Games are uniquely pliable systems. They can be used to generate empathy towards a situation by allowing players to inhabit parts of a topic, and contextualize the larger issue from a personalized perspective.
In leveraging games to impact environmental, social and economic issues, games are taken to a variety of unfamiliar cultures where game elements inhabit very different roles from those in the west, resulting in a new form of colonialism. In this 15 minute presentation, I elaborate on the assumptions that social impact game proponents bring to the field of games and humanitarian work and the problems that arise as a result of them.
As co-founder of a game design studio that makes games for beneficiaries of humanitarian organizations, I’m perpetually confronting the challenge of increasing popularization of games as a method of communication amid the lack of best practices for using them in these fraught arenas.
Game based learning is fast replacing the hackneyed workshop format, the core intended recipients of which are either small communal groups entrenched in folk customs and traditional belief systems, or impoverished urban communities. When constructing interactive communication tools (such as games) for such a diverse group, it is necessary to study their cultural morés and social etiquette to find common themes that can be used to encourage empathy towards the topic. In this situation games are used as metaphors to explain the topic presented, and since effective metaphors are analogous to the audience, it is important to chose efficient analogies. By choosing an analogy that is negative to that community, such as dice which are solely associated with gambling in many cultures, the reach of the game is reduced, impacting the effectiveness of the overall project goals.
A second impediment to constructing effective game-interactions on a community level is the process of project development. From experience in the humanitarian sector dealing with climate change, games are vetted by a hierarchy of scientists, project managers, and administrative staff. All of whom have a deep understanding of the core topic being represented though the games, but have completely different cultural expectations from the medium of games. As a result, the end product is finessed and tailored to satisfy a target audience that has very little in common to the end-audience.
Humanitarian organizations have an existing culture of talking down to these communities instead of talking with them. Aid constructs a hierarchy of givers and receivers, where the receiver is seen as a victim needing help, but incapable of providing any input into the process.
What steps can organizations take to overcome these challenges? What is the relevance of games to cross cultural humanitarian and social justice work given these limitations? What considerations should be taken by designers when creating these types of games?