photo of a young manFind out about an innovative online game reuniting a Ugandan teen with his mother after their village is attacked, as well as the unique Red Cross service that puts real families back in contact after armed conflicts and disasters.

Traces of hope

[audio:http://blogs.redcross.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/traces1.mp3]

Katrina: This is Red Cross Radio. I’m Katrina Crew and in this podcast, we’re exploring an innovative online game that encourages young people to learn about unique Red Cross services that put families back in contact with each other after conflicts or natural disasters.

Joseph is 16. Scared. Alone, even though he’s surrounded by thousands of people in a camp for the internally displaced in northern Uganda. During a brutal attack on his village five years ago, he and his mother fled for their lives, but in all the confusion he was separated from her.

Joseph isn’t a real person. He’s a fictional character whose story is based on experiences that are sadly all too real. He’s the main character in an alternate reality game called Traces of Hope, developed by the Red Cross and Enable Interactive, a leading digital agency in the UK.

Fergus Roche from Enable Interactive explains what an alternate reality game is.

Fergus: Simply put, an ARG is a game using real world stuff for the purposes of the game narrative, like publicly-available websites, emails etc instead of inside a bespoke game world, say an Xbox game or a virtual world like World of Warcraft.

In general, you’re creating an alternate version of normal, everyday things people are used to, which can create an interesting and unexpected experience for players. Which is why the game style is very compelling for many who play them.

Katrina: Alex Hazell, web officer at the Red Cross, describes where the idea came from to create such a game.

Alex: In October 2008, the British Red Cross are running a month-long campaign called Civilians in Conflict. The purpose of the month is to raise awareness of the issues that surround civilians that have been caught up in conflict in places like Uganda, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. We wanted to find a way to engage people in these issues, rather than us just lecturing at these people, so we came up with this idea of immersing people in this world and creating an experience – the next best thing to taken them out to places like Uganda and showing them the issues ourselves.

Katrina: A key aspect of alternate reality games is that players get involved in the character’s story and can change the course of events. Alex Hazell again.

Alex: The overall task and ultimate goal is to reunite Joseph with his mother through helping Joseph find the Red Cross messenger who’s within the camp that Joseph lives in. There are a number of tasks he goes through to reach that goal. For example, at one point, Joseph meets and woman who is very ill and the player must help Joseph find out what’s wrong with the woman and help her get the help she needs. The way of doing that would be to look on the internet, and find other websites and feed that back to Joseph through an instant messenger. There’s going to be video messages, emails and this instant messaging, so we’re hoping players will get a really personal experience and engage with Joseph through this game.

Katrina: As players help Joseph in his quest to find his mother, they’re able to find out about Red Cross services that help reunite families that have been separated because of armed conflict and natural disasters.

Jessica Mullen works in the international tracing and message services at the Red Cross.

Jessica: The international tracing and message services restore and maintain contact between family members who are separated from each other as a result of conflict, political upheaval, natural disasters or migration.

Katrina: The services rely on volunteers in Britain who use the Red Cross’ extensive network of local volunteers in 186 countries around the world.

Jessica: People in the UK who have been separated from a family member and want to try and find them when they’ve lost contact as a result of conflict or disaster, can come to us and make an enquiry. We’ll take as many details as possible from them about how they lost contact, where they last saw or heard news of their family member. And then, once we have that information, we can send it to our partners in national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world or, if it’s an ongoing conflict, to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

With that information, they will try to search for that missing relative. Any information they find, they send back to us and we can pass it on to the enquirer.

We also receive enquiries from outside the UK for people who are thought to be in the UK who we will then search for here.

Also, if people know where their family members are but because of a disaster or ongoing conflict the normal means of communications aren’t functioning, they can come to us and send a Red Cross message to their relatives.

Katrina: In 2007 the British Red Cross traced 249 missing family members and sent 186 Red Cross messages. One of the people reunited with his family in 2008 was Jamal from Somalia.

Jessica: One of our most recent cases is the story of Jamal, who fled to the UK from Somalia in 2005 after his family had been attacked by militia. Jamal was shot in the stomach and his brother was very sadly killed. In all the confusion, Jamal was separated from his wife and his three children.

After fleeing to the UK, he contacted the British Red Cross at our West Midlands Branch and asked if we could try to help him locate his family in Somalia. We took as many details as possible from Jamal about where his family might now be and we sent this information to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

They were able to work with the Somali Red Crescent to do local enquiries to see if they could find his family but they were also – with his permission – able to add his details to the Restoring family links website for Somalia and have his details announced on the BBC’s Somali service Missing persons programme.

As a result of this, Jamal’s family were able to contact him again because his wife saw his name on the Restoring family links website and contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross, which meant that they were able to pass a phone number to us, which we were able to pass to Jamal so he could call his wife.

He’s since been able to meet up with his family this year in Uganda, and the lovely part of the story is that he’s been able to see his youngest daughter, who is six years old now, but the last time he saw her was just a baby.

Katrina: To help reunite Joseph with his mother, go towww.tracesofhope.com. If you would like more information about the Red Cross’ international tracing and message services, visit redcross.org.uk/trace.

Thank you for listening to Red Cross Radio. If you have any comments or suggestions, please email us at podcasts@redcross.org.uk.