Ayiti: The Cost of Life
Ayiti: the Cost of Life is one of the best political web games released this year, right up there with The McGame and the comic genius of Airport Security. You control the activities of a Haitian family trying to get by, the experience is like Oregon Trail meets Wyclef Jean ("if I was president..."). Health, education, community service and just making ends add up to a compelling strategy game thats easy to play but hard to beat.
Unlike most games with a political message, such as September 12th or 3rd World Farmer, Cost of Life actually has a strategy that works, but it's buried in a heap of revealingly faulty approaches. The balance of the game's randomized elements shows the designers subtly imbued their message; where health risks can be marginalized and hurricane disasters rare, unlike 3rd World Farmer's frustratingly even spread of bad luck that ensured you'd lose it all every few turns.
Here's a strategy guide diverted from fanboy tradition to become incisive analysis:
If you live poor everyone gets sick quickly, preventing them from working and incurring health costs to get well, which effectively spirals the family into a negative feedback loop that kills everyone. You need to keep the living rates at a decent level to keep the health profile going, but that alone isn't enough. If you help build up the local community center (run by Unicef, which also had a hand in producing the game) you'll get health and educational benefits more frequently. Volunteering also increases eduction for free, as opposed to paying for school in addition to not earning money. Having at least one educated family member able to work as a secretary (for an NGO office, hmmm, fingerprints of the producers?) is the mid-game breakthrough that lets you live good (where health doesn't deteriorate on a seasonal basis; mmmmm, delicous middle-class stasis). The trick is getting the wife up to education level-four before the negative feedback loop pulls you under the tide.
It took me about six or seven plays to hone-in on the precise winning strategy that lets you break into middle-class stability: self-education. Spending the fifty goul every season on books will earn the whole family educational points much more cost effectively than schooling (since they can also work), so you only need to take Marie to vocational school a handful of times. Schooling the children is a good bet, but only through home schooled books, the Christian schools are too expensive and affordable public schools require an artificial barrier of purchasing a school uniform.
Nothing demonstrates hypocrisy more sharply than losing at the game. Reading on your own time, because you want to, is the cheapest and most effective way to learn and better your earning prospects. The political message seems to be then: where there's a will and a library, there is a way. A counter-message seems to be: where there's an NGO proliferating the availability of libraries, the odds of people having the will to better themselves are higher because the means are presently available. The first message is implied from the game's material constraints (books, cost economy) and seems to be decidedly conservative (get a job! read a book! American Pie discourages loveless sex!). The second message comes from the game's formal constraints (the progression of an explcit reward cycle deriving from macro-scale mechanics) and is seemingly quite leftist (NGOs are the answer, hurrah!). The beauty of the play's resonance, of the messages only games can imply, comes in the gap between these constraints, and orthogonally, from the gap between the game's representations and its simulated mechanics of economy and randomized interdiction. In that quiet space, you are not a pawn in an agenda, but a family, and holy flavin, thats art.
Its also kind of fun as you figure out how to get ahead, if you prefer fun to preachy political subtext. I'm not sure which was more compelling, the later feelings of success as I worked that dominant strategy, or the early feelings of anguished sympathy as these people helplessly struggled with no way out.