Half the Sky Game: What Went Right and What Went Wrong? (Part 1)

Since its debut a little more than a month ago on March 4, the Half the Sky game has seen 500,000 players (!), who in total have contributed more than $160,000 in donations directly or through sponsors. Players have already unlocked 83,000 books and $56,000 worth of life-changing surgeries.

While we’re proud of the meaningful impact in such early stages, we know that some of this meaning would be lost if we didn’t share the lessons learned with others who might be interested in embarking on a similar project.

In the next four weeks, the Games for Change staff will share nearly 50 lessons learned across executive production, partnerships and outreach, concepting, and community management. Look for a new post every week.

First, Asi Burak details what went right and wrong in terms of executive production on such a large-scope project.

What We Did Right

1. Building a coalition of great funders and partners. Under the umbrella of the “Half the Sky Movement” transmedia project (with its already-established support, a best-selling book and a high-profile TV show), we could bring together a set of leading organizations from the private and public sector to support the game. While challenging to manage at times, this coalition added to the credibility of the project and made sure that multiple voices and perspectives were considered.

2. Producing an engaging commercial-level game for change. By working with one of the world’s leading Facebook developers, Frima Studio (recommended to us by Facebook), and enjoying the generous in-kind support of Zynga’s experts and analytics team, we could aim to make what we feel is a commercial-level game. To cite game designer and University of Southern California professor Richard Lemarchand: “It’s really well put-together—playable, varied and fun, with great characters, a tasteful ambience, and lots of color and nuance.”

3. Securing the sponsored donations. One of our early impact goals has been to convert players into donors or social activists. However, it was clear that only a small percentage of them were going to spend money in-game, especially players from developing countries. The concept and execution of the sponsored donations—a $500,000 guaranteed contribution of books and surgeries that players can trigger for free—enabled a much larger group to participate and feel they are making a difference simply by playing for 30 minutes.

4. Marketing and distribution were always a top priority, as was fundraising. Many games for change or independent games spend most of their efforts on development and reach the finish line with no resources to get the game to their audiences. In this case, we raised marketing and outreach funds from early stages, bringing it to a 40 to 50 percent of the total funds raised.

5. We successfully navigated an incredibly complex web of relationships and agendas. The different agendas involved, the complexity of a game about such sensitive issues and the high visibility of the project, made some stakeholders nervous especially as our public launch drew closer. We aimed to be open, and shared information across the board on a weekly and sometime on a daily basis. Aligning all stakeholders under the same goals and plan was an ongoing effort.

6. We always worked with audience and impact objectives in mind. Keeping an eight-step methodology in mind (developed with E-Line Media), we had a clear plan from the beginning: This is a game that is designed to reach a very wide audience—beyond the people who have heard about Half the Sky or read The New York Times columns from Half the Sky co-author Nick Kristof. We wanted to reach women and girls, we wanted to reach people all over the world, and we wanted to reach people who have limited or no experience with games. On top of that, we wanted to convert some of them to take social actions, trigger donations and engage with the movement at large. This led us to choose Facebook as a platform and informed many of the design decisions moving forward.

7. Transparency. There’s always more we could do here, but many of our efforts such as this series of blog posts, our social media activity and Facebook fan page all try to promote the game but at the same time be very transparent about its impact, who it is going to support, who is playing and what are some of the lessons we’re learning. This is a game produced by the nonprofit Games for Change for the benefit of women and girls worldwide but also for the benefit of the emerging field of games for social impact.

Girls read a book from Room to Read, one of the game’s partners and beneficiaries that focuses on literacy and gender equality in developing countries.
What We Did Wrong

1. Too ambitious on too many fronts. Looking back, we could make have made our lives easier—and probably produced a better product—by reducing the scope and ambition. Instead of seven nonprofit partners, why not working with three? Rather than reinventing a whole new donation model on Facebook, we could rely on existing structures that are proven, and so on. We have more examples of how we pushed the boundaries on too many fronts rather than focus innovation on two or three major goals.

2. We invested too much in development pre-launch, not enough in service post-launch. As much as this was the common wisdom, especially related to Facebook games, we repeated the same mistake we were warned against. In our defense, we did a robust open beta with thousands of players and had Zynga running a company beta for us with detailed results that we were tempted to implement right away. But in the end,  we hurt our ability to respond and create additional content post-launch.

3. No sustainable business model. When we made the decision to have all revenue go to charity (80% to NGOs, 17% to sustain the game and 3% to Tides to manage the financial transactions), we created a situation in which the game’s future is dependent on further funding. Adding the numbers on Facebook is not easy, and we couldn’t crack this one—how to make this a do-gooder game that sustains itself, at least to a large degree.

4. Should have aligned and oriented stakeholders from the start. Yes, we played well with our partners. But what would’ve been much smarter was to arrange a summit at the beginning of the process and orient all of them, many who were never involved in a production of a game, on what it entails. Instead, we needed to inform partners after the fact, and we didn’t have them fully invested until later stages.

