Half The Sky: Games For Change In The Developing World

A new series of games built for low-end cell phones hopes to make lessons about health fun for players in the world’s poorest regions. It certainly beats reading a pamphlet.

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.

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  • Tahir Turk

    Great idea for engagement. We tried SMS a little while ago for an India national  tobacco control campaign but the hit rate was very low due to the message clutter from commercial advertisers. If you can develop an anti-tobacco game that would be useful to trial in conjunction with future tobacco control efforts as it is the most preventable cause of death and disability in many low and middle income countries. Big tobacco is increasing their marketing efforts in these countries as they are pushed out of the developed world.

    Tahir Turk
    Technical Advisor - World Lung Foundation

  • company2keep

    The games are definitely intriguing and great if they can succeed changing behaviours. 

    Not wishing to be the skunk at the garden party, but I am curious about the results of the field testing that generated the images being used in the games. From the limited view I have of the images being used, I know there will be some challenges. But perhaps there is a mechanism in place to offset challenges with interpretation. This is not clear from the article. Is it possible to obtain the link to the field testing results?

    Over the years as a development practitioner, I learned the importance of painstaking care to engage target beneficiaries in the development of learning resources for their benefit to ensure the  images we used were consistent with their world view and that story lines used would be consistent with their life experiences. Cultural variations in perception exist within countries as dynamic as India with its 13 distinct languages, as well as between countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh proving a real challenge to the standardization of learning resource material to influence behaviour change among contiguous countries. The cultural divide is that much wider between Africa and the Asian sub-continent where the games are to be used. 

    What may appear attractive and obvious to the western eye, may be perceived as nothing but foolhardy imagery to the illiterate villagers you are trying to reach and be abandoned for lack of relevance. Let's hope, for everyone's benefit, that those involved with the project have an outcome in hand resulting from rigorous consultation with those whose behaviours would benefit most from having access to the games. Otherwise, there is a tremendous risk of having more e-clutter village landscapes.

    Cathie Guthrie

  • Michelle Byrd


    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. We are working on the ground with numerous NGOs and partners in their development and aware of the tremendous task and diversity of populations and languages. The games are still in production and the field testing has not yet occurred. We indeed look forward to continuing to be transparent about our process and progress. And we'll keep Co.EXIST posted.