A deadly serious game
“Turn left, turn right, go back!” her friends urge as she leads her avatar, a pet dog, into a lethal trap and the sound of an explosion rings out from the computer.
In the virtual game world, players can always hit restart, but 11-year-old Chamroeun Chanpisey gets the point. “The game is different from real life,” she said. “People have only one life.”
The video game, called Undercover UXO, shorthand for unexploded ordnance, is a new tool aimed at educating young Cambodians about the dangers of land mines and other explosives across the war-pocked Southeast Asian country.
It’s a lesson that could save numerous lives each year in Cambodia and other post-conflict countries, where millions of land mines and unexploded ordnance -- sometimes mistaken for toys -- lie hidden under earth, rocks and wrecked vehicles, posing a threat to farmers and wandering children.
In Cambodia alone, such war remnants have killed or maimed nearly 64,000 people in the last three decades, including 286 last year, according to the Cambodian Mine/Explosives Remnants of War Victim Information System.
The video game, designed by a team of professors at Michigan State University with a $78,000 grant from the State Department, has been piloted in Cambodia by the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a Woodland-Hills nonprofit group. It tested the game on children such as Chanpisey in its Phnom Penh office before introducing it to rural communities.
Cambodia remains one of the world’s most explosives-littered countries, a hangover of extensive bloodshed in the 1970s to the 1990s. This period included civil war, a genocidal communist regime and a secret American bombing campaign in the eastern part of the country to root out suspected Viet Cong fighters.
The United States dropped 2.75 million tons of bombs, and warring factions placed millions of mines.
In 1992, a United Nations peacekeeping mission initiated a cleanup. But turning back such a deadly legacy is slow and costly; 4 million to 6 million explosive devices remain, according to the government-run Cambodian Mine Action Center. The government recently said it would need a dozen more years and tens of millions more aid dollars to complete the job.
Meanwhile, traditional efforts to warn children about the danger involve dry presentations using printed materials, “which is of limited appeal to children, and most people, actually,” said Allen Tan, who manages Golden West’s work in Cambodia.
Tan, an American whose Cambodian father immigrated to the U.S. after surviving the Khmer Rouge’s bloody rule in the late 1970s, said his own experience as an infantryman in Afghanistan and as a bomb-disposal technician in Iraq taught him how easily child’s play can turn deadly.
“If you’re a kid and you see something shiny in an environment where things are mostly wooden, you’re going to want to pick it up,” he said.
The video game uses an engaging platform to turn such mistakes into lessons, he said. Players instruct their pet dog to find food while dodging hidden dangers. They increase their scores by recognizing explicit cues, such as a skull-and-bones sign, or less obvious tip-offs, such as a barbed-wire fence, to save their avatar’s life.
When an explosion is triggered, a mine specialist character appears onscreen to explain what happened and how to avoid repeating the mistake.
Corey Bohil, a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University and part of the team that developed the game, said a digital template is being completed that could be tailored to other languages and imagery for a few thousand dollars. In Arab countries where many consider dogs to be unclean, for instance, the avatar could be a goat. And in Afghanistan, roadside bombs could be added to the repertoire of hazards, he said.
The project follows growing popular interest in “serious games” designed to develop life skills and inform players about real-world problems. Michigan State’s addition is primitive, with very modest graphics. But its target audience -- youngsters in post-conflict countries who are unlikely to have been spoiled by high-tech games -- is likely to be forgiving.
“I think it’s fun, and it teaches me to be more careful,” said Chob Sopheak, 14, a tester in Phnom Penh whose neighbor was left maimed and deaf by an exploding mine. Like the two other girls playing that day, Sopheak had never used a computer but quickly adapted to the controls.
Distribution is a significant hurdle for the project, however. The game was originally designed for the XO-1 computer, the "$100 laptop” that actually costs nearly $200 and hasn’t really caught on globally. The version of the game that’s just been released can be used on PCs and the XO-1.
This first version benefits from an unlikely boost: narration in Khmer provided by the silky voiced Chhom Nimol, the Khmer lead singer of the popular Silver Lake-based Cambodian-style rock band Dengue Fever.
Brady is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Mark Magnier in New Delhi contributed to this report.