Playing homeless serious business

September 08, 2006, volume 37, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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There is no fun in seeing people suffer, but a computer game about their plight may help players appreciate human suffering. It's that kind of thinking that motivated Terry Lavender, the communications manager at SFU Surrey, to design Homeless: It's NO Game; the first game of its kind.

Lavender puts the player in the shoes of a homeless woman in Vancouver's West End. The object of the game is to survive 24 hours. That's no easy challenge, given that the homeless player must scrounge for food, clothing and shelter.

As well as avoiding the police and predators, such as drug addicts, the game's homeless woman must deal with irate drivers, aggressive dogs, speeding cyclists and surly tourists.

With his head buried in his laptop, Lavender designed the game using Macromedia Flash while riding SkyTrain to work.

A graduate student in the school of interactive arts and technology at SFU Surrey, Lavender saw an opportunity to combine his interest in social activism and gaming in his master of science thesis. He is researching the possibility of creating a computer game that is both fun to play and raises awareness of an issue.

"A lot of organizations are jumping on the so-called serious computer games bandwagon to get their message out," notes Lavender. "Often their games are poorly made and are just not fun to play. Does good game play get in the way of the message, or is good game-play important to getting a message across?"

Lavender's game uses stylized, cartoon graphics to discourage stereotyping of the homeless. The game aims to dispel two common beliefs: homeless people are criminals and they are lazy.

"They are more likely to be victimized by crime," explains Lavender. "In the game there is a chance that you may be mugged by a drug addict and have all your money and goods stolen—a regular incident in real life. Regarding laziness, you have to work very hard to survive, let alone win, in this game."

Lavender's game is winning a lot of attention. He demonstrated the game at Games for Change, a conference in New York in June, where MTV's university channel interviewed him.

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