Men are playing cards

It’s really not a game


Director of Operations for ACF USA and former Operations Manager for MSF based in Amsterdam, MSF Association member


Former Deputy Director of Operations for Médecins Sans Frontières, based in Amsterdam, and MSF Association Member

At the core of humanitarian action is the notion of humanity between humans, which leads to an inherent and inevitable struggle with real moral dilemmas. It means showing solidarity to one person and having to explain to another why you can't make resources available to them. The gamification of this reality as proposed by the development of MSF's mobile game "It's No Game" (working title) with Mediadante and Indiegogo not only wholly misrepresent the aims and reality of working for the organization, but this trivialization of the reality of humanitarian crisis (it will not allow you to experience for yourself "the unthinkable situations face by humanitarian workers on the frontline of conflicts") is condescending and disrespectful to both MSF's staff and its patients. Or as Alex de Waal argues humanitarian appeals that obscure the complex political causes undermine the agency and individuality of their victims.


The dramatic and congratulatory language of the promotional material such as claiming "to put you on the frontline with MSF" and comparing the game-play to that of Plague Inc. (in which "you must bring about the end of human history by evolving a deadly, global plague whilst adapting against everything humanity can do to defend itself") or This War of Mine (where "At night, [you] take one of your civilians on a mission to scavenge for items that will help you stay alive") misrepresents the conduct of field workers from MSF and other humanitarian organizations. This conduct should be one of subtle and nuanced engagement.

Moreover, if war games are seen to trivialize war and killing (or as an ICRC paper puts it: ‘it is contended that the widespread use of video games has the potential to desensitise players to the very existence of rules on the use of force'), how does this game not trivialize lifesaving humanitarian action? It risks increasing the distance and understanding between field realities and humanitarian communications and fundraising, not reducing it.


An increased understanding of the plight of people in crisis is important, and at the core of MSF's raison d'etre. All external communications are necessarily simplified, as any educational material needs to be. But meeting those needs should not compromise the position that MSF holds as a principled organization. MSF's refugee camp in a city is one such example where simplification is necessary, but crucially it does not give the visitor the false impression that they are making real-life decisions.

E-learning in general can be an efficient and accessible tool in the right place-from logistics processes to flight simulations-so long as its technocratic constraints are clearly identified. But the limits to such tools within the humanitarian context are not just over-simplification risking a false sense of expertise, but over-simplification risking undermining the complexity, difficulty and anxiety of moral choices that are a day-to-day necessity.

Further, the marketing of this game uses the rhetoric of "life or death choices", but what does this mean? The decisions that humanitarian organizations make may well have far reaching consequences, but the objective is always life. It may be, and often is, regrettably necessary to triage patients and prioritise resources, but this simplified discourse is an example of how real issues, which are important to discuss can be reduced to the unqualified.


There is nothing inherently wrong with innovative modes of fundraising (within this game, players "can make direct donations to MSF with the touch of a button"). Fundraising through gaming downloads will likely become an effective, diverse generator of unrestricted funds. But when fundraising is within the domain of the game itself you run the risk of creating a ‘points mean prizes' understanding of humanitarian action.

Further, when objectification is used to increase income generation (whether for direct fundraising, or in this case fundraising for the development of the game) it is in the same league as Save the Children's Tinder-style child sponsorship or WFP's Food Force.

it's no game


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These images and associated quotes, which are presumptive as to the thoughts of the individual and potentially taken out of the context in which they are taken, not only furthers the over simplified and increasingly common "hero" discourse of humanitarian work, but suggests that MSF speaks in terms of a singular mass ‘life' that needs saving, not multiple, diverse lives.

The fashion for the commercialization of vulnerability is no reason for MSF to follow the crowd, especially from its respected position as leaders in medical humanitarian emergencies. A fashion which is adopted in the incentives for donating to the development of the game itself, whereby for $250 you can "name a natural disaster" after yourself which will be one of the "challenges players face in the game". Or for $500 you can "name a hospital of key institution" after yourself. This is distasteful and romanticizes disaster and suffering.


It is not wholly unfeasible that a 'game' (which by definition has an element of competition or entertainment) could be developed that is true to MSF's identity; can be used as a creative modality of fundraising; and is informative and respectful to people affected by crisis. However, with any communications or fundraising tool, new or otherwise, it is the content that should lead the development not vice-versa. The presentation of this game gives the distinct feel that the content has followed the medium.

The romantisation and sensationalisation of human suffering is unwarranted, unethical and offensive, not just to the people that MSF treats, but also to those that it fails. It fuels the discourse of the ‘hero' aid worker, when the principle of humanity is about mutual respect and understanding, not about creating an elite; and when the principle of humanitarian imperative is about the modest, humble act of expressing solidarity with victims of crises.

Confirming this trend, MSF's Dutch section has recently launched a survival quiz whose purpose is to place the ‘player' in the footstep of a wannabee volunteer and test his / her aptitudes to face the reality of aid work.

MSF attempts to gain credibility and respect through not only putting patients at the center of decision making, but also making fundraising and communications decisions that are true to the organisation's identity, daily reality and capacity to implement programmes-this game puts this position in jeopardy.

To cite this content :
Chris Lockyear, Pete Buth, “It’s really not a game”, 2 septembre 2016, URL :

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