I love games - video, board, card, whatever. I cut my teeth on BBS games (bulletin-board system, online dial-up text-based system, for those who are not ancient) pre-internet, but loved the way even then games could build community. My grade school classes clamored to play Oregon Trail, where I learned a bit about that part of history, piquing my interest in the frontier era and learning that caulking wagons is apparently not as easy as one might hope. Similarly, clearly the interminable hours I’ve spent on Hades were simply in pursuit of more in-depth knowledge of Greek mythology. Games get a lot of derision - they’re a waste of time, they rot your brain, they’re just for kids. I disagree - and the market does, too. In 2020 in North America video games were bigger business than sports and movies - combined.
International development has a long, creative history of trying to reach people where they are in fun, compelling ways: for example, street theater or radio dramas can be ways to reach large audiences with simple messages. Games are the modern-day equivalent. Tapping into the gaming audience holds the potential to reach a huge pool of people with a wide-reach, light-touch message – but it has to be fun. All too many “edutainment” games seem to forget the “tainment” part. Especially in an age of viral promotion among peers, too much broccoli on the buffet means few will come clamoring for more.
NDI has been experimenting with games for years, including a project working with young Guatemalans on debating skills. Recently we’ve been particularly intrigued by the idea of “playable stories” or “interactive fiction” - a modern equivalent of “choose your own adventure” books . There’s a host of amazing ones out there; I myself have sunk way too much time into 80 Days and Lifeline There’s a terrific open-source and community-driven platform where you too can (relatively) easily make your own called Twine. Since they’re text-driven stories, they don’t require much technical expertise and play on any device - the primary limitation is your time and your creativity. Of course, you can also go build yourself a game with a sophisticated 3-D engine, but that’s a bit beyond the reach of your average international development professional.
There’s also a rich history of using simulation games to help train people on new concepts, or to explore different future possibilities. NDI has also been playing in this space, developing a system called CyberSim to simulate a race for president in a fictional country – where the campaign is under relentless attack by hackers. Typically cybersecurity awareness raising can be, bluntly, dull; multi-hour lectures on two-factor authentication and strong passwords don’t always engage audiences. By putting people into a context where they have to think on their feet and consider risks in a dynamic, real-world environment, participants can internalize lessons while having more fun in the process. As a part of our DemTech Summer Series, I had the great opportunity to host a fun conversation with Mike Masnick of the Copia institute and Jessica Weaver, a games consultant who has been working with us on our narrative stories.
We had a fun, free-ranging discussion on the role of #SeriousGames - check it out. We’ll look forward to sharing a version of both the playable stories and the cybersecurity simulation in the near future!