Playpower: Can a $10 computer change the world?

This post is part of September 2011’s monthly blog theme, “Back to School“.

For many, the idea of changing the world through technology conjures up ideas of high-tech gadgets costing billions of dollars to produce and requiring extensive training to use. But a group of hackers, educators, game designers, and 8-bit video game enthusiasts are using technology to improve the developing world, one $10 TV computer a time. Together they formed a non-profit organization called Playpower, and their goal is to repurpose these low-cost, plug and play computers by creating new games for them that are more culturally relevant and educational.

You may wonder why the project’s creators aren’t opting for more advanced, low-cost computers like the $100 OLPC XO-1. Based on their initial research, the team at Playpower opted to use the $10 TV PCs over their more expensive counterparts because of its accessibility and reach into the greatest number of households

To learn more about Playpower, I spoke with two of the project’s leads, Derek Lomas and Don Miller. Over the phone we spoke about the various hurdles they had to overcome and some of their strategies for distribution. The following is what I learned. 

CHALLENGES AND “ANTI-BUSINESS MODELS”


To understand the impact and obstacles behind the Playpower project, one must understand the nature of these computers, how they are made, and what educational opportunities they can provide. Millions of these computers exist in developing countries. Many of the computers are manufactured in China and imported to wholesalers in countries like India, Pakistan, Thailand, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Mexico. The hardware on these computers is similar to the NES or the Apple II, making them obsolete by Western standards. A majority of them come preloaded with simple games or typing and programming software. However, many of them do not come with instruction manuals, making the educational software hard to use or understand. That being the case, the team behind Playpower saw this as a chance to create better and more culturally relevant learning games. To accomplish that, the Playpower team assembled a large, international, volunteer community and partnered with many computer science students in their native countries. (A web-based demo of one of their games can be found here.)

While the games seem to be coming along fine, their main challenge has been distribution. Considering the fact that software piracy is a global issue, the Playpower team encountered difficulties when they approached hardware manufacturers for help. Despite the positive goal of their project, many manufacturers were hesitant to provide the team with the development kits they needed for the fear of further piracy. Even in instances where they could work with manufacturers, other barriers slowed progress – from spoken language to trying to figure out how to code for obsolete file formats. The team knew they needed to do some creative thinking to solve their distribution problem.

As Derek and Don explained, the main goal for Playpower was to get their educational games into the hands of those in need, no matter how. They realized that piracy could actually be the best solution. They began formulating an “anti-business” model that would revolve around first getting their games out there in whatever limited capacity they could, and then “piggy back” on the pirate economy. If a handful of wholesalers would start selling their games, they knew that there would be a good chance those games would then get pirated and resold. This would create a ripple effect and had the potential to get their games into more homes, despite being a very controversial approach.

To give our audience a better context for their decision, I asked Derek Lomas to tell us, in his own words, why they decided to take this unconventional approach:

“Software piracy is endemic to many of the regions that we are targeting.

We are aware of other companies that have created new game cartridges for the Indian market, only to have them pirated within 6 months. But because our main priority is distributing educational resources,  we’ll actually be taking a loss on every cartridge that we sell to the wholesalers. So we would be thrilled to find out that our games have been pirated– it would just be lowering our distribution costs.

Keep in mind that we don’t have big bucks to do this project. We’re basically just an informal group of artists, students and 8-bit hackers.  That’s why we are using what is already in the world to lower our costs– from the existing hardware to the existing distribution networks. If those distribution networks happen to be grey market, I don’t think anyone has a problem with that.”

While it’s difficult to assess their impact, especially with a piracy distribution strategy, the team from Playpower is hopeful. Access to computers and the skills learned from their constant use can sometimes be reserved exclusively for certain male members of the family. Simply knowing how to type and to use a mouse can mean the difference between making $10 a day to $10 a week. Instead of laying dormant in living rooms or only being used for fun, Playpower hopes to turn the millions of already existing $10 PCs into hubs for learning that the entire family can enjoy. Normal use of a TV PC with Playpower games can breed a generation of young people and women with stronger skills and greater economic possibilities.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

If you’re interested in helping out the Playpower project, there are plenty of ways to get involved.

Playpower’s online community is working tirelessly to take their suite of tools online, allowing easier access to create assets for games and share them with the entire world. For those in the Chicago area, Playpower is holding a “chiptunes event” to raise funds to buy 10,000 game cartridges. Those cartridges will then be loaded up with Playpower games and sold to wholesalers in India. The goal is to get those 10,000 into market with the hope that they get pirated enough times to reach 1 million users.

You can find out more about their event, Power Up, and the entire Playpower project on their website.

 

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