Our Technology Salon in New York City on Oct 7 focused on the potential of games and gamification in international development work. Joining us as lead discussants were Asi Burak (Games for Change), Nick Martin (TechChange), and Craig Savel and Stan Mierzwa from Population Council.
TechChange is a social enterprise that uses principles of gamification on its online education platform to incentivize learners to participate and interact. Games for Change has been around for 10 years, working on convening events and festivals about games for social change, curating and sharing these kinds of games, producing games in an effort to mainstream social issues, and providing strategy support for games. Population Council is using personalized avatars (participants select skin color and tone, weight, dress, piercings, and sexuality) to encourage US youth in low-income settings to provide health data through online surveys.
The three discussants provided background on their programs, benefits of gaming and gamification, and challenges they are facing. Then we opened up to a wider discussion, whose main points are summarized here:
Public perception about games is mixed. Some people believe in the potential of games for a range of goals. Interest in gaming in the field of development is growing quickly – but many organizations rush into gaming as a ‘silver bullet’ or trend and do not fully understand how to go about integrating game theory or creating games. Others believe games are shallow and violent and cannot be used for serious work like education or development.
More nuanced discussion is needed to distill out the various ways that games can support development. “The conversation needs to move from ‘why would you use games?’ to how can you use games? How do you succeed? What can we learn from failure? What methodologies work and what are the good practices? Games for Change is working on a typology report that would outline what games can do, when, where and how. The organization is also working to define how to measure success for different types of games. A learning/educational game is very different from an awareness raising or a behavior change game, and approaches need to reflect that fact.
Data extraction was one concern. “Are we just creating games so that we can extract and use people’s data? Or so that we can shift their behaviors from one thing to another?” asked a Salon participant. “Why not co-create and co-design games that provide benefits to the players and their communities rather than extracting information for our own purposes? Where are the games that encourage two-way conversations with authorities or NGOs? How can we use game theory to open up these discussions to make for more transparent conversations?”
Games by their very nature are more participatory than other media, others felt. “Traditional media are top down and linear, providing a scripted story that someone designed for us and where we have no choice as to the consequences. We can’t change the path, and there is one beginning and one end. But games are about participation and feedback. People surprise us by how they play our games. They get takeaways that we didn’t anticipate. At the same time, you can glean a lot of information about people from how they use, play, and move through games. So games are also very good for collecting information and evaluating people and their behaviors.”
(Co)-creation of games is indeed happening all over the world. Rather than create games in New York or DC, there are huge opportunities for working with local developers to create games that resonate with local audiences and communities. Some organizations use open source, free software such as Scratch, a game making software that even children are using to create games. “In Colombia, we used Scratch to engage kids who were going to Internet cafes and just doing emails and chatting. We trained the kids in 30 minutes and they learned to program in blocks and to do animations and make games,” reported one Salon participant.
Games and gamification resonate with all cultures because they stem from play, and all cultures play. There are cultural differences however that need to be considered, and even more important may be aspects like gender barriers, urban/rural differences, and access to the technology and platforms on which digital games are played. In rural Uganda, for example, one organization is using gaming in an online learning program with 3000 pharmacists to train them on how to use a new rapid diagnostic test for treating malaria. The gaming was not a problem, as the group was well versed in gaming concepts. The challenge was teaching the group to use computers. It’s likely that fewer women and girls game in some contexts because of their lower access to technology, lack of time, cultural/gender barriers.
Moving games to mobile may help reduce technology barriers. SMS gaming has been quite successful in some cases. One example cited at the Salon was DoSomething.org who created an SMS-based game around teen pregnancy that girls and their boyfriends could sign up for. They would receive texts from “the baby” asking for a diaper change, food, and other things, and this helped them to understand what having a baby might be like. The game was very social and engaged both males and females.
