The Slum Challenge –
More Than Just a Game
In the computer game Slum Challenge, Europeans can immerse themselves in life in a Philippine slum from a first-person shooter and wander through real film sequences. Read More
It is the break of dawn. You try to turn over on your thin mattress and fall back asleep. It’s hard though, since all your little brothers and sisters are already awake. Hunger won’t let you sleep either, it claws at you and your siblings, follows you into your dreams. Your mother has been awake for hours and is taking care of the smallest children.
Although it is already warm at this time of the morning, the small hut is draughty. You feel the chill, but that’s another effect of the hunger. Water drips from the ceiling. At least you hope that it is just water. Your mother chivvies you out of bed – you need to go out and earn money. Or at least steal some food. You are still a child, but already the man of the family. When you emerge into the world, the stench is horrible. Hundreds of large families live crowded together, almost on top of one another. You wade through the refuse that collects in the narrow alleyways between the huts. There is some laundry in a bowl, and you use the soapy water to wash your face as best you can.
You meet two friends who still have some ‘rugby’. You and your friends all huff. Glue, inhaled through a plastic bag, the drug of the poor. It pushes the hunger away, at least for the next few hours. The world around you seems much easier to bear – you hallucinate and dream of a different life. You should be working. Or at least what is called “working” here – combing the rubbish dumps for items you can sell. Daily from 3 to 7 at night. Your stomach growls again. Before you make your way to the dump – dodging the fare since you cannot afford a ticket for the train – you steal something to eat at the market. You’re in luck, you don’t get caught today and the bread you were able to snatch is a small stroke of luck.
The game is over.
With “The Slum Challenge”, Danes Mikkel Cantzler Christensen and Jonas Unmack Larsen have created a unique game: Players can experience the life of a Philippine boy from his perspective – and decide if he should take drugs or go to work at the dump. This perspective will be familiar to the players of first-person shooter game, though this one does not consist of graphics but rather real film footage. There are a total of 45 points at which the player has to decide what the boy will do next.
The first-person perspective means players experience the game very intensively and experience something completely unique. Game developers Mikkel and Jonas were honoured with the European Youth Awards in 2014.
We talked to Mikkel about how Slum Challenge came about.
The aim of Slum Challenge is to sensitize Europeans and show them how poor people live in other parts of the world. But developing a computer game to address this topic was an unusual step.
How and why did you come up with the idea?
My partner Jonas Unmack and I have both travelled to different slum areas all over the world. When we got back to Denmark, we were very eager to tell people about the slums because it was such a great and amazing experience for us to go there. But no matter how hard you try and how eager you are, it is not easy to pass on the full experience of what it is like to be in a slum (both good and bad).
The Slum Challenge is our way of trying to reproduce a slum online that is accessible to everyone who has an internet connection. We believe that if you get personally involved and don’t just watch a documentary from and about a slum, you absorb it much better. Not that there is anything wrong with the more conventional documentaries about slums – we just wanted to try something different, where you as the viewer have to manoeuver and make your own choices. Through the principle of gamification, the viewer becomes a part of the story and is not just a passive viewer who only has to watch a clip from A to B. A player has to choose between some hard dilemmas and use his or her brain to think.
But do you really think that a computer game is the right tool for this?
Many have called it a computer game. But I would personally prefer to call it an interactive documentary. For us, the footage is the core and not the gameplay itself – though we were clearly inspired by gaming and we use the principles of gamification. Perhaps it’s a hybrid between a game and documentary.
Why did you choose Manila?
Before we started filming, we looked at a lot of different slum areas all over the world. Unfortunately there are loads of them - more than 200,000. And that number is growing as we speak. We were after a specific scenic view where you could see, feel and sense the skyline and get the feeling that you were in the big city all the time. A lot of slum areas are concentrated in a specific part of the city – as is the case with Manila, but in Manila you also see smaller slum areas of 5,000-10,000 inhabitants pop up in all kinds of weird places: under a bridge, along the railway and places like that. Second of all, it was also a security issue for us. We had some good connections to a few local NGOs that worked in Manila and helped us a lot. They were able to watch our backs and put us in contact with the right people – otherwise it would not have been wise for us to go to some of the places we went with rather expensive film gear. But we felt comfortable and safe at all times.
How big was your team in Manila and how long did you stay?
For the filming, the crew only consisted of me and my partner Jonas Unmack Larsen. In addition to the two of us, we had a local fixer who helped us with the translating, making the deals and other practical things. We were in Manila for a total of 10 weeks. We more or less filmed all the footage in ten weeks.
How did the people in the slum react when you told them about your project?
Most people were very welcoming and happy about it because they wanted to show that life is not easy when you live in a slum. We have tried to show how they live their lives in that part of the world with respect and without pointing fingers. Without a doubt, there is a lot of dysfunctionality in the slums of Manila, but the people who live there know that. Well everybody knows, but not everyone wants to show it. Some people thought we were trying to ruin the reputation of the Philippines by showing the slums instead of their white sandy beaches, but of course that was not our intention.
The people in the film sequences: Are they all real slum inhabitants or are they actors?
The entire time our credo was to use real people from the slums, so everyone you see is a resident of the slum. We tried to put fragments of their stories into the big script.
How did you approach them? And why did they take part in the project?
We tried to keep money out of it from the very start – otherwise it would have gotten out hand if word started spreading. So we just sat down and talked to people and told them what we were doing and why we were doing it, and gently asked if they wanted to participate in our project. Some did not, but most people agreed to it. We had quite a big entourage – curious people following us and the process, so at the end everything began coming very naturally.
What impressed you most when you were filming in Manila?
People from outside the slums views on the slums. We used a lot of public transportation during the time we were down there filming and talked to people who were very afraid of the slums and moving around in the surrounding area. Of course a lot of bad things happen in the slums, but I was amazed about how much the rest of the populations feared them. The biggest positive impression we had was seeing how the phrase “less is more” is really given meaning. I’m very impressed by how people manage to make it on so little and get the best out of their lives without playing the victim card.
There is a lot of video footage on your YouTube channel. Are you going to offer this material in English in the future, too?
Yes. We hope to get some funds to translate it all into English and other languages as well. The story is very universal and not only targeted for Danish people. And the concrete slum challenge in the world just continues to grow and grow, so we would love to pass on the stories outside of Denmark’s borders as well.
Mikkel and Jonas were awarded with the European Youth Award in the category "Active Citizenship" in 2014. The European Youth Award is a pan-European contest to select and honour "Digital Creativy for Social Good!".