Virtual sweatshops, physical discomfort

Global Conflicts: Sweatshops takes you to the slums of Bangladesh to highlight the plight of vulnerable children

I have a dreadful confession to make — it turns out that I have been complicit in condoning child labour in Bangladesh. As the co-owner of European Leather Industries (ELI, for short), we only wanted what was best for our customers.

What happened when we looked beyond the cold, exacting figures on the balance sheet? We saw haunted eyes staring back from each zero.

In Global Conflicts: Sweatshops (whose sobering subtitle should abort any comparisons to CoD), I found myself playing as co-owner Michael Badesha. With escalating global scrutiny on child labour, it must have come as a shock (or not, actually) to be contacted by an NGO in Bangladesh claiming that his company’s subcontracted leather factories were powered by the sweat and toil of younglings.

For this journey, I have the pleasure of introducing insight from lead designer Jeppe Herlev Nielsen, part of the Danish company (Serious Games Interactive) who produce the Global Conflicts series.

“Should I try to stop Hakim beating Zahir?” asks the game

The ultimate goal of Sweatshops is to gather information supporting the NGO’s claims — combining them with arguments about equally cogent topics like education and workplace safety — and confront the archvillain, er, factory magnate known as Raihan. The confrontation is designed as a conversation which should lead to equitable outcomes for the working children.

If you succeed, that is.

Nielsen said the main audience was “13–20 year-old” European students to allow them to “experience the human consequences of child labour so that they might be able to contextualise it with their own reality and privileges.” Sadly, whilst I no longer adhere to that age demographic, I still desired to see if I could enact any social change in my home country, even if virtually.

My investigation began with Maxine, the NGO’s representative on the ground. She was initially standoffish, and I couldn’t blame her. There I was, representing someone whose interests would be focused on performing damage control to the reputation of his company. Maxine naturally second-guessed Michael’s noble intentions (despite the responses I chose — which hurt a little) to genuinely fight for the children. As a critic, I was worried that my lack of empathy might incite dissonance between story and game. When I spoke to Nielsen about this, he confirmed that this wasn’t role-play, and most players were likely to “forget” about Michael — as you became immersed, you would use him as a conduit for your own philosophies.

Sumi truly believes that school is the path to a brighter future but her father disagreed

Speaking of philosophy, the game is clearly informed by that of the designer and his team — and Denmark’s lauded schooling system — with regards to education. (Your talk with Maxine happens in front of a free NGO-run school – maudlin yet thematically effective.) My journey involved speaking with two children who work at the factory, Sumi and Zahir, and their views on education were quite divergent. This was deliberate according to Nielsen since the impetus behind this series is “not to present solutions or give answers, but to pose questions and present the player with alternatives to what they already know and believe in.”

In Sumi’s case, she wished to stop being a child labourer and enter education for a brighter future — a dream I wholeheartedly supported. Unfortunately, her father vehemently disagreed with me, subscribing to the archaic notion that children should work and education proffers no future. It also saddened me when Sumi recounted an incident where she came home exhausted, yet had to cook. When I asked if her father should have helped out, she exclaimed how that couldn’t be possible.

Adults, in general, were painted in a rather negative light, none more so than the irascible, sycophantic factory manager Hakim. It is a testament to the writing that Hakim’s general demeanour incensed me, and his abuse of Zahir certainly pushed me over the edge. Zahir’s plight was chilling enough as he ardently believed that working (rather than school) was what gave him worth and that supporting his family, despite his age, was what truly drove him. Implicitly, it accused the environment and adults of instilling the wrong values in vulnerable children. Despite the usage of tropes, I felt that there was a pervasive truth and keen awareness of real issues in all my encounters.

The start of positive change during my second encounter

Ultimately, I managed two confrontations with Raihan, thanks to the brief (yet intense) nature of the game. The first time, my investigations amounted to naught as I misplayed my hand, and watched the arguments fall flat. I felt like I had truly let the children down when all I achieved for them was granting them one working hour less per week. The second attempt was incomparably better as Raihan agreed to safer environmental conditions, active support for schooling and appreciation of children’s rights. While I feel the overall experience could have been exemplary with more substance, it was still provocative in the right places. Early on, when Maxine spoke about arrangements with factories to allow children to leave early for school, I challenged her with a pithy “Doesn’t that mean you support child labour?” (Have at you, Maxine.)

There are more perspectives here than just being right or righteous, and Nielsen expressed it well: “Sometimes we are unable to act right — maybe because we lie to ourselves, maybe because we are forced to act like we do, maybe because we are negligent or ignorant.” The onus is on games like Sweatshops to help showcase such problems holistically, and incite the right conversations so that we can truly start to inspire change.

Originally published in the Dhaka Tribune on March 24th, 2015:

Originally authored by: Azfarul Islam
Edited by: Sabrina F Ahmad

Reprinted with permission. Some edits made for clarity and brevity. Short interview with Jeppe Herlev Nielsen can be found in the link above.