04/19/2011 10:55 am ET Updated Aug 16, 2012

'America 2049' Facebook Game Promotes Social Justice

A young woman, wide eyes accentuated by smeared mascara and dirt, is crouched on a cement basement floor, her wrists handcuffed to the cracked wall. With a thick Eastern European accent, she thanks you for saving her from the men, the drugs and the fate of those who fall victim to human trafficking. She implores you to help the others.

This jarring video is embedded in the new Facebook game "America 2049", an RPG (role-playing game) and ARG (alternate reality game) blend in which players must confront human-rights-themed issues that plague the nation’s imagined dystopian future. "America 2049" is a testament to how Facebook gaming has expanded far beyond the scope of watering your neighbors’ corn crops on "FarmVille." Players, now agents for the Council on American Heritage, face challenges that include sex trafficking, racial discrimination, abortion, immigration, labor, religion and LGBT issues, over an unfolding 12-week narrative. The game was developed by the global human rights organization Breakthrough, which uses media, pop culture and technology in its effort to mobilize communities to be cognizant of and active in addressing social justice issues, creating widespread cultural awareness.

Breakthrough President and CEO Mallika Dutt has worked in women’s issues for 25 years. “Somewhere along the way I realized that I was seeing the same 500 women at the same meetings and conferences I went to,” Dutt said. “We were having the same conversation with one another without expanding the scope the way we were dreaming about.”

At that point, Dutt realized that she could use pop culture and media campaigns as a way to reframe human rights issues and make them accessible to the broader culture. Past tactics have included a viral media campaign called Ring the Bell that encouraged men in India to report domestic violence, and the creation of an award-winning music video, which aired regularly on MTV, that dealt with abuse and other women’s issues.

“Over the past few years, social media space has erupted into public consciousness,” Dutt said. “It is the public square in which narratives are framed.”

A 2008 Pew Research Center study titled “Teens, Video Games and Civics” found that 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls play video games. Although this statistic includes games played on a console, computer or mobile device, 73 percent of teens play games on a computer. Furthermore, teens who played games involving “civic gaming experiences” were the most likely to report interest and engagement in civic and political activities.

"Protecting civil rights is the responsibility of all Americans. Our future depends on our civic involvement, and I'm excited that 'America 2049' will help educate young people about their power to change their world,” said actor/comedian Margaret Cho, who appears in the game alongside Victor Garber ("Alias"), Cherry Jones ("24"), Anthony Rapp ("Rent") and Harold Perrineau ("Lost").

The game was created by two women designers, Heidi Boisvert and Andrea Phillips. While studies conducted by the Entertainment Software Association show that 40 percent of gamers are women, and women over 18 represent the fastest-growing gaming demographic, women designers are still a rarity in the video gaming world. Data collected by the International Game Developers Association says that only 11.5 percent of game employees are women.

By combining elements that appeal to all gamers including clues and puzzles, strategies, a mini game structure and a strong narrative, “we are hoping we can cross the gender paradigm,” said Boisvert, who also serves at Breakthrough’s multimedia expert.

Boisvert and Phillips created 450 pages of script for 12 weeks of content. They shot 70 videos, recorded 50 voiceovers, and used more than 150 graphics, including posters and artifacts that link events in the game to incidents in American history. Writer Roozbeh Shirazi created online curricula that relate to the social justice issues discussed each week. There are satellite websites where players can discuss strategy and views on social issues, or watch video content ostensibly created by the game’s fictional government or supposed fringe groups.

“We are also pushing people back into physical spaces with online and live events that we have organized every week,” Boisvert said. For every human rights issue addressed, Breakthrough has teamed with different organizations across the country that are staging events pertaining to the relevant material. For example, this week’s "modern slavery" portion of the game (a nod to Passover) was linked to an event at the Tenement Museum in New York. “We synergize gamers with people visiting these institutions and create a cross-pollination that I think is highly unique.”

Already in its third week, "America 2049" has a following of 7,000 players. While this pales in comparison to FarmVille’s 47 million monthly active users, Breakthrough’s founders hope that these numbers will rise as the game continues to raise public awareness.