Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Child labour, child marriage and a computer game

At some point this morning, I read this blog post. Which was probably a mistake - large portions of the rest of my day have been consumed with (consumed by!) Third World Farmer. As Matt at Aid Thoughts points out, there are problems. Not least of which is that some fundamental challenges facing farmers in poor areas are ignored (like land tenure), that the Third World is represented as a single, uniform poor situation instead of a large and remarkably diverse spread of place and that elephants probably won't increase yields on your maize crop. Also, shocks don't happen one at a time. Oh, and the central bank for 'Third Worldia' crashes a lot. People would really be better off just keeping their money under their mattresses.

I may have wasted several hours but after playing a lot, I found myself thinking. I was particularly frustrated about three things:

First, the game doesn't let you marry off the children of the family until they reach 18. Nor can they go off and find decent jobs (because they're still considered children), even if they have already completed the 10 years of schooling that is the maximum they can attain. Even if you're about to lose the farm to debt, or if you just need a few more dollars to be able to buy crop insurance, you can't let a child go off and get married to achieve this. Surprising how much more acceptable child marriage and child labour begin to sound when they're considered from the inside of even an average simulation of a poor farmer/sustainable livelihoods perspective.

Secondly, I don't understand why it is impossible to have babies before being married. In a rural farming setting, more people means more labour. Larger families are an asset. The game represents this in the points system - your crops and livestock produce more based on how many more people you have in the family - but it doesn't allow fertile, adult women to have children if they're not married. Also, everyone (male and female) who gets married goes off to live with the spouse's family, unless the original parents have died - this means that marriage removes labour even more.

Finally, anyone leaving the farm is gone for good - no remittances, no returning when the economy hits a downturn (like when the national bank collapses for the 4th time in 5 years), no needing money from the parents. This oversimplifies the reality of small farmers in developing countries beyond what seems acceptable by presenting these farmers as completely isolated from urban centres and trapping farmers (in the imaginations of those playing) in a cycle of poverty, without recognising the connections that allow their farming lifestyles to be combined with other livelihood activities to enable families/households to build away from the brink of poverty and hunger. Extended families seem like an obvious thing to include in a poor-farming simulation.

I do realise it is just a game but interesting to see the stereotypes and value systems built into a representation of poor-people farming. Some bits are good, some not so much. Overall, it's fun to play and gives a reasonable sense of some of the challenges, even if it oversimplifies a lot, and apparently achieves the goal of making you think about the realities facing poor farmers.

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