Half the Sky mobile games update May 2011

Half-The-Sky-Games-for-Change-01A unique partnership with Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn around their bestselling book “Half the Sky”, that started at the 6th Annual Games for Change Festival in 2009, has taken some big steps, all the way to India and back – and today we’re happy to tell you more about the mobile games component of the Half The Sky project.

A Discovery Trip to India

Fast forward two years, I sat down with our globe trotting co-President, Asi Burak and talked about his recent visit to India for the discovery phase of this project. Together, Asi traveled with Charles Hunter, the Commerical Director of Mudlark (you can read his account of his trip here) and Alan Gershenfeld, the President of E-line Media, who serves as an advisor to the project. The trio visited ZMQ, one of India’s leading mobile developers. ZMQ are experts in creating social impact games for mobile devices in India and Africa where the most popular platform is Java.  These devices are far less capable and engaging than new generation smart phones. But ZMQ’s games have been featured on over 65 million devices and their relationships with local mobile operators and device manufactures make them a strong ally in the distribution of mobile games in this area of the world.

Learning on the ground

Half-The-Sky-Games-for-Change-02Fifty four NGOs make up the network behind the Half the Sky movement. In India, the team (together with ZMQ) met with 5 individual groups, all with unique areas of expertise around women equality and related issues (such as health, education, economic empowerment, gender-based violence). Together in various offices and meeting rooms, the project team received many eye-opening insights, stories, and lessons. Two of the groups they met with took them on “community visits” to see who their work will be affecting.

Apne Aap took the team to a village where intergenerational prostitution is a local norm. Formally a village of lucrative snake charmers, times have changed and the local business of entertaining visitors and locals has been banned. To maintain a business that would keep their village afloat, they took to playing music and most drastically, openly selling the women in their village. As visitors, the team was hit with a heavy dose of culture shock and yet, on the surface the village seemed alive and vibrant.

Another visit with the YP Foundation brought the group to a slum populated by ragpickers – those who collect and search through trash for valuables and recyclable items. Again the trio had their eyes opened to the reality of the villagers there. The children admired the YP Foundation volunteers for their visits, education, and the tools they provided them. Being literally on the ground where their work will have the most effect was an enlightening and humbling experience for the team.

Major challenges

Half-The-Sky-Games-for-Change-04One of the biggest discoveries Asi and his partners found was how savvy everyone was with mobile technology. In fact, cellphone usage is so common, mobiles replace landlines in most homes. While the head of the household is the owner of the phone, the family collectively shares the device with scheduled slots in the day for usage. The team was intrigued by this knowledge and wanted to learn more about how families use their phones. Unsurprisingly, most kids do play games when it’s “their turn”, which led to the question: “What would happen if we put educational games on your phone?” to which a kid promptly replied, “If our father knew we were playing educational games, he would give us more time!”

As the team started to brainstorm around potential design for the series of four games, they realized that they must compensate for numerous factors that affect so many on the ground: low literacy skills, unequal access to technology, and unfamiliarity with complex game mechanics. They knew they had to adjust their ideas to make them more effective.

“It hits you right in the face”, remarked Asi. He further explained that cultural issues and values are essential in these games. Conveying a certain tone is vital. To properly assist those in need, the games have to move past simply telling people what to do and what not to do. The games need to focus on the power to find solutions and not only on the problems or the victims. They learned that educating people on topics, like pregnancy for example, must include not only the mother – but that the father, the mother-in-law and other family members should play a role too. Between the guidance of the on the ground NGOs and the experiences they shared in the villages, the team learned that they needed to create a suite of games that are separate in what they need to address, but are interrelated to solving problems as a whole.

Back home and back to work

Half-The-Sky-Games-for-Change-03Back to their respective countries, the teams are hard at work taking the knowledge from their trip and working on titles that will create a genuine change in a way that speaks the local language and focuses on empowerment and education. The partnership with the NGO’s is crucial and they would serve as content experts and partners in distribution.

We’ll keep you up to date as this exciting project keeps moving forward. For more information about how technology, communications, and philanthropy are merging to save the world – check out Half the Sky’s Co-author Sheryl WuDunn’s plenary session on the topic at the 8th Annual Games for Change Festival in June.

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