Half the Sky Goes Mobile

Just as slavery was the defining struggle of the 19th century and totalitarianism that of the 20th, the fight to end the oppression of women and girls defines ours. In 2009, with the acclaimed bestselling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn took on this urgent challenge and encouraged readers to join a burgeoning movement for change.

Funded by USAID, E-Line Media joined Games for Change in support of this mission to create three mobile phone games that tackle key issues related to health and gender equity:

Family Choices – Family Choices enhances the perception of a girl’s value to her family by emphasizing the importance of keeping her and her peers in school. The ‘choose your own adventure’ game allows players to explore the outcomes of a family’s choices related to a girl’s education, early marriage and family planning. Players decide whether Anu (in India) or Mercy (in Kenya) will ultimately achieve their dream of becoming a financially independent nurse.

9-Minutes – Players experience the adventures of nine months of pregnancy in just nine minutes. The game aims to introduce players to the key dos and don’ts of pregnancy by presenting players with a series of life choices (physical, medical and social) against the clock. The player’s choices determine the health and well-being of both mother and baby.

Worm Attack! – Worm Attack! aims to keep girls and boys healthy by defeating the dangerous worms inside their stomachs. Young players, their teachers and families work to rid themselves and their communities of infestation with intestinal worms in this fast-paced game through the strategic use of deworming pills.

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The games were executive produced by Games for Change, developed by Mudlark and published by E-Line Media, with Hindi language solution provided by Reverie Language Technologies. They have been downloaded over 30,000 times (as of March 2013) around the world.

Early on, Games for Change and E-Line Media reached out to NGOs – Deworm the World, Breakthrough, FilmAid and CEDPA – to integrate them into the development process. These groups helped conceptualize, define goals and provide content expertise. They also connected us with local communities to solicit feedback on art, gameplay, language and instructional content.

The games were released as part of USAID’s continued support of gender and family issues and their commitment to increase global awareness to bring about social change in the areas of health, gender equality and empowerment. They have been disseminated for use in India and East Africa by NGOs and more widely through in-country app stores (Nokia, Safaricom, GetJar, and Appia). The games complement a series of 18 short educational and advocacy videos on health and gender-related topics that were launched in September 2012.

A recent evaluation of 9 Minutes shows measurable positive shifts in knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions toward promoted safe pregnancy and delivery actions following exposure to the game. 608 female and 308 men participated in the study, which was conducted in India. Learn more about the evaluation methods and results here.

Being able to demonstrate effectiveness is of great importance in the impact games sector, especially when budget restrictions frequently don’t allow for deep and meaningful assessment. Results can then be converted into best practices and guidelines for building successful games in the global developement context.

Here are some key learnings:

Define your Theory of Change early in the design process.

Having a defined Theory of Change before starting your design phase is critical, as this will help define your impact goals (behavior change, outreach, learning, partnerships, etc.) and heavily influence design decisions on what to include or exclude from your game, localization, technology to be used, and expected gameplay behavior.  

Identify key local partners and content experts early.

Understanding and identifying who they are will benefit your development process and ensure cultural appropriateness. Partners (like NGOs) act as content experts providing guidance on game content, subject matter expertise, capacity to support real-world activities and localization efforts around the game. Make them part of your team. 

Design with the technology platform in mind.

Recognizing challenges and limitations of the selected platform will allow you to better accommodate real-life necessities, game expectations, and how to get your game in the hands of hard-to-reach audiences.

Test early on, involve audience and content partners to inform and iterate on design.

Focus on your audience (they are your “fresh set of eyes”) and engage content partners throughout the iteration process. Foster a culture of iteration, were refining your ideas and testing them again is core to potentially avoid development mistakes.

Be creative when it comes to distribution channels and create in-country capacity.

Penetrate the market with multiple distribution channels and consider how cultural particularities will impact game use and accessibility. Sometimes the simplest low-tech solution is the most efficient one. Think about leveraging existing infrastructure and use your local partners (NGOs) as distribution channels.

Analyzing a Rising Sector

In 2011, E-Line Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop united efforts to launch an initiative called the Games and Learning Publishing Council. The goal of the Council is to catalyze innovation and investment in research and curriculum-based digital games by developing a new type of educational, impact publisher devoted to creating meaningful, measurable learning impact and building a profitable and scalable business. The initiative uniquely leverages the game development and business creation expertise of E-Line Media with the policy leadership and industry convening expertise of the Cooney Center.

With the increased interest in games for learning, philanthropic organizations, government agencies and academic institutions are now investing significant funds and intellectual resources in promising game-based-learning research and development efforts. Unfortunately, very few of these initiatives have successfully crossed over from small scale innovations to sustainable products or scalable models in either formal or informal learning markets. As a result, private sector investors have been reluctant to help capitalize the sector. This has resulted in a funding gap that is constraining the growth of a new ecosystem of game-based learning products and services.

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The Games and Learning Publishing Council aims to understand the market dynamics and areas of innovation that are ready for scaling within the game-based education field. The Council, which is made up of a multi-sector leadership group of industry, research, philanthropic, policy and practice leaders, develops analytical tools, convenes experts and disseminates periodic reports to help raise the sector. Our work to advance games-based learning will also include multiple policy briefs and conference proceedings, all of which will be published on a new dedicated website that will be launching this summer. The new information service aims to help developers create effective and entertaining games by helping them understand the latest research in learning, game design and emerging platforms. The site also aims to help foundations, universities and venture capitalists make more effective investments in future projects by demonstrating what works and what doesn’t when it comes to both the development of educational games and the marketing of those games to schools, parents and others.

To see major activities of the Council’s first year, click here.

On the Road Teaching Youth Game Design

We believe that one of the best ways to support the games for learning ecosystem is to get out into the field and do hands-on work with youth. Since the very early days of Gamestar Mechanic, we’ve partnered with organizations who shared that goal. In 2010, we started working with the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards through their recently added Video Game Design Category. The Awards received a generous grant from the AMD Foundation to conduct game design workshops across the country and they asked us to be a part of the fun. Together, we ran several programs to introduce youth to the concepts of game design – core mechanics, game play elements, building balanced systems – and led hundreds of students through exciting physical and digital game making exercises. Not only was this an incredible way for us to see firsthand how youth interacted with Gamestar Mechanic, it also helped us shape the tools and content we would later develop.

In addition to working with the Scholastic Awards, we also were able to increase our On the Road schedule through two generous grants to the National STEM Video Game Challenge, for which we are a co-presenter along with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. These grants came from the Hive NYC Learning Network and the Institute of Museum and Library Services and  have enabled us to facilitate more than 30 game design workshops across the country since 2013 began.

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Youth in Independence, KS, making physical games.

The majority of these game design workshops have taken place in museums and libraries, which are making a large push to become innovative centers for 21st century learning. By adopting Maker Space like programs, these venues are re-inventing themselves to fit the demands of an ever-evolving world. For some youth, museums and libraries also the only places where they’re able to interact with technology, making this transition critical for the community at large. We have been very fortunate to be a part of this movement through our workshops series and are excited to continue to find opportunities to interact directly with young people.