Stanford Social Innovation Review : Informing and inspiring leaders of social change

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Technology & Design

Gaming with a Purpose

Serious games tap into the same culture of online friendship from social networking to fuel peer involvement and encourage collaboration around real-world challenges.

Students Mohammed Jaber and his friend Motasem Masalmeh wanted to give back to their community in Amman, Jordan. They would often take time to visit the elderly or children with special needs, but they wanted to make a greater impact. They decided to start by attracting more students to join in their efforts.

To connect with other youth and encourage volunteering, Mohammed and Motasem created a Facebook page called Jordan Volunteers (JV) and started posting information on their planned initiatives. It worked—18,000 young Jordanians have signed on to volunteer since its launch in 2009. Projects include providing Iftars to poor families during Ramadan, rewarding orphans who excel in academics, and organizing the Jordan Volunteers Festival, which draws hundreds of participants from across the country. Today, JV is registered as a youth-led nonprofit organization and managed by its founders.

This is just one of many success stories derived from the fact that one billion people around the world are connected via social media. Social media is changing the way people interact and how they spend their time. Gaming is one of the most popular components of social networks; in fact, more than 230 million people play games on Facebook every month.

What could happen if these kinds of games, played by millions of people every day, could bring about social change? What would the impact look like?

Games launched on social media platforms have the potential to positively influence charitable giving, volunteering, exercise patterns, and even money management. A player’s gaming success is based on their ability and willingness to engage with their friends to advance in the game. Games on social media platforms reward our interactions with friends, connect us with a geographically diverse group of people, and create a new culture of online friendship that is tied to gaming.

Serious games—games that have a purpose beyond entertainment—that are built on social media have a unique ability to marry the power of cultural force with positive change. A University of Skövde report titled “Serious Games — An Overview,” describes serious games as “all about leveraging the power of computer games to captivate and engage end-users for a specific purpose, such as to develop new knowledge and skills.” One of the best examples of this is the game “Darfur is Dying.” Darfur is Dying was launched in 2006, in the midst of the region’s humanitarian crisis. The game was backed by one of the most prominent cultural voices in the US—MTV—and was heavily promoted by the MTV network. As a result, more than three million people played the game and generated more than 50,000 actions, including letters and emails to the US Congress and president. An additional benefit was that it introduced the political process to a group of young people, many below voting age.

Back in Jordan, the Innovations for Youth Capacity and Engagement (IYCE) program is building on this marriage of technology and culture, creating new tools to strengthen international development programs. Funded by USAID and implemented by NetHope, IYCE aims to strengthen civic engagement among Jordanian youth by using social media and mobile technologies, and the power of serious social games. The organization is developing a game called Our City, which focuses on improving the civic knowledge, skills, and participation of youth in Jordan, while increasing their proficiency in systems thinking.

Through gameplay, Jordanian youth players will experience challenges and successes as they grow and run their own virtual Jordanian city. The core gameplay will center on adding buildings to the city and increasing the city's population, while dealing with challenges such as pollution control and health. Players will collect rent from the buildings and manage the city's energy use, ensuring sustainable growth. They also will participate in various “quests” that explore ways to improve the city—for example, the game may require that a player build vocational training facilities and universities to examine links between education and employment. Rewards are to given to players that collaborate with others during gameplay. The ultimate goal of the game (expected in September 2012) is to motivate players to become more civically engaged and gain greater confidence in their ability to make a difference in their communities—in real life.

Serious games can tap into the same culture of online friendship from social networking to fuel peer involvement and encourage collaboration around real-world challenges. With the added reward of fun and engagement, gaming will continue to grow in popularity as an important agent of civic and social development.

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