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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The genocide is Darfur hardly sounds like the makings of a computer game. But the idea made perfect sense to University of Southern California grad student Susana Ruiz. After all, young people spend so much of their time tethered to the Internet. With backing from MTV, Ruiz helped create the online game called Darfur is Dying. It premiered this week. Players take on the role of refugees searching for food, shelter and safety, while avoiding the Janjaweed militia. Ruiz says creating the game was challenging.

Ms. SUSANA RUIZ (Creator, Darfur is Dying): It's a difficult thing to design, first of all, an engaging game. Second of all, an engaging educational game. And even more so, one that educates in engaging in calls to action to affect real world change.

NORRIS: So in this case, the player takes on the role of a Darfurian refugee and has to perform basic tasks. What exactly do they have to do?

Ms. RUIZ: Well, they water and they harvest vegetable gardens that exist sporadically in the camp. They build shelters, and they go out into the desert and forage for water which, of course, is needed for those two main actions, actually. The water is needed to harvest the vegetables, and it's needed to mix with the mud in order to make bricks for shelters.

NORRIS: And there are sort-of a monitor at the bottom of the screen, a threat meter. It shows the number of days they've been in the camp. It also monitors their food and their water supply.

Ms. RUIZ: Right. Actually, the number of days meter is the number of days that a player is maintaining camp survival. And the goal is to reach seven days, and that means you have accomplished this Darfur digital universe.

NORRIS: And so when they set out to try to collect water, or take care of some basic task, if they run into the Janjaweed militias and they're killed, there's also a message that comes up. There's more than you would see in a normal video game. You actually learn a little bit about how they perished, and a little bit more about their fate.

Ms. RUIZ: Right. Different outcomes can happen, depending on the person's age and the person's gender. And if you do not make it, you are provided with context about the things that happen to young boys, young girls, men and women. You know, women do have to constantly forage for firewood in order to cook for their families and this, of course, puts them in a position of great peril because they would be raped.

NORRIS: If you choose the woman character, the 26-year-old woman who has to go out and find wood or water for her family, if you play the game you realize pretty quickly that she's always caught, almost immediately by the Janjaweed.

Ms. RUIZ: Right. And when you come back, you will surely have to go out again to get water because in fact, you didn't accomplish it. So you have to go back and choose another avatar and then what happens is that you realize, you see, that the previous one you chose is, in fact, faded out. And the more you do this, and the more faded out characters, the more you realize they're dead. They die. Or they go missing.

NORRIS: What do you hope that players will take away from this game, and use of the word game sounds so frivolous when we're talking about something that is, you know, life or death matters. Something so serious.

Ms. RUIZ: You know, and that's perfectly understandable. I mean, I certainly understand how it can be seen as frivolous and problematic, and I have no problem with changing that word to anything else that people are more comfortable with. Yes, simulation or interactive experience. But the fact of the matter is that we've realized that it is a new form of media really, and that there is no reason why it cannot encompass big topics. I mean, you know, I always think back of the comic book Maus by Art Spiegelman. You know, he made a comic about the Holocaust. So I think we're just beginning to implement game technology, and the game form and game metaphors to talk about serious issues. And to answer your question of what do we hope, immediately what we hope is that more people get involved in this. More young people take on this issue.

NORRIS: So once they realize game over, you want them to pick up a pen, pick up the phone, do something at the end of this process.

Ms. RUIZ: Absolutely. The game does facilitate a few activist actions. It does really easily allow you to import all your contacts from your address book, and right there and then send to friends an invitation to play this game and to tell them about Darfur. And that action is tied to game play. It does help raise the overall health of the camp. Now, potentially what that means is that hundreds of people can end up with messages about Darfur in their inboxes from people they trust and know.

NORRIS: Susana Ruiz, thanks so much for talking to us.

Ms. RUIZ: Thank you.

NORRIS: Susana Ruiz is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's interactive media division. She was speaking to us about her online video game, that also serves as her master's thesis. It's called Darfur is Dying.

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