Brave New Virtual World: The Women Behind America 2049

A vaccination card from Ellis Island and a protest poster against INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) reading "Fight Aids, not people with AIDS" aren't your average crime-thriller clues. But in America 2049, a new Facebook game tackling issues of racial profiling, immigration detention, sex trafficking, and more, they're not just pieces to a political puzzle, but actual American artifacts leading you to connect the past to dystopic future—with the hopes of changing our present.

Players are sent by their employers—the Council on American Heritage—to solve missions and crack puzzles in a world of limited energy and suspect political values. And while the gameplay itself is rather simple, there's a rich, interactive story lying beneath the dashboard. Interactive clues, video features, and an entire search engine and news feed from the future (called Zooglio, hmm…) are all part of the game as well. But the most innovative part of the game isn't its transmedia, interactive narrative components, it's the social justice message contained therein.

Breakthrough, the global human rights organization behind America 2049, has been integrating social justice with pop culture since their inception, when they created a hit Indian music single about domestic violence. Since then, they've made the Ring the Bell (calling on men and boys to stop violence against women) and ICED (the first 3D social justice-based video game). "Our philosophy is that we want to bring human rights issues to where people are at," says founder and president Mallika Dutt. And Facebook, for better or for worse, is where 500 million active users are at right now.

Dutt says the impetus behind the game's content was migration. "And not migration in the limited way we talk about immigration today, but forced migration. The history of slavery; migration within the country, so what happened with Native American people; human trafficking; the role of women in all the successive migrations; the kinds of rules and laws against sexuality—how that affected women who might have brought in to be wives or prostitutes, how it affected people who might have been lesbian or gay…" Originally the game was planned like a kind of museum-like scavenger hunt. But that idea was too linear says Dutt. "It was very sort of one-dimensional. It wasn't helping us capture the connections that we wanted to make between things."

The game's creative director (and Breakthrough's multimedia director) Heidi Boisvert, who devised the game along with Andrea Phillips, says that squaring the Facebook platform, satellite websites, and actual American cultural institutions with an advocacy angle was both the most challenging and exciting part of the project. But she couldn't be more pleased with the results. "By creating a compelling, almost political thriller-type narrative across multiple platforms with celebrity characters, fourth-wall videos, and thought-provoking missions, we really pushed social consciousness into the mainstream, beyond the choir, where everyday social transformations happen."

Breakthrough's media justice mission happens behind the scenes too, by featuring women game designers and social justice messages. Boisvert sees the gaming and tech industry's lack of social justice content and women in the field as a detriment to consumers and producers alike. Not only is the industry "missing a huge opportunity for better understanding the types of games that women (half their market share) want to play by not hiring women in key positions," but by not focusing on issues of education, health, and social justice, games are missing out on the "embodied learning and social engagement" that a new generation of young people expect and want. "As games for social change move away from overt messaging to engaging critical reflection," says Boisvert, "we'll begin to see a real shift in acceptance within the wider gaming industry."

Actress (Drop Dead Diva) and comedian (Cho Dependent) Margaret Cho, donated her celebrity to the game (as did Harold Perrineau and Victor Garber) although doing a Facebook game was something she'd never done before. "With the Tea Party on the rise, the racism behind the immigration debate—these are all issues that are part of our present. I hope America 2049 will help education young people, in particular, about their power to help create a better future," says Cho.

Ultimately, "America 2049 is really about America at a crossroads," says Dutt. "We picked the issues because we wanted to build bridges, we wanted people to understand how we are all connected, that we need to approach solutions together in order to get to a place where the reality envisioned in America 2049 is, in fact, NOT a reality that comes to pass. But it is only if we make those kind of decisions now that we will be able to prevent the path that we are on."

See for yourself by checking out America 2049, which has already reached fifteen thousand people (maybe you can join my network!). To hear more from Breakthrough founder and CEO Mallika Dutt, listen for our podcast, where Dutt speaks about how pop culture can change the social justice landscape.

Related:
Mallika Dutt on How Popular Culture Can Build Global Bridges

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