Ever wanted to find out what it’s like to be homeless? No? Well, soon there will be a way to experience homelessness vicariously; it’s the next best thing short of sitting out on the street corner in the cold, begging for change. Last Pick Productions, a game development studio, has recently begun work on a new game called iBeg that aims to raise awareness of homelessness by putting the player in charge of the well-being of a pixelated homeless person. The game, slated to run on Android and Apple iOS, has been successfully funded on the crowd-based fundraising platform Kickstarter, with release scheduled for spring 2013.
The premise of the game is simple enough: your avatar is a homeless person living on the streets of Vancouver, B.C.; your job is to keep him well-fed and out of danger while earning money from panhandling, collecting cans, and busking, as well as other odd jobs. As you work to get the homeless person off the streets, shelter and lifestyle improve in stages. The best part: actual purchases made within the game go towards helping real people affected by homelessness. Purchasing iShelter, iHealth and iFood items in the game will lead to a portion of money spent being sent to charities. In addition, a portion of the game’s sales proceeds will be donated to Vancouver charities that help the homeless.
It’s not all fun and games for the avatar, though; as you beg passersbys for change, the passersby can, in their turn, ignore you, spray you with mace, spit on you, or even physically assault you. The game’s developers do not shy away from portraying the harsh realities of living on the streets. Part of iBeg’s appeal stems from its shock value in presenting a pressing social issue in such an accessible form.
However, the game is not without controversy. Some charge the game’s makers with exploiting and profiting from a serious problem, turning the reality of a harsh existence into cheap virtual thrills. Keela Keeping, Union Gospel Mission spokeswoman, told 24 Hours Vancouver of the game, “You don’t ever want somebody’s pain and somebody’s worst place to be put out there as entertainment.”
The game’s developers disagree. Chris Worboys, iBeg’s designer, was quoted in Techvibes as saying, “We make it known that it could be you. This could be someone that you know, this could be a loved one. Homelessness can happen to anyone. The game is localized, but the issue is not. We could’ve made a Farmville. We knew there would be controversy, but why not try to help?”
Far from being a means of trivializing an important issue, iBeg wants to hit close to home, to make people really think about the problem of homelessness and consider the realities of living on the street, realities they may not be aware of at all as they pass homeless people in the city. IBeg may just have what it takes to stand at the forefront of social gaming—combining activism with entertainment, it seeks to raise awareness of homelessness while collecting much-needed funding for marginalized subsets of society.
Make no mistake, iBeg’s developers are taking a serious risk in creating their game. According to Worboys, “My fear is that we are trying to do something different. We are trying to create a game that raises awareness about an issue we feel strongly about and to educate through simulation just what these people go through. And my biggest fear is that it will be lost on people. That no matter how hard we try, people will just not get it.” Whether their dream of helping the less fortunate through this creative and colourful medium comes to fruition remains to be seen. It is only to be hoped that iBeg achieves what it has set out to do.
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