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This disturbing game pitch made gamers walk out

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) pitched a fake video game at a Washington, DC convention to draw attention to the plight of children in war-torn South Sudan. The stunt was recorded, and the release of that video timed to coincide with the anniversary of the beginning of the conflict in Dec. 2013.

Attendees of the Video Gamers United convention this August were invited to a keynote address on a new property, only to be pitched a survival game starring a 7-year old girl.

"This is an exclusive preview of Elika’s Escape," the presenter said. "First-person shooters, post apocalyptic survival stories? Those are very, very popular right now. But Elika’s Escape features something very special. You play a 7-year old little girl as the protagonist. A child."

Little did the audience know that the story of Elika was true, and the woman who the character was based on, Mari Malek, was standing in the back of the room.

UNICEF partnered with creative agency MMB, production house Big Block Live and director Joe Sabia to put on the performance. The audience was immediately uncomfortable with the concept, but the well-polished pitch man pressed on as black-and-white conceptual sketches flashed across the screen.

"We are taking the level of horror in this game even to infants."

"The game starts with her mother dying of cholera. And in this first shot your older brother dies trying to defend you. Meanwhile, Elika herself — you — escape away and a bullet grazes your infant baby brother. We are taking the level of horror in this game even to infants."

The presenter goes on to relate scenes of overcrowded refugee camps filled with disease. The climax of the game, he said, would be a choice between prostitution and seeing Elika's young brother die of hunger. It is at this point in the presentation that the audience is first shown walking out.

Only at the end of the stunt does the real Elika reveal herself.

"This is not a game," Malek said. "Elika’s story is true. She is me, and she is so many of the South Sudanese children that are going through this experience at this moment."

"Away from most of the world's cameras, a crisis is continuing to threaten children on a daily basis in South Sudan," UNICEF spokesperson Melanie Sharpe told Polygon. "Since violence erupted in the country on December 15, 2013 almost 750,000 children have been internally displaced and more than 320,000 are living as refugees. An estimated 400,000 children have been forced out of school and 12,000 are reported as being used by armed forces and groups in the conflict. With traditional social structures damaged, children are also increasingly vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse and exploitation."

Stunts like this are uncharacteristic of UNICEF.

Sharpe said that stunts like this are uncharacteristic of UNICEF, but it felt it was the only way to reach an audience that would otherwise be content to look the other way.

"The audience [at the convention] was horrified, showing a sad irony that what is too uncomfortable and severe for a video game is actually happening in real life to children.

"The reality is that no game can accurately reflect the horror millions of children face every day who have been caught up in conflict. For these children deadly attacks, the destruction of their schools and homes and loss of loved ones are far too real."

UNICEF is encouraging people to get involved in the conversation about South Sudan on social media using the #southsudannow tag.

Founded in 1946, UNICEF's original mission was to help the many sick and hungry children in Europe, the Middle East and China after World War II. Today its reach extends to 190 countries where it is still active in fighting hunger, but also malaria, HIV/AIDS and ebola.