Five Factors in Good Software Game Design for the Developing World

EVOKE trailer for the World Bank teaching crash course in changing the world

I am “Haridas Maruthur Sreelakshmi and I am studying the considerable interest and debate over the past decade on the role of games in education and on using educational games to complement and sometimes even substitute classroom learning. Some of these percepts have found their way into development, giving rise to a new ‘Games for Development’ (G4D) subset, for want of a better name.

The G4D landscape can be broadly divided into games designed for the developed world and those designed for the developing world. This isn’t a hard division and nearly all of these games are accessible to anyone with Internet and/or the right device. However, there are often patterns in their game-play, plot, design and medium that indicate a clear targeting of one market over the other.

The former set comprise games that seek to raise awareness and sensitivity among people of the developed world on various development goals and issues in the developing world. These games cover a wide spectrum of topics such as environment, population, poverty, health, disaster-relief, trafficking, sweatshops and citizen activism. Some interesting experiments in this market include ‘Raise the Village‘, which leverages social gaming to raise funds for developing world villages and ‘Evoke’ which brought together people from all over the world to solve problems that affect specific regions in Africa.

Games for the developing world try to bring about positive behavioral changes among developing populations on such issues as hygiene, maternal health, prostitution and gender biases. Some others enhance literacy, by helping improve reading and math skills. Game design for this space comes involves working with a number of unique constraints and nuances.

The following are some factors that merit consideration in designing better game-based ICTD solutions for the developing world.

  1. Platform: As with any ICTD project, platform is key in determining popularity of games. In essence this is akin to the right hardware debate in ICTD – a choice between the OLPCs, $35 laptops or (even better?) the $10 computer built specially for gaming. An alternative is to make Flash or Java based games. While being tied to a particular platform is obviously limiting, browser based games are at an equal disadvantage in low-connectivity areas.
  2. Culture: An oft-ignored aspect of game design is cultural fit. Simply localising the audio track or adding subtitles won’t cut it when we’re trying to get someone – be it a kid or an adult – hooked on or even interested in a game. Ideally, games need to be designed specifically for the target population with characters and plot derived from familiar folklore. This is all the more true for games that seek to erode well-grounded prejudices or bring about a certain behavioral change; casting a local hue on game stories, play, goals and rewards will help produce games that just work better at their intent than those designed without such context and insight. Half the Sky project’s partnerships with various ground organizations including Breakthrough and Apne Aap is a good example here.
  3. Cost System and developer time is important as well. The USAID $16,000 per player game is as good a mistake to learn from as any.
  4. Distribution A push-based approach through partnerships at Government or local levels is likely to help the games permeate better than a discovery model via the Internet or Appstores – the latter is still to catch on in the developing world anyway.
  5. ImpactFinally – in the case of educational games, one question to consider at the outset would be whether a model is sufficiently proven in the developed world to be extended to the developing.

Despite various experiments – including schools like Quest to Learn where the entire learning system is game-based – there isn’t conclusive evidence to prove that learning through games is any better than traditional learning models or learning from the real world – an opportunity that is perhaps more abundant in the developing world than anywhere else.


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