The idea that games can do good is rapidly gaining steam. Just in the past few months, we’ve covered I Heart Jellyfish, a game that rewards players for keeping a healthy heartbeat; WeTopia, a FarmVille-like game that easily allows players to contribute to nonprofits; and Global Giving, which turns aid evaluation into a game.
All of these games have one major thing in common: They’re directed toward users in the developed world. Not so with the games being developed by women’s rights movement Half the Sky and nonprofit gaming organization Games For Change. Instead of focusing on those of us equipped with smartphones and easy Internet access, these games—which focus on pregnancy education, intestinal worm prevention, and women’s rights—will home in on the millions of people outfitted with basic cell phones.
The gaming initiative is an outgrowth of the Half the Sky women’s movement, which is in turn based on the book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. "Before the book was completed, they were interested in figuring out new ways of engaging audiences around content that for many people would feel difficult and depressing," explains Michelle Byrd, co-president of Games for Change.
In 2009, Half the Sky and Games For Change came up with the idea to make games for the developing world that influence behavior change. "We were looking at creating games that aren’t necessarily about raising awareness in the West but are really about reaching the women and girls that are the subject of the stories [in Half the Sky]," says Byrd.
Games for Change is currently working on three USAID-sponsored, Half the Sky-based games. Worm Attack, a "tower defense"-style game (pictured above), teaches users about the perils of intestinal worms—and how the in-game arsenal of pills can keep those worms at bay. The pregnancy simulation game 9 Minutes (below) rewards users for making good decisions during gameplay, like visiting the local clinic and staying away from alcohol. And Family Values, a so-called "interactive mobile soap opera" for teen girls, takes on topics like family planning and young marriage. The games are playable on low-end Java-enabled phones (the kinds of cell phones that were popular in the U.S. about eight years ago).
All of these games are intended to teach lessons that might be ignored in other educational settings. "I can only imagine how boring 9 Minutes could look in leaflet form," says Byrd.
The Half the Sky games will all be completed by June, at which point they will be tested and deployed in India, Kenya, and Tanzania—locations covered in the Half the Sky book where USAID already has initiatives. If the games are well-received, Games for Change will likely continue its work on games for the developing world. After all, just because someone lacks an Angry Birds-capable smartphone doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy some quality (and educational) mobile gaming.