Game Makers Hope People Will Want to Save Women From Genital Mutilation on Facebook

Illustration for article titled Game Makers Hope People Will Want to Save Women From Genital Mutilation on Facebook

A new Facebook game inspired by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, in which players are tasked with the goal of "raising awareness" of issues like female genital mutilation, child prostitution, and sex trafficking, launches early next month. Players don't have to donate to play, but they rise the ranks faster if they do. Would you put down Temple Run to, say, help the protagonist harvest mangoes to afford a doctor's visit for her sick daughter — and give money to various IRL nonprofits by the time they virtually ripen?


Here's how it works, according to the New York Times:

The central character, an Indian woman named Radhika, faces various challenges with the assistance of players, who can help out with donations of virtual goods, for example. The players can then make equivalent real-world donations to seven nonprofit organizations woven into the game.

Ten dollars, for example, will help buy a goat for Heifer International; $20 will help support United Nations Foundation immunization efforts.

To further engage players, those who reach predesignated levels unlock donations from Johnson & Johnson and Pearson, which have each contributed $250,000 to buy real-world operations from the Fistula Foundation and books for Room to Read, respectively.


There are two main problems with this concept, the first being whether people will actually want to play it. "Social cause gaming, or the use of games to promote awareness of societal problems, has been growing since pioneer online projects like Food Force, the United Nations World Food Program's 2005 game about confronting famine, and Darfur Is Dying, MTV's 2006 offering in which players navigate the terrors of a Sudanese refugee camp," the paper reports. Hmm...have you ever heard of either of those? (I have not, although I just remembered that game where you define words and donated rice in the process.) Zynga, which has raised $15 million for about 50 causes like Japanese earthquake relief through FarmVille, is on board, and Zynga clearly knows what's up when it comes to popular Facebook games, so perhaps the Half the Sky game will be a game-changer.

The second is more contentious: will the game actually make a difference? Some of its nonprofit partners have "pushed for even more verisimilitude...questioning, for one, why Radhika can read when many women in her situation would be illiterate." And Kristof is hardly without his critics, many of whom say he speaks for marginalized women instead of letting them speak for themselves. But I can see the game taking off in schools and similar environments as a fun awareness-raising conversation-starter that's more productive than Oregon Trail. Of course, that all depends on how addictive the Half the Sky game is...we haven't played it yet.


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The thing is, for games with messages to succeed, the game itself first has to be entertaining and engaging. That's what games are for. That's why people play them. You can make games about important issues, but if people aren't motivated to play it, they quit, forget all about it, or just remember you as the boring game with the sandbox. Games that can deliver their message in a compelling way succeed because by keeping the player entertained and engaged, they are more likely to take in what they're playing and retain it.

For example, Ayiti: The Cost of Life is a (free: online game about managing a poverty-stricken family on Haiti throughout the course of several years. Your goal is to wind up with everyone happy and healthy, and you can do things like send them to school, buy new things for their house, and so forth. The problem is, however, that you also have to contend with conditions in Haiti as well. Schooling, new shoes, and medicine are expensive, as is rent and living in general, so it quickly becomes apparent that pulling family members out of dangerous, low-paying jobs is harder than you think because they often have to struggle to meet the qualifications. Ayiti succeeds because it is a surprisingly well made simulation/strategy game that marries its message and lessons with its core gameplay so you think about and are impacted by what you're learning more than you would by just throwing a bunch of facts in the player's face.