Video Games, Poop, and Poverty

When was the last time you thought about your excrement? Or more specifically, where your excrement goes after you flush the toilet? If you are like most Americans you probably don’t give much thought to your excrement at all. You push the lever on the side of the tank, the poop is taken away in a rush of clear water and that’s the last you have to deal with it. It is needless to say a modern convenience that most Americans take for granted.

Like you, I hadn’t really thought much about poop until the other night when I was playing a video game. That’s right, a video game called Max Payne 3. It’s essentially an action movie in which you play the part of the main character, the titular Max Payne. He’s an alcoholic ex-cop, riddled with guilt from his past failures, now reduced to taking private security jobs for wealthy people. Like many action heroes he’s not a particularly likeable character. He ends up in São Paulo, Brazil, protecting a family of socialites. The plot unfolds in such a way that you end up caught in the middle of a gang war in the favelas outside São Paulo.

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We’ve all seen these shanty towns on television and in movies, but this was different because in the game you are the main character, and you are there navigating the destitute areas of the city. The game developers did an outstanding job of recreating the abject poverty these people live in and putting you, the player, in the middle of it. You find yourself walking through narrow alleys tucked between ramshackle homes built out of concrete block and corrugated metal. The buildings are piled on top of each other in a seemingly makeshift manner with a total disregard for any kind of logical design or planning.

Eventually you are robbed by gang members and thrown into a concrete ditch that you quickly realize passes for the area’s sewer system. As I continued to play through the game, I began to wonder if this was an accurate representation of South American favelas, so I did some research. Indeed, there are places in the world — including but certainly not limited to South America — where an entire community’s human waste material goes into extremely primitive sewage systems or, even worse, flows right into the center of the roads, where it sits and festers with nowhere to go. People walk through it. Children play in it. I can only imagine what the stench must be like.

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According to this paper entitled “Living without Sanitary Sewers in Latin America – The Business of Collecting Fecal Sludge in Four Latin American Cities”, published by The World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Project, most governments in South America leave it to the individual households to assume responsibility for the construction of conventional sewage systems. The problems are amplified within the favelas which act as transitions between urban and rural areas. They are very densely populated, have no sanitary improvements to speak of, relying mostly on dry latrines, and they have little to no legal standards for cleaning, collection and disposal of fecal sludge. Individual household latrines often overflow into backyards, public walkways and roads. The public health hazard this situation creates is enormous, including bacteria, parasites and contamination of drinking water.

“So,” you may ask. “What can I do about this problem?” A good place to start is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  One of the many great things this foundation does is examine water, sanitation and hygiene problems all over the world and attempt to address them through safe and affordable solutions. One of their current major projects is to reinvent the toilet to create a cheaper, safer and more efficient way to collect, dispose of and even recycle human waste. Take a look around the website. Learn how you can make a donation of time or money. Do SOMETHING. People should not have to live in their own feces.

I felt compelled to write about this as it is an issue that most people are either not aware of or turn a blind eye to. Being motivated to take action begins with awareness.

And speaking of awareness I also wanted to take a moment and commend Rockstar Games, the developer of Max Payne 3 for making me aware of this issue. The favela levels are not just a dispensable backdrop for the action in their game. They went out of their way to draw attention to the conditions the people there live in every day and elicit empathy from the player. It was clearly a point they wanted to drive home through both the detail of the environments and the voice-over narration by the main character. Rockstar is one of the premiere game makers out there who continually strive to write stories that offer some kind of social commentary and create characters with depth and complexity. I commend a game developer for putting socially conscience subject matter into what could have been just another mindless game of shooting anything that moves.

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