Diamond dealers buy stones in Mbuji-Mayi, Congo’s diamond centre. Many dealers become pastors in order to use religious influence to convince their congregation to join the diamond trade. Approximately three million people live in the diamond town, where most agriculture has ceased and been replaced by the diamond rush. Image © Marcus Bleasdale / VII Photo
Marcus Bleasdale is always thinking about new ways to highlight the grim living conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and our own complicity in its people's troubles. In 2009, he co-produced a comic book based on his images, and now he's working with a team of games developers to create an immersive experience that will convey the complex reality. He speaks with Olivier Laurent
"It all started with the comic," says Oslo-based photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale. "I was kind of struck by how the artist had taken what had been quite traditional black-and-white photographs of Congo and made these different visuals, and as a result he had managed to take the message to a different demographic." Produced in association with Christian Aid's youth initiative Ctrl.Alt.Shift and graphic artist Paul O'Connell, the comic was published in 2009 and narrates how Congo's natural resources and people are being ravaged.
For the past decade, Bleasdale has been documenting the issue of conflict minerals, which are used across a wide array of electronic devices, including cameras, tablets and game consoles. He has published two books - One Hundred Years of Darkness and Rape of a Nation - and has won numerous prizes for his work, including the Alexia Foundation Award for World Peace and a bursary from Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute to continue his work in the Congo. Yet Ctrl.Alt.Shift's initiative allowed for his images to reach a younger audience, who might not have seen them had they remained conventional documentary images.
The experiment was a success and, says Bleasdale, it led him to start thinking about other ways to adapt his images to reach these new, often younger, audiences. "My niece and nephew never buy a newspaper or a magazine, and they probably never will. They don't consume news in the way we did, so I was looking at how I could get to them. How can we - journalists - get that message to them? The answer is we have to take that message and give it to them on a platform they participate on and in; be it a tablet, a smartphone or a game. Or all three."
For Bleasdale, the question is simple: "Can we embed interesting information in something that is quite entertaining and engaging?" That's when he met Patrick O'Luanaigh of nDreams, a video games developer based in the UK. "Patrick is a pretty amazing games manufacturer," says Bleasdale. "He's worked on Tomb Raider, Reservoir Dogs and Hitman when he was at Eidos Interactive. When I met him, he was really excited about the possibilities of creating a tablet game about conflict minerals."
Unspeakable Things, a comic book adaptation of Marcus Bleasdale's Congo images. Illustration courtesy of Paul O'Connell / Ctrl.Alt.Shift
The idea behind Zero Hour: Congo is to create a game that will be played on devices that use conflict minerals. "We want consumers to know they are using a device that was built with conflict minerals," says Bleasdale. "The game will try to show that by using these tools, we are all, in some way, complicit in the war in Congo, and I think we should be aware of that complicity."
With the help of John Prendergast of the Enough Project, and media producer Daniella Steadman, Bleasdale has been developing different narrative models. "These games have to be entertaining," he explains. "If Zero Hour: Congo isn't entertaining, no one is going to play it. So we wanted to create an entertaining but realistic experience of what life is like in Congo, without trivialising the conflict."
The narrative concept is simple: the player arrives in Congo as an expat, be it a doctor, nurse, aid worker, journalist or photographer. "You are introduced to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and you have to learn through certain experiences what is happening in this country," Bleasdale explains. "In a traditional game, you can only advance to the next level by picking up certain assets, such as bullets or a gun. In our game, the asset is information. For example, you would have to find out where the mines are and how many people are working there. You would also have to learn about the categorisation of these mines. And only after you've amassed enough information will you be allowed to advance from one level to the next. In effect, you would be learning while you're playing."
For example, if the user chooses to play as a photographer, once he lands in Congo he would first have to find out what the issues plaguing the country are. Then he would have to go on a photoshoot in a refugee camp, where he would hear about the use of child soldiers in the war. "In order to photograph these child soldiers, the player will have to negotiate his way through barriers," says Bleasdale. "And once you start speaking to the child soldier, the player morphs into him. So, in the following level, you're not a photojournalist anymore, you've become that child soldier.
"In your quest, you'll meet the same people you met when you were a photojournalist - the rebel commander or NGO workers, for example - but they would treat you very differently." By using these different characters, the goal is to offer a complete picture of the situation in Congo - from how the minerals are being extracted to how they are used in our lives in computers, mobile phones and cameras.
More than just a project manager on Zero Hour: Congo, Bleasdale will also contribute some of his work for the development of the game. "Quite a lot of the landscapes will come from the images and the film I've shot," he says. "Of course, it will be up to the creative director to interpret what the photographs and the film represent. We've already been through quite a lot of imagery and we're developing some visual content. Also, a lot of the narrative will be as real as possible. We want to engage with doctors who have worked out there, and include some types of real-time scenarios that these doctors have encountered, and the same goes for journalists and NGO workers."
Bleasdale also plans to use the interviews he has done with child soldiers over the past decade and incorporate them into the game's narrative.
While the concept is at an advanced stage, Bleasdale believes it will take a minimum of six to nine months before the game is released. "Right now, we're in stage two," he says. "And everything will depend on getting the full funding in place." Already, the team is planning the release of a pilot - a shorter version of the game - to raise awareness around the entire project and bring more funding. The final version of Zero Hour: Congo will be available on tablets and smartphones first, and could be ported to home consoles if successful. "I want it to be available on every gaming platform that consumes conflict minerals," he says. "But it will depend on the partners we have."
Bleasdale has already received feedback from the industry at a Photography, Expanded event organised by the Magnum Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. "There were optimists and realists in the audience. For example, we've been working with people from Games for Change [an organisation that facilitates the creation and distribution of social impact games that serve as critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts]. They are realists. They told us these are not the easiest games to sell. You really have to work out a smart way to break that barrier," says Bleasdale. "We know it's never going to be the world's best-selling game, it's never going to be out there in the charts next to Grand Theft Auto, but I would hope it would get a significant audience to allow the message to be communicated."
Successful or not, the project has reaffirmed Bleasdale's belief that photographers should look beyond the medium to tell their stories. "I'm a photographer, but maybe not in the true sense of the word," he explains. "I like photography, but I'm not madly in love with it. It's just a tool for me to get the messages that I'm concerned about across to an audience that might be instrumental in helping to change things on the ground for the average Congolese. If I can use this camera to get the message in front of camera and electronics manufacturers, then I will. If it's more effective to use a game or a comic to get this message in front of these people, then I'll use that.
"I think we should, as photographers, get over this concept of being this sole author making a statement about a single thing in one medium. Instead, we should try to embrace partnerships. These partnerships are really important - partnering with NGOs, corporations, games companies and designers in order to make the message stronger and more effective."
This article was first published in Fade To Black, a new iPad magazine about photography, film and multimedia. Download the free app now.
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