5. We were late for Facebook. Oh, if this game came out two years ago… Facebook games were more viral and the policies looser. We spent so much time to get the project off the ground that we came late to the platform, arguably over the hill. All the positive outcomes and attention we see now in 2013 could have been amplified.

6. Engaging our own network and community. There was a clear tension between our role as a convener and a community platform, and becoming an executive producer of a game project. It raised a lot of questions for us, and for people in our community, some of them are still in debate. We were very cautious, and tried to be mindful of the consequences, believing it is in our core mission and will certainly contribute to the bigger picture. But I’m not sure we did a good enough job in communicating that or better facilitating that dialogue.

7. We’re not interesting for the gaming community. Making a game for Facebook that is based on social game conventions meant we’re not going to impress a large portion of the industry—not indie developers and not commercial game makers who despise the common practices on the platform. Hence, part of the big statement we wanted to make about the validity of games for social good was simply not heard. Our launch was covered on CNN, featured in the New York Times, and supported by celebs from Barbra Streisand to Ben Affleck. But any mention in a major gaming publication? Forget about it.

Come back next week to see Senior Game Producer Emily Treat’s lessons learned from initial concepting and oversight of the game design.


Niki Hammond

Thanks so much for taking the time to think these things through and share lessons learned with the rest of us. You're setting a great example by being this open and I suspect we'll see better and better projects as a result!

Carol Cilona

The advertising made it seem that the players could unlock the sponsors donations based on participation alone. While I did donate and was glad to, I was surprised and felt and duped at the same time that there was not more transparency about this important fact of being a player!

Games for Change

Thanks for your feedback, for playing and for making a donation!
The message that players could unlock sponsored donations only by participation is true: you can unlock a donation of a book (to Room to Read) after completing the second story, and you can unlock a donation of $4.5 towards a surgery (to the Fistula Foundation) by reaching 4500 points on the help meter.
Players are also invited – like you were – to donate directly to the cause but it is absolutely optional. One can finish the game (and many did) without spending any money.
It would be great if you could suggest better ways to communicate this… thanks again!

Michell Schneider

Good day,
I was quite surprised in reading your article to find that there was a FB game based upon Half a Sky. As someone who is not attached at the hip to social media, I do not check FB on a daily basis, and therefore can miss certain announcements. If you choose to continue the game may I make a suggestion? Send a personal message, if possible, to all of your followers letting them know about the game.
There is another item I would like to address please. That is where you said your game is not that interesting. While that may be true to those who are regular gamers, for those of us who are not, it may have a great appeal.
Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you.

Rose Clinton

I'm still playing.

One initial issue was the need to have helpers to complete quests. Many of us finally have 20-30 new friends and I believe we all wish to continue. The lack of quests is a disappointment, however I am continuing to play hoping for new ones.

Perhaps sponsors would be interested in smaller donations at other point levels? I suspect this would help people like me, with limited funds, feel more engaged as we continue to play.

I'm really hoping you are able to continue with the game – it's fun even if I'm just collecting books or decorating clothing.

Charlotte Bennett Schoen

Could this material be published in Burmese?

I have recently recommended the game as part of peace trainings that I am currently doing at an NGO in Yangon/Burma-Myanmar. I have contacts who would translate the book into Burmese. Has that been done? Changing the subtitle of the book gave great material for critical thinking discussion about 'oppression vs opportunity'

Several participants did play the game – all were introduced to the book with the subtitle "HOw to Change the World'. Charlotte

Lorene Shyba

I like playing the game but am sad that the quests have ran out. My biggest concern with the ethics of the narrative was in the Afghani newspaper scenario where the same tea-drinking woman who provided all the stories was also left in charge of distributing them, after having me foot the bill for printing. Not such a free press. Anyway, other than that, the collaborations and group efforts were solid and meaningful.

I'm pleased that you were able to take the best of Darfur is Dying and mix it with Play the News and come up with this innovative concept. All the best!

Love Dr. Hex


I enjoyed the production values and the game play, but was a little surprised with the actual scripting. I felt the games meta narrative disappointing – reinforcing the 'do-gooder' belief that brown/poor people need external aid and assistance. In the same way that it took time for mainstream media to realise that the local journalists had a different perspective to those of foreign correspondents who parachute in, I am sure that the design and scripts of games (for change) will shift over time as the 'voices and ideas of the voiceless' become embedded in to such games. Excellent initiative, very supportive, but would have loved a script that didn't revolve so heavily around money.

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[…] women face in the developing world, and created with the help of Zynga and Games for Change – garnered 500,000 players and $160,000 in donations. In 2011, another social cause game, Darfur is Dying, funded by the MTV […]


Thanks Emily for leading the way, posting your insights and valuable lessons learned.

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[…] of refreshing transparency the folks at Games for Change (via Dowser) share the first round of  What We Did Right, What We Did Wrong in developing and launching game Half the […]


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