Last night, Executive Director D.C. Vito and I attended the demonstration of an exciting new video game, Mega-City Hero, created by a nonprofit organization called The Ten Project. Aimed for kids who are roughly ten years old, the game was created on the premise that today’s youth will be building tomorrow’s cities, and that the innate creativity and imagination of young people can be harnessed for urban planning solutions. Each player chooses one “mega-city” in which to play; a few choices are New York City, Lagos, Jakarta, Shanghai and Mumbai. Once the city is selected, that player is sent on a mission, which is decided upon by a real-life expert in architectural or urban planning.
One example of a mission was, “How can fisherman only catch the kind of fish that they can sell?” The player on this mission would then work to solve the problem, perhaps by designing a new kind of fishing net, or by going out to talk to fishermen about the obstacles that keep them being more profitable while also sustainable. The player would then create a design using the game’s platform, and that design would be shared with the expert, who could potentially put the ideas into practice. Players earn points for missions, and can also work in “tribes” to collaborate on a mission–for example, a player who has chosen to play in Mexico City but who actually lives in India might do well to partner with someone with someone in Mexico. As players gain more points, they move up on the leadership board, and have the opportunity to win sponsor prizes. The difficulty also increases with the more missions players accept.
The director of The Ten Project is John Tattersall, who also administered the demo. He has filmed 16 seasons of “Survivor,” been nominated seven times for an Emmy in cinematography, worked with various philanthropic organizations throughout the world, having visited 90 countries and lived in 18. He certainly has a great idea with Mega-City Hero, and hopes that it will be an after-school program in urban and rural schools all over the world. I personally love the empowerment it brings to young people to have an impact on their world, and the interaction between players and professionals who can use some of that creativity to work on problems in their city. I love that the kid in India and the kid in Mexico can work together and share ideas about how urban problems are solved or viewed differently in each of their countries. When we at The LAMP talk about working with teachers to integrate and explore new media in their classrooms, this is the sort of thing we’re talking about.
My concern is the territory of need that may prove an obstacle to the game being a success. In particular, I wonder about access. The teacher sitting next to me was saying how she loved the game but wasn’t sure if her students would be able to participate, because the game is Web-based and her school doesn’t have a decent Internet connection. In addition to needing the Internet connection, players also benefit from having access to things like digital cameras that they can use to present and share their ideas, and interact with each other across the globe. There is also the issue of how media literate the children and teachers are in a certain area. Low-income schools and communities may be able to get computers with government grants or philanthropic support, but the machines are useless if they are not also provided with the media literacy that is necessary for them to be productive, responsible citizens of the digital world. In his presentation, Mr. Tattersall spoke about wanting to engage squatter communities and slums with the game, but I’m not sure yet about how they would be able to do that without expensive equipment.
To be fair, Mega-City Hero is not going to solve all the problems of the world, nor does it intend to–I don’t think it was created to address or solve the issue of access or poverty. In order to have the greatest impact with the broadest spectrum of players worldwide, Mega-City Hero will need to incorporate organizations like The LAMP, One Laptop Per Child, Kiva and many, many more doing similar work in their countries. Truly, this is a project of gigantic proportions, and I think it is an incredible opportunity for young people to make a positive change and consider the impact they have on the world around them. Because it is so large, it will move in baby steps at first in relation to the scope of the vision Mr. Tattersall described for us last night. Yet they will nonetheless be giant steps to a world of empowerment, creativity, understanding and growth.