Ayiti: Cost of Life

Recently, on a recommendation on this blog, I tried Ayiti, a UNICEF-sponsored game about the difficulty of making ends meet as a poor family in Haiti.

It’s deeper and more playable than some of the other political games I’ve mentioned here recently: the interface is mostly well-designed (though I had a couple of particular gripes); there’s enough variation from playthrough to playthrough that you have to adapt your strategy a bit even when you think you’ve cracked the game; and it didn’t feel like preaching to the choir, at least not all the time.

The first message you’ll take away from it is that life in Haiti is insanely hard and that simply not dying from year to year takes terrific effort. This is probably an intended lesson.

After a while, though, you start to find that you can educate the family a bit, start them getting jobs that pay better, and begin to scratch your way free of the biting poverty; though you will certainly never amass enough money to buy the family the big-ticket item at the store, the 20,000 goud house, which must remain forever a dream.

Lots of particular strategies have come up on the Jay Is Games thread about Ayiti, and they reveal some of the game’s simulation assumptions in more detail. Some of the assumptions seem completely sensible. It’s hardest to make money when you have nothing; a bit of capital for transportation, books, and proper eating make a world of difference. This, of course, supports the idea that we should all contribute to UNICEF, since even relatively low-priced items can make such a huge difference to the quality of life of the people living there.

Some of the game’s other strategic messages are a little more dubious. As a number of people mention on the thread, it’s often best *not* to send the children to school or the parents to vocational training: if they volunteer for UNICEF projects, they spend nothing (where school costs money), they get some education points (though not necessarily as quickly as they might at school), and they contribute to community development projects. Once the volunteers have built a community center, a library, and a health center, they start to receive additional benefits to literacy and health care for the whole family; it’s like being able to send all five people to school at once, for free. And, oh yeah, volunteer work gives you satisfaction, so it adds to your Happiness, too.

I’m a little skeptical of this: it seems to suggest that in Haiti you can get the equivalent of a school degree or technical degree without ever darkening the door of a classroom at all, and also that volunteering for UNICEF is just about the best application of time imaginable for young people. Maybe this is partly true — maybe volunteer work does confer educational benefits on the volunteers, and it’s reasonable to work that into the simulation. But I suspect it would be more accurate and also seem a little less self-serving if the kids did have to go to school at least for a season or two in order to merit the higher degrees.

Though who knows? Maybe I am just mis-imagining the Haitian educational system.

A bit more disturbing even than that is the fact that an optimum game-play strategy requires fairly seriously neglecting the family’s health, especially during the early stages of the game. It is, of course, important not to let any of them die. If both parents die, you lose the game, but even without that, reducing the number of family members will cut into everyone’s happiness and productivity for the rest of the playthrough. So you don’t want to kill them. But you *do* want to work them just as hard as you can without killing them: this brings in money, which you need to acquire rapidly in the first few seasons in order to buy livestock and make other lifestyle advances. If you get a slow start on those things, then you’re permanently crippled. Besides, just letting family members rest at home doesn’t tend to cure them effectively. The best approach, I found, was to keep everyone madly at work until the point where they got a disease (cholera, tuberculosis, something pleasant like that) and then send them to the hospital. The hospital costs money, of course, but the expense is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of letting them take seasons off work. What’s more, a good long stay at the hospital boosts the health all the way back up to full, whereas time off work, or working less hard, only postpones the character’s inevitable breakdown. The characters can get depressed, too, if you treat them too puritanically, and if they’re too depressed they stop working, but it’s often possible to prevent breakdown by letting them celebrate a holiday now and again. This doesn’t mean that they’re actually having a very pleasant life from day to day.

This is a curious inversion of the McDonalds videogame, which sets out to make a point about corporate greed and winds up inadvertently suggesting that it’s not really in the corporation’s best interests to feed cows on ground animal parts or to bulldoze the rainforest extensively or to work pastureland until it turns to desert. In the McDonalds game, you’re cast as a villain, but the winning strategy is to be as good as you can.