Building on existing viral trends was another suggestion for making better use of gaming. “The most successful and fast-spreading services over mobile seem to be horoscopes and tips. For example, viral spread of a game where someone records their voice, the app scrambles it, and they send it to their friend, is huge right now. How can we harness and try to better understand the potential of those types of threads in the communities where we are working?” asked one Salon participant. “In addition, there is an explosion of things like gambling games in China. What could development organizations do to tap into trends that have nothing to do with development, and piggyback on them?”
Balancing fun/games and learning/impact was another challenge or organizations using games. Some media houses are taking documentary films about serious issues and making them interactive through games so that people can engage more deeply with the story and information. One of these puts the viewer in the shoes of an investigative journalist working on a story about pirate fishing off the coast of Sierra Leone. “The challenge is balancing the need to tell a linear story with people’s desire to control the action, and how to land the player at the end point where the story actually should end.” The trade offs between greater interaction vs staying true to the story can be difficult to manage. Likewise, when using game theory in education, the challenge is balancing game play with the social issue. “We need to figure out how to reward for quality not quantity of participation when using gamification for learning,” said one Salon participant, “and figuring out how to avoid making the game the whole point and losing the learning aspect.”
What about girls and women and gaming? The field of gaming has traditionally appealed to men and boys, noted some, but what is behind this? Some Salon participants felt this was in part because of biological differences, but others felt that we may be playing into stereotypes by thinking that men like gaming and women like social media and communication. One study (by Matthew Kam), for example, notes that when girls in India were given mobile phones on which to play a literacy game, their brothers would often take the phones away and parents would not intervene.
Women are gaming – a lot! Statistically speaking, in the US and Europe, women are now around 50% of gamers. There is a big gap in terms of women game developers, however, and the gaming field is struggling intensely with the balance shifting to a more equal one between men and women.This has erupted into a controversy called ‘GamerGate’ that is rocking the gaming industry and provoking a heated (and often ugly) conversation. “Women who game and who develop games face an incredible amount of harassment online and in person because they are a minority in their field,” commented one Salon participant.
Few game developers are women. “Only 10% of game developers are women,” noted one Salon participant. “There is a lot of discussion in the sector on misogyny. If you play any of the more popular games, the main characters are always men. Outspoken female developers talking about more inclusive games (as opposed to shooting games) have been targeted and harassed.” (See the recent backlash against Anita Sarkeesian). There is a sense from some male game developers that women developers are entering into a space and taking something away from it. An upcoming film called “GTFO” documents the situation. Though there are changes happening in the independent gaming sector and women are playing a bigger and more vocal role, this has not yet hit the mainstream. Until that happens, said one Salon participant, we will continue to see a lack of representation and agency of women in games/gaming similar to that which we see in the Hollywood movie industry. (See the Geena Davis Institute’s research on gender bias in the film industry.)
Can games reach low income gamers in ‘developing countries’? Much of the gaming dynamic will need to adapt if we want to reach lower income populations. Likely this will happen through mobile, but in places like Kenya and India, for example, people have mobiles but don’t download games. “It may take 5-10 years before people everywhere are downloading and playing mobile games,” said one Salon participant. In addition, there is a lot of work to be done on business models and monetization so that these efforts are sustainable. “People love free things. And they are not used to paying for things in the digital space.” In the meantime, analog games can also be hugely beneficial, and many organizations at present are using more traditional games in their work.
What would help organizations to work more with games and gamification? Areas for further exploration include:
- Stories of surprise wins and successes
- More evidence and analysis of what works and where/why/how/when/with whom
- Better understanding of free content and business models and sustainability
- More evidence that games contribute to learning, literacy, numeracy, behavior change (eg., studies like this one)
- Better understanding by donors/organizations of the wider ecosystem that goes into creating a successful game
- Funding that includes support for the wider ecosystem, not just funding to make a game
- More work with local developers who are proficient at making games and who understand the local context and market
Thanks to Nick, Asi, Stan and Craig for joining as lead discussants, and to Population Council for hosting the Salon!
If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!