is ill- we want to send them to the hospital, but, again, it costs too much, and these figures are based on real figures. The game gets more challenging as more kids are born, and eventually, you might have to send one of your children to the Ivory Coast, to earn vital money for the family on the cocoa farm. When this happens, there is always a chance that they might be trafficked. The plan for the game was to set up a situation which forces the player to make a choice, to choose the lesser of two evils.

You can also donate in the game, which immediately gives you funds, and momentarily increases your child’s safety and happiness to 100. At the moment you donate soft money in the game, but I’m currently in conversation with charities to secure and ring-fence funds raised through the game for the rehabilitation of child slaves in the Ivory Coast and Mali.”

There are no winners in the game, just like there are no winners in real life:

“I wanted to be careful not to gamify it too much, because our primary concern is that the game is a reflection of research. We don’t want to misrepresent, or to create a cartoonish, superficial representation of someone’s harsh life. My hope is that in the future we’ll be able to incorporate things such as a live feed of the global market value in cocoa, which will have an effect on the system. It becomes a real-time play experience, which, hopefully, reflects more accurately the lives of people in West Africa.”

On choosing video games as a medium for the project:

“I’m not a big gamer, personally, although I do think that the medium is very interesting, and it’s something that I’m hopefully going to pursue in the future. My perception, before I started the project on video games, was that they were intended just for fun and entertainment, but research into empathy games and games activism opened my eyes to a new world of social justice gaming. Games are becoming a very important medium, especially as young people today absorb information mainly in digital form. Also, with tools like the Unity game engine, the creation of games is becoming democratised, indie game developers are creating games to make a difference.

I have a strong feeling that playing the news is going to be the journalism of the future. I really believe you can learn more through play, because it engages you in a much more active way. The way that you’re engrossed in the story is much more personal, and putting yourself in the situation of the other, that can bring the seriousness to the fun, and the empathy.”

On what the users should take out of playing the game:

“I would want them to think twice about their surroundings. It’s hard to escape the implications of the consumerist world that we live in, but I hope that the game would make them more aware, if nothing else. I hope it would serve to change people’s perceptions of chocolate, as just one example of many, many stories that we don’t think about on a day-to-day basis, when we go to the shops and pick up a chocolate bar because we feel like it.”

On his time on the BA Design course at Goldsmiths:

“The course was great, it’s a place where you can explore your own interests, which was my primary reason for coming here. I came from a fine art background, and I knew I didn’t want to sit on my own in a studio all day, I felt that would be a very solitary life. I wanted something that would challenge me conceptually, and that would give me the skills to work with other people; but more than that, I wanted to use my creativity for something other than the creation of more stuff. I wanted to come to a place where critical reflection on your process and your outcomes is encouraged, and the tutors are great at doing that.”