Facebook games tend to end up in the growing pile of cultural detritus, along with reality TV and tweeting congressmen. Usually, they involve coercing one’s friends to join in silly, virtual undertakings like farming pixilated cows or putting hits on badly animated mobsters. America 2049, released in April, is a stark exception: Start playing, and a stern-looking Victor Garber, best known for his work as CIA spy Jack Bristow on Alias, instructs you to capture a dangerous terrorist. Fail, Garber warns you, and a plague might destroy America. Or what’s left of it: These United States aren’t so united in 2049. They have turned into a string of loosely affiliated entities, bound together by fear, hate, and disease.
The game’s dark, dystopian tenor and its plethora of stars—Lost’s Harold Perrineau plays the terrorist, comedian Margaret Cho and former 24 president Cherry Jones also play supporting parts—aren’t the only things setting America 2049 apart. Created by the human rights group Breakthrough, the game was designed to raise awareness for an array of social-justice issues, from immigration to racism. Clicking on a grid representing realistic maps of major American cities, the player uncovers videos, encrypted notes, newspaper clippings, and other information relevant to the mystery at hand. As is the case with every worthwhile game, the clock ticks here, too, urging the player not only to find the alleged terrorist but also to decide whether it is the fugitive or the federal government he should fear.
More than 20,000 players have played the game since its release, according to a Breakthrough spokeswoman, a small number compared to the hordes who flock to a megahit like Farmville but an immense one considering America 2049’s demanding gameplay and thought-provoking themes. In addition, Breakthrough produced a series of events, held in institutions such as the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., allowing players to explore in person some of the real-life issues raised by the game.
For America 2049 to be both entertaining and educational, however, Breakthrough needed a scholar who could help to weave a rich historical fabric into the game’s fast-paced action. Enter Hasia Diner, a professor of history and the director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University. Diner is best known for her most recent book, We Remember With Reverence and Love, which puts to rest the myth that American Jews were silent in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. She has rarely played video games, she said, but when Breakthrough approached her two years ago with the idea for America 2049, she was intrigued. Together with three of her graduate students, she put together a treasure trove of historical artifacts—from the New York Times’ coverage of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 to a poster for the 1928 movie Abie’s Irish Rose, about an interfaith relationship between a Catholic woman and a Jewish man—that are strewn throughout the game. These historical objects both help make the game world feel more realistic, and allow players the opportunity to examine these rarely seen gems firsthand.
The game, Diner said, was an elegant way to bring to the fore a host of historical facts crucial to our contemporary political debates yet often drowned out by the din of popular culture. On immigration, for example, “so much of the discussion that goes on now is disconnected from history,” she said. “From the right, it is as though this is the first time the society has faced this issue, and we’re standing on the verge of the apocalypse. Many on the left are also wrong, saying that because most immigrants are non-white, their patterns of integration are going to be different.” Neither position is correct, she argued, and the game, by introducing such historical figures as the thinker and immigration activist Jane Addams, might help disabuse players of some of their misconceptions.
That, of course, is a tall order, particularly for a bit of software that resides amid status updates, pokes, and other distractions. Although games are increasingly being viewed as tools for raising awareness for some of the world’s thorniest issues—next week, a conference for Games for Change, the leading organization promoting the development of high-minded interactive software, attracted hundreds of programmers, activists, and keynote speaker Al Gore—the majority of games that achieve mass popularity are like Angry Birds: fun, fast, and free of any larger meaning. Still, by allowing players to experience decision-making, even of a simulated sort, firsthand, games continue to attract social entrepreneurs who seek to capitalize on the medium’s multimedia capabilities and mass appeal.
“It’s important to us to move beyond conventions, to really look at the fabric of values that underlines human rights, and engage a community of people across issues and across identities,” said Mallika Dutt, Breakthrough’s founder and president. It was a hard-learned lesson: In 2008, the organization produced another game, ICED, or I Can End Deportation. It was popular, but it received divisive reactions, depending on where players stood on the issue of undocumented immigrants. The idea behind America 2049, Dutt said, was to create a more inclusive and comprehensive game.
“We see human rights not as an us-and-them proposition, but as an we’re-all-in-this-together proposition,” she said. “The game grew out of this philosophy. Gaming allows folks to be in the shoes of someone else, and experience a set of issues differently than just listening to a talk or reading an article.”
This, Diner believes, is a good approach to ensuring that the game’s message will eventually trickle down and inspire its young players to learn more about the subject matters under discussion. “Somebody playing the game may see a course in immigration history in college and take it,” Diner said. “They might be listening to Fox News and say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s what they were saying about the Irish.’ Hopefully something will click.”
And even though the work on America 2049 was far removed from Diner’s usual scholarship on American Jewish history, she said she had found much in the process of digging up documents about disease outbreaks, immigration woes, and prejudice that correlates with her traditional expertise. “A lot of what Jewish studies looks at is not unique to Jews,” she said, “and needs to be put side by side with like content. Much of what was posited as a specifically Jewish story is not.” Unlike England or Argentina, Diner added, “where Jewish immigrants were the stand-outs, Jewish immigrants to America were protected by having all of those other folks come in at the same time.” To truly understand Jewish American history, she said, “we have to understand the larger picture.”