Can video games reduce human trafficking?

  Last updated August 14, 2019 at 11:34 am

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Advocacy groups use video games to raise awareness of human trafficking, but researchers are highlighting the risk of blurring the lines between recreation and reality.


human trafficking video games technology

Video games are widely used to raise awareness about complex social issues. Credit: Westend61


As technology continues to evolve, so does its uses. It’s now being used by advocacy groups to provide first-person experiences with complex social issues.


Virtual humanitarianism is a term coined by QUT researchers for the way advocacy groups use technology, in the form of digital games and apps, on humanitarian platforms to raise awareness of human trafficking and other complex social problems.


The researchers, including Erin O’Brien and Helen Berents, analysed three video games designed to raise awareness on human trafficking.


While they highlight that the technology has the potential to address the complex issue, it also run the risk of showcasing limited narratives that focus on the savior, rather than the victim themselves.


Failing to capture the complexity of human trafficking factors


“The games we looked at were (Un)trafficked, Missing: Game for a Cause, and BAN Human Trafficking. The games purport to put you in the shoes of the victim and allow you to make choices that directly affect you, the victim,” says O’Brien.


The researchers found that two of the games failed to capture the complexity of the victim’s situation.


Instead, the games focussed on the choices that were made by those in a position to either help or exploit the victim, such as labour hire agents or a parent deciding if they would let a child go with a stranger for a ‘better education and opportunities’.


People protesting against human trafficking in South Africa. Credit: Anadolu Agency


“Digital platforms, games, apps and virtual reality may have greater potential to communicate complex situations than more traditional awareness raising media such as posters and billboards.”


“However, they also run the risk of communicating tired stereotypes such as victims of trafficking are all young women or girls, or are all sexually assaulted, or that victims don’t have much agency.”


The Polaris Project – a non-governmental organisation working to combat human trafficking – supports this idea, stating that many victims have “diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, varied levels of education and may be documented or undocumented”.


Showcasing a victim’s fight for justice


Out of the three games, the researchers say that the BAN Human Trafficking game was the only one that depicted a range of characters. The games also focused on the factors that could lead them into being trafficked.


However, what made this game so effective, says researchers is that it included factors that prevented a trafficked person from escaping well beyond being rescued.


“This game also shows ways in which these characters try to escape from exploitation and how they are limited to do so by structural factors such as immigration enforcement or police complicity,” Berents says.


“It shows how victims strive for justice and put their lives back together.”


Games blur the lines between recreation and awareness-raising


Berents says the games were not targeted at potential victims and some did not have a clear call to action for people to take after playing the game.


“Games blur the lines between recreation and awareness-raising. However, digital games may offer space for more complex stories to be told about the causes and consequences of human trafficking,” she says.


The researchers also highlight that a wide range of narratives need to be presented.


“Games need to avoid limited narratives that allow us to play the virtual saviour, rather than communicating a more complex understanding of the lives and experiences of trafficking victims”.


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