April 26, 2011 at 2:11 PM ET
America may not be headed toward a future of citizens tracked with implanted chips, pacified by drugs and tightly segregated, but creating that Orwellian future now could be the best way to prevent it, one activist group thinks.
Rolling into its fourth week, Facebook game "America 2049" is activism as entertainment, education as political thriller.
The alternate-reality game — which features appearances from Hollywood stars such Harold Perrineau ("LOST"), Victor Garber ("Alias"), Cherry Jones ("24"), and Margaret Cho — takes place in an America "on the brink of disintegration. Human rights and self-expression are limited; workers toil in servitude; communities and populations are tightly segregated. The population is tracked by implanted radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips and pacified by drugs in the water supply."
Players take on the role of an agent of the Council on American Heritage, working to track down a fugitive recently escaped from a medical quarantine. Soon the online mystery has you investigating dissident group Divided We Will Fall and sorting through a collection of real world historical documents and fictional future-world artifacts.
The point of the episodic online game is to get people to reexamine the United States and their own positions on human rights, said Mallika Dutt, founder of the group behind the game, Breakthrough.
"'America 2049' is about human rights in the United States and the cross roads we are at in terms of the choices we make," Dutt told Kotaku. "This game is really about the choices we have to make at the cross roads where we are now.
"It's about who are we, where do we want to go."
This isn't the first time that Breakthrough has used the medium of video games to get people to explore political ideas.
In 2008, Breakthrough created "ICED!," a game that dropped players in the shoes of an illegal immigrant. The idea, Dutt said, was to try to use an experiential game to explore a set of very complex laws. But initially Breakthrough wanted to create a real world installation to explore the issues of U.S. immigration laws.
"So people could walk in and see what it was like to be in a detention facility," Dutt said. "After we started to research we realized with a game we would reach a much larger community. And a game allows you to be in someone's shoes."
Despite the successes of that free-to-download game, when the idea of getting people to examine the current state and possible future of human rights in America came up the organization again initially considered creating a museum-like installation.
"We wanted to make our history come alive," Dutt said. "We were really identifying cultural artifacts, posters, music, stories, from different experience like the Chinese Exclusion Act and The Trail of Tears."
The original idea was to make a museum. But Breakthrough decided they could reach a much broader audience if they move it to Facebook. Which led to the creation of an alternate-reality game.
Before creating the gameplay, the three-person development team researched the history of the issues they wanted to examine and then created a fictionalized future history that led America from where it is today, to the country depicted in America 2049. That included the creation of an entire back story, timeline and even "artifacts" from some of those future significant events.
"It's almost like a novel," Dutt said. "It's like a political thriller. But because the game is played out over 12 weeks we haven't made the whole narrative public."
Each week brings with it new missions that have gamers sending agents into the field searching grids show on a top down map of a variety of U.S. cities for clues, artifacts and the ever elusive Ken Asaba. The puzzle-heavy gameplay is broken up with video snippets, audio recordings and artifacts.
While Facebook is home to the core game, the developers built out a number of paths to other websites to extend the fantasy of their alternate reality. That includes a fake search engine, forums, a fake conservative talk show and websites for some of the companies found in Amercia 2049's gameplay.
The weeks are each also tied to different subjects from immigration and race to sex trafficking and religion. Sometimes those real events take place in real museums around the country. Last week, for instance, Breakthrough sent "agents" to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York for an hour-long tour.
The rising popularity of "American 2049" even has Breakthrough considering a sequel to the Facebook game and evaluating whether it makes sense to extend the fiction to other forms of media like books, television or movies.
"It depends on the success of this," Dutt said. "There is a lot of video in this, it's real fodder for creating a television show."
The game itself will remain on Facebook even after the 12-week narrative wraps up, allowing people to play through the fiction at their own pace. After the game's initial run, though, Dutt said her organization will be examining how effective the game was.
Woven into the fiction of the game are a number of moments that are meant to force a bit of player introspection, points when the player responds to questions and moments that are meant to later help Breakthrough track the opinions and changes in opinion of the players.
Dutt, who sits on the advisory board of Games for Change, says the game seems to be reaching a wide audience, and believes it will sway opinion.
"We did a fair amount of beta testing with high school kids and other audiences to see how they were experiencing the game," she said. "We really hope it won't be seen as preachy, or come if you're converted, but rather as a great way to explore the issues."
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