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.
In the first titled, "9 Minutes," players explore the nine crucial months of pregnancy, represented by nine individual mini games to learn the various "dos and don'ts" associated with a healthy childbirth. The second game, "Worm Attack," tackles the broader issue of intestinal worms in children, which is a leading cause of school absenteeism. The final title, "Family Choices," guides a mother through the discussion and decisions of a family, such as marriage and child bearing, and how the treatment of their young daughter can affect the entire family. Researchers at Games for Change do not rely solely on self discovery, he said, but rather makes sure the games are introduced by NGO's as part of their community programs and national campaigns.
"If you are a mobile subscriber in India, Kenya or Tanzania, the games are downloadable for free directly through the online app store just like iPhone and Android smartphones," Ramos said.
Calculating and obtaining measurable statistics can be difficult, Ramos said, but he acknowledged it is crucial for developers to be able to see tangible results.
Ramos cited some of the available statistics that indicate the effectiveness of the games. iCivics is a series of games created in partnership with Sandra Day O'Connor, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, to help children become active participants in the U.S. democratic process, and Ramos said survey results from teacher and student participants are encouraging.
In two years, iCivics has produced 16 educational video games as well as teaching materials used in all 50 states, according to icivics.org. The content is available online for teachers and students to utilize at home or in the classroom.
Post-game surveys of teachers showed that 73 percent of their students learned key concepts and 85 percent saw that with detailed lesson plans, the games promoted critical thinking. In addition, post-game surveys with students showed that 77 percent prefer learning through games, and 47 percent actually played the games at home in their free time, he said.
The Half the Sky project is also about building awareness, and that is something these games can do very effectively, Ramos said. He said the game "Darfur is Dying", which is a web-based viral video game, reached more than 2 million players worldwide and helped to generate thousands of letters to Congress encouraging aid for Darfur.
Another game that showcased substantial results was "Food Force," which is an online Facebook game developed by Konami that connects players with friends to learn how the United Nations World Food Programme delivers humanitarian aid.
"'Food Force' was played by over 10 million players in over 18 languages and did an incredible job or raising awareness of the global food crisis in children from 8 to 11," Ramos said. "And the mobile game 'Freedom HIV/AIDS' reached players on over 64 million devices, which helped it integrate into over 13,000 schools in six countries. That is one of the most powerful mobile initiatives we're aware of."
The development of new games depends on what type of change the creator or organization is hoping to promote. Some games offer players another viewpoint while others encourage them to donate to a cause or use creativity to solve a local or world problem, Spiro said.
Because of the strides made in this field, Spiro anticipates even more wide-scale participation and involvement as the positive effects of the games become better documented.
"There are games that do all of these things successfully but I don't think the movement has had its 'World of Warcraft' moment yet," Spiro said.
Another challenge is reaching the target audience. Despite the increased mobile access around the world, many impoverished individuals are not able to access the games.
"There are linguistic barriers and low literacy levels to contend with, lack of previous exposure to digital games, and lower purchasing power which requires developers to come up with more creative funding models to produce their games," Spiro said. "Despite these challenges, though, I think that as a category, these mobile games have great potential."
Developers of the games think carefully about these barriers and work extensively to overcome them.
"Because we are developing games for audiences who aren't always media savvy, we were mindful to craft games that aren't alienating or confusing to non-gamers," Ramos said. "We've done extensive on-the-ground testing every step of the way to make sure we are creating games suitable and entertaining to our target audiences."
Researchers and developers with Games For Change are also working to build games around the technology available to certain populations. Some mobiles games are not necessarily built for advanced smartphones or tablets, Ramos said.
"The most unique thing about these mobile games is the technology we're using," Ramos said. "In India and East Africa, most families utilize a single, shared feature phone as their main source of information, communication and entertainment. And by the time the kids in the family get their slot, they often play games. With that understanding, you realize how valuable these phones are to these communities."