via Khmer NZ News Media
It is a familiar scene in many countries: Children huddled around a computer game, chipping in with instructions, competing and encouraging each other.
But this is no ordinary game. In a Phnom Penh orphanage, a dozen children are testing a unique US-designed programme its inventors hope would reduce deaths and injuries by landmines and unexploded ordnance.
Four decades of conflict have left Cambodia with an unenviable legacy of millions of such explosives. Last year, 47 Cambodians were killed and 196 injured by them. Around a third were children, most of them boys.
It would take decades to rid the country of mines, so educating people on how to recognize the risks they pose is vital. But these efforts are typically passive, using presentations or leaflets.
The computer game requires active participation, says Professor Frank Biocca of Michigan State University, where the game was developed.
Biocca was in Phnom Penh in June overseeing testing ahead of the game’s expected launch there later this year. He says active involvement in the game, which is targeted at 6- to 15-year-olds, means the children retain more information.
“We walk straight, and if we see the red danger sign, then we turn around and come back,” he says. “Or we can turn left or right to avoid the landmine.”
The on-screen landscape is comprised of photographs of Cambodia’s countryside, which makes it both realistic for the children and cost-effective. The warning signs are also local: red signs with a white skull, a red-and-white striped pole, an inverted red triangle.
When the player gets it wrong, an explosion fills the screen, accompanied by a loud boom. Both the dog and child avatars cower but are deliberately uninjured, and a man in a Cambodian demining uniform appears on-screen, blowing his whistle and explaining what happened.
The game began its life as a request two years ago to the university in East Lansing, Michigan, by the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a charity that provides technical assistance for international demining operations.
The university’s final-year project for one of its undergraduate programmes sees students building so-called “serious games” - games with a purpose beyond entertainment. The mine education game struck a chord.
“We decided this specific project was something to continue to pursue with a focus on making it work across different platforms and making sure it can be updated for different markets cheaply,” Biocca says.
Allen Tan heads Golden West’s regional office, which provided the developers with technical information and images for the game. Tan, a former bomb-disposal expert in the US Army, says the game has the potential to benefit dozens of countries.
“Certainly any post-conflict zone could be a target for this type of training and especially those with young populations that might not have been around when the conflict happened,” he says.
The game runs on Windows, Mac OS and Linux operating systems, the last of which is the standard operating system for the One Laptop Per Child initiative, the effort to get computers into the hands of children across the world at a cost of $100 per laptop.
But Biocca says developers started off assuming it had to work on other platforms too, including the internet and mobile phones.
“We think that, ultimately, the true $100 laptop is the cellphone - some version of the cellphone is becoming the Third World computational device,” he says. “And those are selling for underneath $100.”
He says that once the game has been launched in Cambodia, it would be adapted for other countries to reflect their culture, landscape, languages and even their landmine signs - all for $1,000 to 10,000 per country.
Biocca says the game could even be altered to educate people about other health issues that require learning, such as influencing sexual behaviour or diet.
So much for the brains behind the development - what did the kids think of the game? Fourteen-year-old Lai loved it.
“If I were to go to the countryside and saw a landmine sign, then I would walk away from that place,” he says. “I wouldn’t go near it. I would take a different path.”
Twelve-year-old Minea echoes those sentiments.
“Walk far away from that place,” he says of the lessons learned from his 15-minute session. “Don’t touch anything, and don’t play anywhere near there.”
Full marks all round then. DPA