Disclaimer: This blog contains excessive use of superlatives, it is not meant for the weak hearted.
CGIU 2014 vs CGIU 2015: CGIU 2014 was great, but CGIU 2015 was just AMAZING. The “game-changer” being the opportunity to share the stage with none other but the Former US President Clinton himself, to talk about my passion for video games as development solutions, in front of an audience of 1000 students. Top it off with having our game “StereoWiped” launched on the App Store the same day (with GWU Commitment Maker Challenge financing) and getting some awesome press coverage and you have all the ingredients for a commitment maker’s dream weekend.
CGIU Average Student vs CGIU GWU student: Being at CGIU rocks, but being a GWU student at CGIU is downright superb! Belonging to the largest group of university students and having a cool mentor/university rep rooting for you makes for an amazing experience. Want more? How about the fact, that thanks to some awesome fundraising by GWUpstart, I didn’t have to pay a penny for my flights.
Randomania vs StereoWiped: GRID’s first game Randomania was awesome, but our second game StereoWiped is our favourite child. Our CGIU 2015 commitment puts up on track to taking on conflict-provoking stereotypes and breaking them in a fun and engaging way with different versions of StereoWiped. The game works as a simple memory game, requiring players to “match” tiles of stereotypes and then breaks them with thought-provoking statistics. “I am a girl… I like pink” or “I am African …. I have AIDS”. With each stereotype matched, the player receives “food for thought” that breaks the stereotype e.g: “2 out of 3 girls around you prefer blue more than pink” or “Only 5% of the adults in Sub-Saharan Africa have AIDs”. We are excited about taking the game to low-income students in neighborhoods in DC with our new partners FLOC – For Love of Children and fighting social constructs that alienate people and undermine cultural diversity. (Insider news: GRID is also working on some cool new projects, think environmental justice, sanitation and hygiene and Early Childhood Development, follow us on twitter @games_grid to stay tuned).
Development interventions over the years have suffered from the last mile problem. That last step that prevents oral salts from treating diarrhea, hinders the use of bed nets for the prevention of malaria or discourages parents from allowing girls to receive sex education. It is grounded in problems of information asymmetry and behavioural constraints, where awareness of development interventions is patchy and communication campaigns are unable to create a lasting impression for successful project take-up and implementation. It is that last step where the science of development breaks down and the art of development takes center stage. It is that humbling point where development professionals are made to think about the project beneficiaries as humans who face real trade offs in the decisions they make in their daily lives. In my opinion, technology can play a critical role in helping development professionals to make the “last” mile a “first” opportunity. Technology innovations can be used to listen, learn and launch.
Listen: Beneficiary voice needs to be a key ingredient in project design, not an afterthought.
Development practitioners are increasingly focusing on better understanding the behaviors of beneficiaries around the world. Technology innovations can make this listening an organic and more systematic part of program design and delivery. Given that cellphones have deep penetration in most developing countries (India has greater access to cellphones than toilets (UNU 2010), development practitioners can leverage the interactive nature of technology to create effective feedback loops within their projects and understand the decisions that people make when benefiting from development interventions. This can be done through SMS surveys such as TextIT or games such as 9minutes.
Learn: We have entered an era of rapid technological advancements and vast usage and there are unparalled opportunities for leveraging technology to enhance the practice of development. In the past decade, the share of population in Sub-Saharan Africa using internet has grown over 2500%. Improved Internet connectivity and technology awareness has led to an enhanced interest in social media, especially amongst the youth. Using technology, it is now easier to synthesize knowledge, reach project beneficiaries and create partnerships around the world.
Launch: It is critical to inspire behavioral change rather than force it. A father who faces the decision of feeding his children or protecting them from malaria is likely to use a bed net for fishing and forcing him to change his mind is not going to work. He needs to be able to understand the trade-offs of his decisions, imagine the harms of malaria and then make an informed choice. In order to raise awareness, communication campaigns need to move beyond pamphlets and brochures. Technology can be used to tell stories through voice messages, simulate scenarios in games or encourage community action through SMS campaigns.
International development has come a long way. Gone are the days of cookie-cutter interventions being replicated across regions without much appetite for beneficiary feedback and cultural context. Today development projects are more attuned to responding to beneficiary voices and technology is changing the way we listen, learn and launch.
GRID aims to design educational video games for development practitioners and students, facilitating better design and implementation of development policy decisions. Our solutions offer a complementary simulation learning method to more formal education/training. GRID’s target market encompasses the international development community, which includes multilateral institutions such as the World Bank; bilateral institutions such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); universities with international development type programs; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and nonprofit organizations focusing on international development – both in developed countries (such as Save the Children) or locally in developing countries.
GRID has come across plenty of evidence for strong demand and interest in the product. As previously mentioned, GRID is currently creating a game for the World Bank through their Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF). Through this interaction GRID team members have witnessed the excitement and interest that the idea has generated, not only within the WB circles but also beyond it. The demand for these games is evident in World Bank’s willingness to collaborate on our pilot project, and through the interviews that team GRID has conducted.
Dr. Sean Roberts, Director of the International Development Program at George Washington University, is serving as one of the GRID mentors. Based on his numerous years of experience in the field of international development, he sees extreme potential for the use of video games. He feels that the customization of the games to each organization makes the venture very attractive to potential clients. His ideas for possible uses of the games range from capacity building of small NGOs in the developing world to security training simulations to procurement management and overall monitoring and evaluation of development projects.
Emily Varga, a program manager at NCBA CLUSA which is a nonprofit organization engaged in international development work, was also very intrigued by the idea of using video games to give extra training to individuals. She thought the impact-evaluation game we are currently working on could be useful for a number of organizations. She also was very confident that a game focused on training of trainers was something that her organization could use on almost all of their projects. She further mentioned a scenario game focused on working with volunteers and volunteer management could be useful for her organization as well as many other nonprofits as much of their workforce is often made up of volunteers.
In terms of similar initiatives, the World Bank created one of the few games targeting the international development community, known as EVOKE. It was designed to empower young people all over the world to start solving urgent social problems like hunger, poverty, disease, conflict, climate change, human rights, etc. by connecting young people to create innovative solutions. Similarly, the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT developed a game that focused on Computer Associated Learning (CAL) to supplement live teaching of children in India. Another, created through the Serious Game Initiative of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars known as Budget Hero, was used to understand the United States citizens’ feelings about where the federal budget should be allocated concerning things like the new Affordable Care Act and defense spending.
GRID aims to provide low-cost, demand-driven gaming solutions for greater understanding of the challenges encountered in International Development.
With a push towards innovative use of technology in international development, and the recognition of the effectiveness of games as learning tools, the stage is set for development games to be introduced as training mechanisms for development practitioners and students.