Gaming for Social Change

Julia Nagel 
Digital Media Manager, Global Health Policy Center

Of all the promising technological innovations presented at the 2012 Social Good Summit in New York City, the one that most intrigued me came from a print journalist. New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof took the stage on the final day of the Social Good Summit, Monday September 24th, along with Asi Burak of Games for Change, and pitched his next endeavor: a mobile game based on his widely sold book, Half the Sky.

Half the Sky – authored by the award winning married couple, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn  – tells the story of women and girls in the developing world who are oppressed, and argues that society's “economic progress lies in unleashing women's potential.”  Since its publication in 2009, the book's enormous success prompted Kristof and WuDunn to create the Half the Sky Movement, an effort to advance women's empowerment across multiple platforms in order to ignite real change. Gaming – the act of playing electronic mobile or video games – is just one example of the platforms the Half the Sky Movement is seeking to leverage.

When I first heard Kristof's game idea, I immediately wondered how a mobile game based on the empowerment of women and girls would work. What would it look like? What would be the gaming component of such a serious and widely respected issue?

Kristof and Burak soon answered my questions when they explained the initiative’s logic and why they chose mobile games as the next step in publicizing their message.

“The one thing the humanitarian world does not do very well,” Kristof said, “is marketing.” He went on to explain that as a journalist, he gets pitched everyday to promote or endorse a new product. And these pitches are sharp. Yet for issues like clean water, deworming, and that closest to his heart – the empowerment of women and girls – the marketing world is hesitant. Kristof wants to change this.

He believes one difference between today and three years ago, is that more people today understand the importance of women and girls for economic and societal prosperity. Rather than further preaching this message to the already converted, Kristof and WuDunn felt it was most important to get the idea out to larger, more diverse audiences – especially those in the developing world, and especially youth. Together with Burak, Kristof and WuDunn chose gaming as one of their microphones.

If you're still not convinced that mobile games are an appropriate platform for social causes, consider these facts:
    •    There are 3.5 billion mobile phone users in the world and over 65% reside in a developing country
    •    The mobile gaming industry is predicted to reach $54 billion by 2015
    •    2 out of every 5 gamers is female
    •    The average age of a gamer is 32
    •    70-80% of all mobile downloads are games

Kristof's first game titled, "Half the Sky Movement: The Game," is geared for audiences in the West and will launch this November on Facebook.  Resembling the popular game FarmVille, players will be rewarded for completing tasks that contribute to the greater good of a virtual community.  If a task is completed, players are able to donate money to causes and NGOs that the Half the Sky Movement supports. At the Social Good Summit, Kristof revealed that the companies, Pearson and Jonson & Johnson, each donated $250,000 to this effort. Beyond these corporate contributions, however, players can also buy virtual goods through the game with their own money to support a cause.

Three other games developed by the Half the Sky Movement are geared towards developing countries and are currently undergoing tests – with the help of USAID – in India and East Africa. These games focus on healthy birthing practices, the importance of de-worming, and the value of girls in families.

After hearing the ideas behind these games and the influence of online gaming, I really think Kristof and his team have hit upon an inspired concept. Over and over again at development events, in the wake of budget cuts and waning public opinion, I hear the same conclusion: we need to do a better job of sharing our stories. Through their multiplatform effort, Kristof's team is doing just that. They are reaching beyond the choir and educating new audiences about important social issues.   

After the game is launched, the next – and most crucial step – will be metrics. Who is using the game? Are people using the game for its intended purpose – to understand and advance women’s empowerment?  And are these users actually donating funds?  For the Facebook game, I believe the ultimate test will be the number of unique players it attracts. This will be the only way to know whether Kristof’s game in fact, reaches beyond the choir and educates new audiences about these issues.  For the games launched in developing countries, the ultimate test will be something much harder to measure: behavior change. As Kristof acknowledged at the Social Good Summit, the ultimate test of the idea will be results.

*Photo taken by Gary He, United Nations Foundation

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