AYUTTHAYA, Thailand (AFP) - Dodging electrocution, drowning and even crocodiles, the Thai virtual hero of a new mobile game called "Flood Fighter" aims to educate children across Asia about the perils posed by Mother Nature.
More than 800 people, including dozens of children, were among the victims of devastating floods that hit Thailand in 2011, affecting 65 of 77 provinces.
In an effort to prevent further deaths, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) hatched the idea of a free education mobile game app to spread the word.
"In Thailand, everybody has a mobile phone, so why not convey our message through an application?" said Mr Ichiro Miyazawa, who oversaw development of "Sai Fah: The Flood Fighter".
The free download for smartphones and tablet computers has proved a hit in a country which in 2012 had almost 130 mobile telephone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Just a few weeks after its launch in January, the game topped the charts for educational apps in Thailand, with more than 22,000 downloads.
The concept is simple: the house of lead character Sai Fah, whose name means "lightning", has flooded. He must complete missions during 22 episodes before, during and after the rise in the waters, each one carrying a message of prevention.
Avoiding snakes, crocodiles
The tasks include stocking essential items, putting important belongings high up, not drinking unboiled water, cutting the electricity supply, as well as avoiding snakes that have been forced from their natural habitat and crocodiles that have escaped from farms.
Ayutthaya province, where the game is set, was particularly badly affected by the 2011 floods. Homes, temples and car factories were underwater for weeks. In the district of Ban Praek where Unesco visited to promote the game, memories of the disaster are still raw.
"The water came up to my head," said Ms Nittaya Soponpit, the director of a local community education centre. She believes the game will help children to be ready for any repeat. "They will know how to prevent, how to prepare, how to handle floods".
Some of the game's lessons appear to have already been learnt. "Next time I will prepare drinking water," 17-year-old student Kitkanok Klungnumkoo said after trying out the game at a demonstration by Unesco.
Pornnamphet Sainet, 10, said: "I will follow the advice of the game by cutting the electrical circuit".
"I was scared the water would not decrease," she said. "I still don't know how to swim."
Next target: Other parts of Asia
"Sai Fah" is not meant to be a substitute for swimming lessons or life jackets, in a country where most children cannot swim. But its message is simple: "Just stay away from the water as much as possible," said Mr Miyazawa.
In the game, the small boy wearing a red umbrella hat must use a stick to test the ground in front of him and avoid falling into a hole or being swept away by floodwaters. After its success in Thailand, a recently launched English-language version of the game aims to spread the message in other Asian countries affected by floods, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines.
At least 4,000 downloads were recorded in the initial weeks. Those countries are drenched by annual monsoon rains that regularly cause floods, with rapid urbanisation, deforestation and poorly designed infrastructure aggravating the problem.
While the new version is not in their mother tongue, children who play video games are usually capable of understanding instructions in simple English, according to Ms Nathalie Sajda, project manager at Opendream which developed the game for Unesco.
And while some cultural and environmental references might be specific to Thailand, "there are some lessons that are universal," she added. "They might not know the temples of Ayutthaya, but at least the design is very cute. It's playful and fun, and that is the most important - that people enjoy playing."
The biggest challenge for developing a video game is how to win people's attention, Ms Sajda said. "Children these days have very high expectations of games."
While the game developer has previous experience on similar projects, such as a sex education game, it was uncharted territory for Unesco. "There is a big potential in gamification," said Mr Miyazawa. "Why not create a game which can promote peace, or about gender violence? We can do a lot through mobile phones and applications."
Other free apps that teach survival skills and facts of life:
1. Great British Chefs Kids HD
The app has 105 easy-to-follow recipes customised for children. The recipes range from ‘pizza hearts’, ‘rice krispie fish fingers’, ‘bacon roly polies’ to ‘choux caterpillar’ and ‘popping chocolate orange bites’. The app also includes a series of videos created to help children learn some of the basics as well as more complicated cooking techniques involved.
2. The Big Moving Adventure
This Muppet-themed app helps military families with young children cope with the moving process. Moving can be challenging for the whole family, and for the youngest members, stir up insecure feelings, new worries and fears. The app is set up like a game, with a muppet that children can customise. They help the muppet through important steps such as packing, saying goodbye, exploring the new home and making new friends.
3. Model Me Going Places
This tool teaches young children how to navigate challenging locations in the community. Each location contains a photo slide show of children modeling appropriate behavior. The locations include hair salon, shopping mall, clinic, playground, grocery store and restaurant.
4. Combat Hate
Created by the Simon Wisenthal Center, a US-based human rights organisation, the app allows children and teenagers to report hate crimes and certain types of bullying. Users have the option to upload a photo of an incident they want to report or type out a summary of what they witnessed. The app gives definitions of what a hate crime is and what a hate incident is. It also encourages people to report "digital terrorism" defined on the app as use of the Internet by extremists to target enemies and recruit supporters and funds. Youngsters can report incidents anonymously .
5. Secret Suitcase
This app aims to inspire a bit of reflection and gratitude in little ones by using a “secret suitcase” where they collect their thoughts and wishes from the day. With two customisable characters to choose from, children can create their very own Maks or Mila avatar (based on the book series) to record, send, and share their wishes and happy thoughts.