2013-03-04

Co.Exist

Half The Sky Turns Women's Empowerment Into A Facebook Game

Journalist Nicholas Kristof’s latest attempt to bring attention to the issue of women in the developing world eases people into the issue by letting them give back while playing a game online.

Living in the U.S., where our discussions about gender tend to focus on things like whether women can "have it all," it’s sometimes easy to forget that women around the world are dealing with much more basic issues, like being sold into sex slavery and not having access to proper care during childbirth. Journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn have made it their mission to raise awareness of women’s issues around the world, first with a book (Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide) and a PBS television series, and now a Facebook game produced by Games for Change.

The book and TV series attracted attention from people who already care about women’s issues, says Kristof. But the Facebook game, dubbed Half the Sky Movement: The Game, is intended to reach all the people who may not know about the problems women face worldwide. "It potentially offers a way of luring people--a gateway drug, if you will, to women’s empowerment," he says.

Players begin the game by meeting a fictional character named Radhika, described as "a simple woman from India who wants to make things better … for both herself and women worldwide." Early on, the game points out that action taken in-game can be made in real life--for example, players who collect books for girls in the game trigger a real-world donation to Room to Read. Funding for that particular project came from the Pearson Foundation, but sponsors have put up a total of $500,000 for players to unlock through various in-game projects.

Radhika embarks on a series of quests, all tied to issues that Half the Sky’s nonprofit partners work on. The first issue faced by Radhika: dealing with expensive health care for her sick daughter. Players are confronted by a series of choices--in this case, confronting her husband or remaining silent. I chose to confront him, which triggered a quest to raise mangoes in the garden and then sell them to collect money for health care.

From my (admittedly limited) experience playing the game, it’s fun and educational without being preachy. That’s something that Kristof struggled with. "You don’t want it to be heavy-handed and there’s a real tradeoff there," he says. "At any one moment playing I was thinking 'Oh, boy, here’s another chance to put in more information about maternal mortality!' And another part of me would think we need to make it more exciting." Fortunately, the heavy-handedness is kept to a minimum.

In addition to giving as part of gameplay, players can also choose to donate directly to the game’s nonprofit partners, including Heifer International, ONE, Room to Read, and the United Nations Foundation. "Will it get a large viral audience? Will people be moved to donate? I hope so, but I don’t have much basis to guess," says Kristof.

In some ways, Half the Sky’s game is similar to WeTopia, another Facebook game that lets people donate to nonprofits through gameplay. The two games even share a nonprofit partner (Heifer International). After covering WeTopia on Co.Exist, I became very, very addicted--and I’m not a big Facebook game player at all. There’s something gratifying (and yes, addictive) about knowing your insignificant actions on a social network make a real-life difference. That will serve Half the Sky well.

Kristof’s goal with the game: "I hope that it will lead people to some degree to think about that perspective and the choices--often impossible choices--that women like [Radhika] face every day. But most of all it’s a Facebook game that will be played primarily by people in America and the rich world, but I’m really hoping the biggest effect it makes will be among people in poorer countries who have barely heard of Facebook, if at all."

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