Common Sense Review
Updated June 2013

3rd World Farmer

Serious sim about global issues shows struggles of poverty
Common Sense Rating 3
Teacher Rating (1 Teacher Review) 5
Pros
Immersive sim connects players with global issues that are hard to grasp without context.
Cons
More real world connections/source material would help students empathize.
Bottom Line
Play the game for its potential to provoke serious thinking about topics that are hard to grasp without experiences to draw from but supplement with primary sources that deepen students' understanding.
Marc Lesser
Common Sense Reviewer
Common Sense Rating 3
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 3

Click-and-drop mechanics and simple scenery contrast with the complex subject matter that unravels through text-based "annual reports." The necessarily gloomy outcomes will test students' mettle.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 3

By giving players agency then undermining it, 3rd World Farmer shows how difficult it is to just get by. The troubling news at the end of each round helps communicate the sense of helplessness that comes with poverty.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 2

Simple instructions get players going, but lack of in-game supports makes failure feel even more inevitable than is intended by the subject matter. Links send players elsewhere on the Web to “take action” and learn more.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

Assign 3rd World Farmer as homework early on in a longer unit exploring developing nations or current global issues (particularly if looking at parts of Africa, the Middle East, or rural Asia). The game is better as an entry point than a culminating experience, but don't miss out on the interesting opportunity to use it pre- and post-discussion to see how learners' ideas evolve about what's taking place. A solid way to build on the experience of a sim is to reverse-engineer it as an offline game, folding in aspects that you want students to pay closer attention to. Make "families" or teams with groups of students and add variables as annual events that deepen the context, and consider taking advantage of financially driven game mechanics to enhance lessons about economics. If playing the online version during class, don't forget that a browser is required for each player (no multi-player option), so bandwidth and the Flash requirement might be an issue. As with any digital game you consider, play it first and be sure that the nature of the content suits your learners and your goals.

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What's It Like?

3rd World Farmer is a free browser-based simulation game that drops players in the role plainly described in its title. Sim-savvy gamers will easily recognize simple click-and-drop game mechanics enabling the central character to grow crops, purchase livestock and basic technologies, and build infrastructure for things like housing pigs. In each turn, a player chooses how they’ll spend their very modest income and then reviews the outcome of their harvest months through an Annual Report. Crops may yield positive outcomes after harvest, but an Event of The Year paints a bigger, usually gloomy picture wherein poachers, disease, and political turmoil threaten the life and livelihood of the farmer and family.

Players begin with a hut, four family members -- two adults and two children -- and $50 to spend on a small arid plot on an unnamed tundra. Earnings seem, at first, to be the primary goal as it's the only conspicuous on-screen metric, but as the game unfolds, it becomes clear that means come second to keeping the family alive. Thought-provoking ethical questions, like whether to earn some extra cash dancing for tourists, are periodically woven in with practical ones like whether to grow peanuts or invest in chickens. In the end, the very notion of success is put into perspective as students will struggle just to get by in grim circumstances. The Game Over screen foregrounds a link encouraging players to "take action" by learning more about relief agencies, a nod to the game's larger purpose.

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Is It Good For Learning?

Players will learn not only about the costs of doing business -- for example, planting peanuts can be expensive and risky but more profitable if the harvest succeeds -- but also about the greater risks of doing it in a developing country where simple errands can cost family members their lives. The issues are made more generic than in other serious games like Darfur Is Dying, which offers teachers a lot of opportunity to connect to curriculum. The game isn't intended to be a deep investigation into the issues it covers, so students would benefit from connections to primary sources and reporting of contemporary issues. Still, while it has aged quite a bit, it's a surprisingly powerful vehicle to spread the message about the problems of global illiteracy and serves as an immersive starting point for longer discussions with students. 

For the brave educator, the game is also a great opportunity to integrate economics and basic financial literacy with current events and global issues. Breakdowns found in the annual report of elements like crop yield, annual spending, and earning are presented simply but end up being great tools for learning financial vocabulary and analyzing data. Players might have questions like "Why does the price of growing cotton change each year?" which presents ripe inquiry-driven opportunities. The game even offers nine different language options, so kids can play in a different language. The catch is that while the game suits most early teenage learners, the developers don't sugarcoat death, disease, and some unsettling violence. Though it's almost entirely text-based (a fair amount of reading is involved), the tough stuff comes with nearly every turn, and teachers should prepare to answer unsettling questions.

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