The Maya runners:
Video games from Guatemala
A Quetzal bird that flies between pyramids, a heroic Mayan runner, and a reenactment of the Civil War: Emerging Guatemalan videogame developers reference the country’s history and social issues to create educational gaming. Read More
Carlos Villagrán wanted to emulate Vietnamese game developer Dong Nguyen and his game “Flappy Bird” when he marketed Flappy Quetzal last year. In this mobile game, the Quetzal, Guatemala’s national symbol, a shiny green and red bird, flies through the archeological sites of former Maya civilizations. It has to avoid Maya steles in its path in order to survive the journey.
The original game by Nguyen is currently one of the most widespread videogames with over 50 million downloads. Carlos wanted to test whether the game was difficult to imitate. Since its launch in February 2014, the Guatemalan version already has 5,000 downloads. The 23-year-old system engineer says he learned more about his own history when developing the application than in geography class at school.
The Guatemalan gaming applications industry is rather small and just emerging: the first projects were initiated only four years ago. Rapidly increasing demand is helping them evolve. “Many companies now want their own game applications; and everyone wants to be present on social networks,” says Carlos. A company recently commissioned him to create a turtle version of Flappy Quetzal: the “Flying Turtle”.
Improving math skills
Carlos’ company Coolcakesoft and other businesses such as Elemental Geek and Pizote Soft are part of a software development movement that sees game development as an art with educational value. Many of the games they’ve developed or planned are about national history. “We are trying to retrieve and regain our national identity,” explains Adrian Catalán, Professor for Structures of Machines at Galileo University and co-founder of Elemental Geek in 2011.
"Some software developmers see game development as an art with educational value."
Elemental Geek developed Cerebrex, a game that trains children’s memory and mental alertness. Players earn Mayan gems for every task they master. The game was tested in a 6th grade class at Liceo Javier School, where the math class performance of 72 pupils was evaluated over a period of three months. One group of children played Cerebrex, while the second did not. The math skills of the children who played the videogame showed significant improvement. Their math skills progressed faster than those of the non-gaming group.
From ancient Mayan culture to the Civil War
A hero runs flat out, dodging obstacles from Xibalba, the Mayan underworld: This is the protagonist of a Guatemalan arcade game, a coin-operated video game machine. The story is based on Pop Wuj, the sacred book of the Mayan people. “This definitely has educational value,” says Clarissa Luna, co-director of software development company Pizote Soft. “Children learn better by playing than by reading.”
Pizote Soft specializes in historical topics: The company has also developed a video game that references the classical Mayan ballgame ?llamaliztli. It is to be released in March 2015.
Other topics include insecurity, violence and corruption. For decades Guatemala has suffered from the ever increasing violence brought by the drug trade and gangs. This tiny country currently has the fifth highest murder rate in the world. The underpaid and often corrupt police officers are pretty much powerless in the face of this violence. In Pizote Soft‘s “P & L” game, a police officer chases a thief. Furthermore, Pizote Soft wants to develop a game on the Guatemalan Civil War that lasted from 1960-1996 and claimed about 200,000 dead. “The armed conflict is a hidden part of our history. Our current situation has much to do with what happened during that time," says Luna.
Not all developers are willing to touch these sensitive topics though. “The Civil War is something I'm not sure we would cover,” says Bryan Alvarado, co-founder of 502 Studios. “The issue is too emotional for many people in the country for us to use it as the basis for some form of entertainment.”
But the Mayan theme is definitely a topic they draw from. “The Mayan culture is rich in images and traditions, so there is ample opportunity to include it in a game”, Bryan explains.
The game developers’ community
The first community of videogame developers in Guatemala is Gamedev GT. Every week, its founders Bryan from 502 studios and Rodrigo Ramírez, a 32-year-old graphic designer, come together with eight other coders to share ideas in a Dunkin Donuts restaurant. They talk about educational and political games too, but none is currently planning to develop a storyline that addresses the violence in their country, nor do they ever plan to. If anyone is killed in their games, they are extraterrestrials, they say.
“Social issues are interesting, but we are tired of always tackling violence,” says Rodrigo. “I would rather do it the other way round, perhaps send out a call for peace.”
Alhvi Balcárcel, a 28-year-old systems engineer and also a member of GameDev GT, says he once played a game from the Global Conflicts series that tackled drug trafficking. In the game, Alhvi was a journalist investigating the closure of a “maquila”, one of Guatemala’s huge export-oriented factories. Maquilas offer jobs to thousands of Guatemalans with little or no formal education who are then forced to work long hours under exploitative conditions. “Even if it's pretty scary to live through these situations in games, I think that games can offer a good way to make these problems known and publicize the situation," says Alhvi.