The name of the game is Third World Farmer. The goal: survive as long as possible.
The gameplay is straightforward. It's a turn-based game. You decide what crops you are going to plant, whether to purchase animals or farm implements, whether you'll have another child this year, whether your children will go to school, whether you will spend the money needed for medicine for your sick spouse, whether to buy crop insurance, and many more. After making all these decisions for the year, click the "play" button to proceed through the year in a matter of seconds, and see the results of your actions.
The game seems simple on the surface, but of course, nothing about farming in the third world is simple. The game does a fairly good job of simulating the complexities of the situation. There may be a global crash in corn prices and you lose all your money. Perhaps there will be a drought and your peanut crop will fail. A militia may move in and burn your barns or steal your livestock. You may have to decide whether to buy medicine for your sick child or plant crops for the year. It is not easy to be a successful third world farmer.
In a really insidious turn, you may be presented with moral dilemmas if you run out of money. For instance, would you have your family become performers for tourists for $50? Would you grow drugs in your fields for $75? Would you host a paramilitary training camp in your backyard for $100? Would you bury toxic waste in your fields or send one of your children to work in a far-away city for a cash advance?
I actually used this game last school year with my middle schoolers. It was interesting to watch their reactions. Predictably, the first time they played it, they were wrapped up in naming their characters, having babies, trying to buy an elephant, and other silliness. It was almost enough to make me reconsider whether these kids were too young for such a serious topic.
However, I decided to have a conversation with them about the game, and try to keep them engaged with it. We had a series of discussions over a semester--we didn't play it every day, of course--and it seemed like they keep taking it a little deeper:
"Hey, if I grow peanuts, it's more expensive than corn or wheat, but they pay more too. And if you save up enough to buy a tractor, you get even more money."
"I buried toxic waste in my field, but then my daughter got sick and died. Good thing I had seven kids!"
"Hey...what's opium? Why wouldn't I want to grow it? My family needs the money!"
"I was playing at home last night and I discovered that I should have more kids, because they can work more and then we can earn more."
"Education really makes a difference at the end of the game! If you can afford to send your kids to school you should. Of course, if they're at school, they aren't working on the farm, so then you might not make as much money. So it's kind of a toss-up."
"THIS GAME IS SO FRUSTRATING! My animals keep getting stolen by the militia! I wonder if that really happens in real life...?"
"I wanted to send my kids to school, but I decided that medicine was more important. Wow. I'm glad my parents never have to make that kind of decision for me."
The more they played, the more they learned. We wound up having a few really powerful conversations about the realities of subsistence farming in very poor nations. Hopefully a very formative learning experience for them, and one that can make a difference for how they view their neighbors overseas.
How about that...a game to make you think!