Games offer unique platform for education, social change

Published: Thursday, Aug. 9 2012 11:13 p.m. MDT

Games for Change promotes games in India and other countries that teach women everything from pregnancy do's and don'ts to how to make important family decisions.

Photo Courtesy of Emily Treat

SALT LAKE CITY — Whether taking on the role of a Darfurian refugee or experiencing the frustrations of hormone replacement therapy, mobile video games, typically played on cellphones, are having an increasingly widespread impact across the world.

Games that promote social change, such as "9 Minutes" and "Worm Attack," are gaining momentum and support and are continuously being upgraded to reach a worldwide audience that has increasing access to mobile technology. There are 3.5 billion mobile phone users in the world and more than 65 percent of them are in developing countries, according to statistics from Half the Sky, an initiative that implements mobile gaming and is dedicated to helping marginalized women overcome obstacles such as sex trafficking and forced prostitution around the world. These games are part of an innovative effort to reach and educate a widespread audience about political, social, economic and health issues that contribute to global poverty.

Many games being developed are targeting residents in countries and areas like India and East Africa to help educate them and bring modern medical concepts and procedures to largely primitive villages where a family unit has shared access to a phone. Facilitating a healthy pregnancy and treating intestinal worms are just a few of the concepts introduced.

In the game "Darfur Is Dying," developed by interFuel and funded by Reebok Human Rights Foundation, players can assume the role of a refugee in Darfur, and in "Sweatshop," developed by Littleloud, players become the boss of an offshore sweatshop to better understand some of the world's biggest problems. Each game is unique but most are filled with facts and information about a particular topic and provide educational and translated dialogue for players.

"Games excel at certain things, but they're definitely not a silver bullet for tackling educational or social challenges," said gaming expert and developer Josh Spiro, who regularly blogs about these games. "Games are great at creating empathy by putting the player in someone else's shoes. Whether you're playing as a Darfurian refugee or a chemotherapy drug fighting cancer cells, you get a more visceral understanding of the subject than you would from another medium."

Games for Change

Spiro said the idea of using games to implement social change is not new, but the movement has gained traction in recent years. Games for Change, a New York-based nonprofit that works on developing and promoting this type of gaming technology, was founded in 2004 and recently held its ninth annual conference where developers and major companies, such as Microsoft, participated (the games are available at app stores for device manufacturers such as Nokia and mobile operators such as Reliance or Vodafone). The progress and quality of these games were made possible with the help of E-Line Media from the U.S. and Mudlark from Great Britain, said Games for Change community content manager Jeff Ramos.

One of the more recent developments in this field is the partnership of Games For Change with author and reporter Nicholas Kristoff and his movement Half the Sky. Kristoff co-authored the bestselling book "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," which tackles issues of education and empowerment of women and young girls. Kristoff approached Games For Change in 2009 about the possibility of collaborating, Ramos said.

"At the time, he was one of the few reporters who saw games as a means to engage new audiences and, perhaps, serve as the future of journalism," Ramos said. "In his eyes, there was true value in what we were creating as an organization. He made it a priority to give us the reins in crafting the gaming proportion of what would eventually become a much larger, multimedia campaign for 'Half the Sky.'"

There are three main games associated with the Half the Sky project, he said.

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