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How the UN used a video game to raise awareness for land mines

Take a wild guess at the game in question

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Instagram is a massively popular social network where hundreds of millions of people share photos and videos with the world. It's the platform of choice for shots of fancy meals, poorly lit bar scenes and cute animals. Now it can also be used to play a video game — albeit one that's hacked together.

Earlier this week, the United Nations observed the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action. The annual event began a: decade ago, on April 4, 2006, as a way for the UN to highlight mine action: the effort to clear land mines and related explosive devices from countries around the globe; educate people about the dangers of such weapons; assist victims of land mines; advocate for a mine-free world; and destroy stockpiles of mines. The UN currently supports mine action in 40 countries and three territories.

The UN handles this global humanitarian issue through the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), which was established in 1997. This year, the organization's slate of activities and events for Mine Awareness Day included a simple but effective tool intended for the smartphone addicts around the world: an Instagram-based version of Minesweeper.

Minesweeper Instagram screencap 960

It essentially works like the game of Minesweeper that you might've played back in the day on a Windows PC. You start at the Instagram profile, and click one of the gray squares to find out what's underneath: a land mine, or safety for the time being. The object of the game is to clear the entire board without detonating any mines; if you click on a tile with a mine beneath it, you lose. There are 15 tiles in all.

The Instagram version functions similarly to interactive videos that use YouTube annotations: You proceed by clicking on a profile that's tagged in image, and the link leads you to a new profile that serves as the next stage of the game. When you uncover a land mine, the losing "screen" is a profile that presents you with a photograph — in a multi-panel image across successive Instagram uploads — of a land mine victim, a person who has lost a limb or more in an explosion. All endings to the game feature links that allow you to donate money to UNMAS.

Minesweeper Instagram losing image 480
One of the "game over" screens

The game is the brainchild of the Danish arm of Saatchi & Saatchi, a global ad agency whose work includes the Super Bowl commercial for the 2016 Toyota Prius. The company devotes some of its time to good causes and approached UNMAS about working together, according to Regner Lotz, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Denmark.

"Together with UNMAS we boiled the issue down to a very simple challenge: How do we make a third world problem (Landmines) into a first world issue?" he said in an email interview with Polygon. Saatchi & Saatchi came up with Instagram as a solution because "we spend so much time looking at our phones that if we want to raise awareness, we [can't] ask people to raise their heads from their phones."

Instagram is a visual platform, and that was a major factor in the impact of the Minesweeper project, which is Saatchi & Saatchi's first foray into gaming. The firm's goal was to "recreate some of the emotional effect that landmines have," said Jason Mendes, executive creative director for Saatchi & Saatchi's Nordic region.

"Many victims are just living their normal life, when suddenly BOOM! And their world has changed," Mendes added.

Instant troubles and quick solutions

With the concept in mind, development began on the game. René Schultz, an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi Denmark who served as one-half of the game's creative team, explained the mind-boggling math behind the scope of putting even a small game of Minesweeper on Instagram. With a board size of three-by-five, and each tile leading to another profile with its own full game board, the game offered 77,000 ways to get a win screen or a kill screen. Casper Christensen, the other half of the creative team, said the group almost gave up right then, since it took the developers half an hour to create a single profile.

With some adjustments and optimizations, the developers were able to reduce the total number of profiles to just over 100, said Christensen. But there was still plenty of manual labor involved, since they had to upload more than 1,700 individual images and link each one to the right profile. And although Instagram recently added support for multiple accounts per device, the limit is five, so "we had to beg borrow and steal [iPads] from everybody around us," said Lotz.

"the local 7-11 thought we were running a drug ring"

"Every profile needed a new [phone number]," Mendes noted. "The local 7-11 thought we were running a [drug ring] with all the [SIM cards] we bought."

Then the team ran into another problem: Profiles began to disappear. Instagram's anti-spam bot was marking them as suspicious and deleting them — one of the bot's triggers is profiles that repeatedly upload the same image, so 1,700-plus gray squares would certainly set it off.

"There was a bit of panic," said Lotz. "It was two days before launch."

The only solution was to constantly monitor all of the profiles, and immediately re-create any that the bot deleted. "That's pretty much a 9-5 job," said Schultz.

Assessing the aftermath

Aside from strategic work and public relations efforts, Saatchi & Saatchi assigned three people to the production team. But the project ended up requiring a lot more work than the agency had anticipated; Lotz said the firm "would have summoned the entire network" if it had known that from the start.

"The whole thing seemed very simple at first, but once we started calculating, we knew this was going to be a beast," said Schultz.

Lotz said in a press release that the project had "zero budget," which likely restricted the team size. However, he told Polygon that "the money was actually not the real issue, since our experience is, that if the work deserves to live, people will go above and beyond to make it so."

While Saatchi & Saatchi doesn't know how well its Minesweeper game did, since Instagram doesn't offer traffic monitoring tools, Lotz said the agency is "very happy" with the final product.

"If there's anyone we don't want to disappoint, it's the UN," said Lotz. "Denmark is a small country!"

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