Changing behavior is tough. It is tough to quit smoking, to save more money, or to choose walking up the stairs over an elevator. Behavior change becomes even tougher when it’s compounded with the challenges of poverty.
Development practitioners around the world are committed to the cause of finding and implementing solutions that help improve the lives of thousands of people around the world. Part of the challenge in doing this is to actually have good solutions but the bigger (often ignored) challenge is making sure that the solutions are accepted by the people they are meant to benefit: the poor. It’s about ensuring that people change their behavior to make solutions part of their daily lives.
If we want people in Kenya to start using oral salts for treating diarrhea or bed nets to save themselves from mosquito bites, if we want people in India to use toilets instead of defecating in the fields, if we want more young people to use condoms for safer sex, we can’t just walk into their countries and dictate the solutions to them.
Dictating behaviors ends up in failed solutions. Bed nets end up being used as fishing nets, condoms become balloon animals, and toilet seats turn into flower pots. That’s how ideas fail, not because they weren’t good ideas but because people were not convinced to change their behaviors to accept them.
In order for a solution to work, it has to make sense to people. They should be able to visualize how the solution will change their lives. They should have a reason to break their habits and start doing this new thing we’re asking them to do. In order to make solutions work, we need to inspire behavior change, not command it!
Dialogue around serious social issues such as menstrual hygiene, open defecation, racial stereotyping or birth control can be tricky to initiate and sustain. These issues are so deeply inscribed in our social constructs and myths that few people question them and even the ones that do, find it difficult to engage in a dialogue around them.
Behaviors, even sticky ones, can shift if information is provided, remembered and acted upon. We need effective communication to inspire change.
That’s where games come into the picture.
Video games can target these social constructs and prompt individuals to challenge them in a fun way. Games can bring the dialogue to the comfort zone of young girls and leverage the convenience of technology and interactive nature of video games to promote social change.
There are more than one billion people living under $1.25 a day and almost the same number playing at least one hour of video games worldwide.
The challenge of poverty is massive and so is the potential of video games.
Having grown up playing games such as Sim City, Need for Speed, or GTA, I know that games leave an impression on our brains that transcends the boundaries of the virtual world. I wondered to myself--- if games about guns can promote violence, can games about books promote education? Can those about women’s rights promote equality or those about hand washing promote hygiene?
Games appeal to the human psychology in a way most other communication tools don’t. It’s because games are three things mashed into one. They are a story, a crystal ball, and a trophy all wrapped in a fun box. Most games have a storyline, a plot that the player can become a part of. Then there’s the crystal ball, in the span of a few hours, players are able to see the consequences of their actions, both good and bad. And then there’s the trophy, the game rewards good decisions.
When the story, the crystal ball and trophy all come together in a virtual world, it leaves an impression on our brains that transcends the boundaries of the virtual world.
The past decade has seen a rise in “social impact” games. These are games with a purpose that put the time of many young (and old) people to good use. From curing depression (SuperBetter) to raising awareness about pregnancy in Kenya (9 Minutes), the interactive nature of games is being increasingly used to build capacity and spread awareness.
The past decade has also seen rapid shifts in access to technology. We are at the cusp of the next big technology boom: the global penetration of smartphones. The Ericson Mobility Report predicts that 70% of the world’s population will be using smartphones by 2020. We are looking at a world where smartphones as low as $20 are now available in areas where even toilets are a luxury. This boom opens a window of opportunity to reach the poor through their phones, and use simple mobile games as tools for behavior change.
It is these shifting trends that have inspired me to explore the role that games can play in information provision and behavior change in the development context. With my social venture GRID – Gaming Revolution for International Development- I am using games to inspire behavior change, improve health and education outcomes, and fight social issues such as discrimination and oppression.
We are committed to making games that provide people information so that they can make better decisions about their lives, their health, their money, and their children’s future… all while having a good time. These are games that are not just a tool for entertainment but have the ability to inspire and influence people in a positive way.
The GRID team is working on many different games. There are games to fight open defecation in India, games that break racial and gender stereotypes, and games that make math learning fun for grade three students in Gambia.
One of GRID’s recent projects aims to create games to break the stigma around menstruation. Women around the world face social and health related challenges every month as they go through their period. Simple mobile-based games cannot only raise awareness around hygienic practices but also break the stigma and empower women to embrace themselves.
Behavior change cannot be boring! Contextual realities cannot be ignored! Innovation cannot be left to tomorrow! The time is now to take it upon us to leverage the power of digital games to create a better world. I’m committed to the cause.
The question is, are you game?