In Ayiti, which is supposed to be about lifting people out of grinding poverty and educational deficit, you discover that the best approach is to work them like dogs, ignore any human misery that isn’t actually fatal, and coerce everyone into communal projects to the exclusion of individual self-advancement. I do believe that in many cases communal projects are a good thing — the rising tide raises all boats, etc. — but there is also something a little strange and offputting and inhumane that emerges from the game as you get better and better at playing it.

I very much doubt that all that is intentional in the game’s design. I can imagine the designers thinking that the “health” factor would discourage players from overworking the family, for instance; but that isn’t how it works out in practice, because the relative cost of the hospital, and its relative efficiency at restoring lost hit points (for lack of a better word), make it the optimum choice.

All the same, I found this entertaining, and aggravatingly replayable. A lot depends on luck; I keep thinking that if I play again, get enough breaks, and am clever, I’ll be able to best my previous runs — also not an option available to real families. I still haven’t gotten everything to come out as well as I’d like: I think my best run only got 12 diplomas of a possible 15. That might be as good as it gets, though.

Ah well. The flip side of all this is that real people in Haiti have lifespans longer than four years; so maybe that glass ceiling isn’t so universally impenetrable for them as it is for players of Ayiti.

8 thoughts on “Ayiti: Cost of Life”

  1. A would have thought that the health issue was a not a design flaw, but a fact of life. Perhaps the aim of the game is not to teach you “if you play the game right, everything will be rosy” but instead “it will always be a struggle, but it is possible for you to improve your lot”.

    The fact that you are disturbed by the things you have to do to “win” is IMHO a successful outcome of the game. There are no easy solutions for these people.

    On the other hand, I think the education issue is a real design flaw. I doubt UNICEF intended to discourage education.

  2. Hah! The strategic message of the game isn’t something I copped at all. That’s a interesting way to look at the game.

    Well, glad you liked it anyway :)

  3. The fact that you are disturbed by the things you have to do to “win” is IMHO a successful outcome of the game. There are no easy solutions for these people.

    Well, partly. But I also think the simulation must be breaking down here, a bit. For one thing, in real life you can’t afford to play quite so loosely with people’s health. The game conveniently always tells you when someone is sick enough to have to go to the hospital. In life, it’s possible to misjudge that and die as a result.

  4. As it happens, no: I have a long-running relationship with a different charity for children in poverty, so I send my contributions in that direction. (Not that I object to UNICEF’s work, but what I’ve read about how to do the most good with your charitable contributions suggests that it’s best to research and pick a couple of organizations and give reasonably generously, rather than to scatter smaller donations among a larger number of recipients.)

  5. Great analysis. UNICEF has hosted and advised the game, but did not create nor sponsor it. It was made through a collaboration between youth in Global Kids after school program Playing 4 Keeps and Gamelab, a game development company. More info at holymeatballs.org.

  6. Well, I’m hooked on this game too, but it’s making me gradually angrier.

    That “luck” factor, as far as I can reckon, is at least 90% of the game.

    At one point, I whipped open a text editor and carefully noted what job and school options are open to whom for each season for a full year, so I could plan a strategy. Then started a new game. Imagine my squawk when I discovered that the jobs and school options are all different every game!

    What good does it do to educate mom to level 4 if the secretary job never shows up? Or buy the bicycle if the construction job never comes back? Or plan to educate everybody with volunteer work if it isn’t available?

    Plus, sometimes school/books/volunteering raises their educational levels and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the hospital cures them and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the radio cheers them up and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you’re granted a market stall and sometimes a hurricane hits and sometimes they all catch cholera, and on and on…

    I’ve researched every single tip about this game I can find online and tried them all and failed with each one at least once due to luck.

    You know what I think we really have here, folks? One giant, frustrating slot machine, rigged to the house advantage. I’m ready to demand to see the source code just so I can prove it.

    On the other hand, from what I’ve heard about Haiti, a frustrating slot machine might be a very accurate depiction.

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