By Natasha Elkington
LONDON (AlertNet) – It’s 3.43 a.m. and you’re fast asleep when a siren on your bedroom wall starts flashing and howling. It’s a red alert from headquarters.
“A crisis?” you say, bolting out of bed. “People in need? Time to suit up!”
“My hero,” sighs your partner from under the covers.
Your name is Mr. ECHO. Your suit is a James Bond-style tuxedo. And your mission is to save the lives of 100,000 refugees bound for the world’s biggest refugee camp, who desperately need food, water, security, shelter and medicine.
That’s the introduction to a controversial Facebook game developed by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) with funding from ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian agency, and designed to raise awareness of Dadaab camp on the Kenyan-Somali border.
Players of the game – whose working title was “Worst Vacation Ever” before it was redubbed “The City That Shouldn’t Exist” – have the chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Dadaab, home to 332,000 refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia.
At least they could if the 208,000 euro ($302,000) game hadn’t been pulled from the internet just days after the launch amid claims that it is in bad taste and dehumanizes refugees.
Players control the tuxedoed Mr. ECHO avatar, who sits at a double-screened consol and manipulates resources – and people – around a stylised Dadaab.
It’s a race against time to “drag” refugees to three safe areas in the camp (cue applause) before vital resources run out and refugees are reduced to piles of bones.
Bizarrely, the Facebook poster for the game shows what looks like a World War Two-era bomber flying over a fort emblazoned with the ECHO logo and surrounded by aid tents.
“How do I win?” someone calling himself “Sirak Prince” and claiming to be from near-by Kakuma refugee camp wrote on ECHO’s Facebook page. “Visiting Dadab from Kakuma is like Bagdahd from Mogadisho ! (sic) Hell we need new safer life not new fake projects!”
Overcrowding, lack of sanitation, poor shelter and sweltering heat make the 20-year-old Dadaab camp renowned for health hazards, insecurity and general squalor.
Julie Laduron, ECHO’s communications officer, confirmed that the European humanitarian body had removed the game from its Facebook page and main site on Thursday, by which time it had attracted 139 “likes”.
“Of course everyone has some different sensibilities about the game so for the moment it is suspended,” she said.
Young refugees who played “The City That Shouldn’t Exist” on U.N. laptops in Dadaab had mixed feelings about its adrenaline-fuelled action and educational purpose.
“How I see it is that the world can understand about the life of a refugee here,” Biru Okoth, a 25-year-old Ethiopian resident, told AlertNet by phone.
“It’s not good if you are just playing a game with our lives and you cannot give us things and assist us. This game will help only if you put it into practice.”
It’s not the first time aid agencies have created online games to raise awareness of humanitarian issues. The World Food Programme made waves in 2005 with Food Force, designed to teach children about the logistical challenges of delivering food aid in complex crises.
UNHCR had similar success with playingagainstallodds, as did the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies with Emergency Response Unit and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group with Darfur Is Dying.
But “The City That Shouldn’t Exist” marks the first time online gamers have had the chance to win a trip to a crisis zone.
“First of all, Dadaab is not a tourist site, so coming here for a holiday beats the whole logic of what we are doing, and that will also have an impact on the people working here,” said Dennis Okore, a communications officer with one of the many non-governmental organisations working in Dadaab.
However, the trip was intended as an informative eye-opener to give the winner a greater understanding of humanitarian processes at work, said Anders Knudsen, DRC campaign coordinator, in a posting on the DRC website.
The winners were expected to post a daily blog on their experience and what they learnt for the fans of the Facebook group.
“We want to reach young people and that cannot be done through reports, policy statements and information videos,” Knudsen said. “With this campaign, we meet the young people through their own media."
Some experienced humanitarian actors were enthusiastic about the opportunities the game offered.
“We think the game is a great way of introducing young people to the realities of humanitarian work,” said Rob Schofield, disaster management director at TearFund in London.
“Emergency situations are complex. The game makes a good attempt at helping you think about some of these complexities and the difficulties of decision making in what is a fast changing environment.”
Jan Kellett, programme leader at aid watchdog Global Humanitarian Assistance, was also positive after stepping into the shoes of Mr. ECHO.
“The game is sort of positioned right for what it is trying to do,” he said. “It’s not very complex but it does show the challenge of matching resources to people.”