April 17, 2005

Food Force review

Education + twitch gaming = bad idea.

Note: The following is a cross-post of a review I wrote on GameSpot of Food Force, a game created by the World Food Programme.

Because this game is essentially a collection of mini-games, there’s some parts of it I actually kind of liked.

For the most part, this game seems to be trapped in the idea that a video game is something that has to have a very short time limit and a high score list. Virtually every mini-game here gives you a fairly short time limit to complete a task, ranging from 30 seconds to around 2 minutes.

Some of these tasks are neither fun nor informative. A minigame in which you have 60 seconds to unscrew each bolt of a tire and then re-screw each bolt back on to the tire, for instance, poses little challenge, isn’t fun, and also tells me nothing about the World Food Programme, other than perhaps the fact that their mechanics sometimes have to replace tires. Whether they, too, have one minute to replace a tire, I’m not sure.

Other time-limited tasks are actually reasonably interesting, at least from an educational standpoint; there’s one mission in which you need to compose the balance of ingredients in a WFP food ration, to ensure that it’s both nutritionally sound and costs enough for the WFP to manufacture mass quantities of. However, the instructions don’t give you much guidance on how to accomplish this, and the narrator is still telling you how to accompish your goal while the clock is counting down, which is confusing because you have to listen to him, understand the puzzle’s mechanics, and try to solve the puzzle at the same time. The game gives you the option to retry each mission, but there isn’t much incentive to do so.

Games like Food Force that seek to enlighten and inform should center around a play style that focuses on experimentation and exploration, not time limits and fast reflexes. This game reminded me of why I used to hate math back in grade school: curriculums really should’ve focused on critical thinking and asking questions, but instead they focused on raw speed.

The one mission that does focus a little on experimentation is the very last mission, which is supposed to be something of a “mini-SimCity” in which you have to help a village become self-sufficient in respect to its food resources by allocating WFP “food resource units” to different areas of the village’s development. You’re told that giving one resource unit to a particular area can also increase development in other areas, but you’re not given a good conceptual framework of how the different areas are interrelated, so to I felt like I was blindly throwing resource units into areas of development that needed help. While the gameplay mechanics here were rather invisible, it was still one of the more interesting parts of the game.

But for the most part, this game is an example of the most unfortunate kind of “edutainment”: like a lot of children’s museum exhibits, it spends so much time trying to “lure” kids into education by entertaining them that it doesn’t actually teach very much, and what entertainment it does provide isn’t actually much fun. In Food Force, the gameplay and the education are usually unrelated and work to oppose each other; but in the best edutainment games–and there exist very few–the gameplay and the education serve one another’s needs. Video games aren’t just a flashy marketing tool, but an entirely different way of approaching and understanding a problem; hopefully the WFP will understand this the next time they try to make one.

© Atul Varma 2020