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The Half the Sky Movement: Is a Facebook Game the Next Step Toward Global Social Justice?


Minyanville speaks with Asi Burak, co-president of Games for Change, to investigate how the women's empowerment movement's new game is making financial aid more engaging.

Often when we talk about foreign aid, we only talk numbers; we talk how much money has been given to this particular NGO in that particular country, how many computers we gave to a struggling community, or how many mosquito nets we put up in another. The question of "how many" often eclipses the issues themselves -- the "what" and the "why." What are the specific problems that people face in the developing world, and why do they face them? The focus on the quantity of aid sometimes makes the quality of aid questionable and leaves us with stories like this one: "$100 Billion in Aid Squandered in Afghanistan." Throwing money at problems that we don't understand can make them worse and has proven to be ineffective, again and again.

If we hope to improve people's lives through financial aid, money itself is not enough. We have to engage with issues in the developing world, try to understand them, and develop a more transparent way of giving to people in need. That's what Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn believe. Their cause is the global empowerment of women, and their newest tool is a game on Facebook (NASDAQ:FB).

The Half the Sky Movement

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
The married couple founded the Half the Sky Movement in 2009 with the publication of their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book argues that the oppression of women worldwide is the greatest moral challenge of our time. (For context, they consider the world's great moral challenges of the past to have been slavery in the 19th century and totalitarianism in the 20th century.) Targeting issues such as female genital mutilation, domestic abuse, sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and maternal mortality, the Half the Sky Movement seeks to raise awareness just as much as it does money.

In 2012, Half the Sky, a four-hour television series, premiered on PBS, extending the movement's scope. Following Kristof and WuDunn, as well as celebrity advocates like Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Olivia Wilde, and Eva Mendes, the show went to 10 different countries, introducing women and girls living in difficult and dangerous circumstances. Often difficult to watch, the series profiled the lives of women working to protect girls in Sierra Leone from rape; some victims were as young as 11 years old. In Thailand, the reporters and Meg Ryan met a group of young girls saved from brothels during daring raids; these girls are now working to free others caught in the country's infamous sex industry.

Kristof's New York Times articles also told some of the stories from the project. For example, he once wrote from Sierra Leone: "As I stood in the rape center corridor, reeling from the encounter … a four-year-old girl was brought in for treatment. She, too, turned out to have been infected with a sexually transmitted disease in the course of a rape. Also in the center that day were a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old, along with older girls."

Just a week ago, the movement jumped to its next medium when the Half the Sky video game was launched on Facebook. In a press release, the movement's founders explained their intentions, saying, "We want to reach a broader audience for these issues we care deeply about. We hope that a Facebook game that is fun and viral can be a way to do that, reaching people who aren't now interested in women's empowerment."

Half the Sky Movement: The Game follows the journey of Radhika, a mother of two who starts in India, and travels to Kenya, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, and ends up in the United States. Along the way, the player engages with Radhika's story, choosing how she will respond within conversations, and guiding her through difficult situations in her life. For example, in a confrontation with her husband, the player can choose whether Radhika speaks up for herself or remains silent. Interspersed throughout the game are simple mini-games that involve the player in helping Radhika reach goals. During one, you gather mangoes in a Bejeweled-like game, in order to sell them and buy medicine for Radhika's sick daughter.

Socially Conscious Game Faces

The game was produced by Games for Change, a non-profit company that specializes in the difficult task of creating games that are both fun and eye-openingly educational. It was designed by Frima Studio of Quebec City, Canada.

Asi Burak, co-president of Games for Change, tells Minyanville, "You need to create a good game, which is in itself a huge challenge: it's a new form, it's interactive, your control is limited. As the designer, the creator, you can never predict exactly how players are going to experience it."

Also difficult to navigate is the standard perception of videogames and "gamers" as an insulated consumer group consisting predominantly of teenage boys, says Burak. That kind of thinking reduces the esteem of video games as a legitimate art form in the eyes of older generations. "Even to treat games as a medium rather than just entertainment or a pastime, even that is a jump for certain people," says Burak.

But just as serious comic books became known as graphic novels, he is confident serious games will take on an importance and meaningfulness of their own to differentiate them from simple entertainment.
Asi Burak

Burak used film as an analogy, saying, "Watch Schindler's List, watch Lincoln, watch Zero Dark Thirty, watch Argo: they're both entertaining and arts pieces, and they're meaningful."

His work on the Half the Sky Movement: The Game aims at "that place where we get mainstream audiences to come, because the product is good enough for its own sake, but has the additional meaningfulness. And it's not even a message, because in some cases, the message is complex." It becomes about the conversation; it becomes about awareness.

The Way the Game Works

The game features direct translation from the virtual game world to the real world by inviting players to move through a series of quests related to real challenges that women face in developing countries. Every problem has a solution, with seven non-profits -- including the Fistula Foundation, Room to Read, and Heifer International -- providing specific solutions from which the player may choose.

Companies like Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA), Ford (NYSE:F), and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) helped finance the development of the game (Zynga also lended development support), while sponsors Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and the Pearson Foundation provided funds that are unlocked through gameplay and donated to specific non-profits. For example, collect books throughout the game world and in the real world, the Room to Read program, with funding from Pearson (NYSE:PSO), will donate actual books to young girls. Players can also collectively trigger up to $250,000 from Johnson & Johnson to fund surgical procedures from the Fistula Foundation. On top of funds raised from playing the game, Facebook users are also encouraged to donate.

How the Game Improves Financial Aid

The game's model improves upon financial aid in several ways. First of all, as Burak told us:

At the end of the day, that money doesn't go to the game; it goes above our heads, to the NGOs, to the non-profits, but the fact is that instead of just moving the money from A to B, there's a whole engagement model. The players are part of that experience and it is becoming transparent. And people start to understand more what's going on.

This engagement is the jumpstart that financial aid needs. It lends clarity, it lends precision, and it lends people the ability to do more good directly.

Though games are typically targeted at younger demographics, the Half the Sky Movement game has been strategically designed to encourage engagement from all ages, particularly older adults who are more likely to give. Burak gave us early stats from the game's first week: Many playing the game are over 50, and the average player is a woman in her 30s. Obviously it is in the interest of the Burak and his team to attract a wide array of players, but this average player data is just what the movement's organizers wanted.

As Burak says, "If you have an average player who is a woman in her 30s, and you compare it to the population of who is likely to make a donation in a household, who is likely to care for a cause like this, then, you know, you have a match."

And so, the socially conscious fund-raising game takes its place alongside micro-financing and other efficient methods of giving aid to people in need, and as such, the video game medium continues to make strides forward as a legitimately recognized and important art form. Depending on the success of games like Half the Sky, this kind of socially conscious and highly collaborative project could become much more common, making foreign aid all the more engaging, and therefore, efficient.

You can play the game here.

See also:

BlackBerry in Africa, Amazon in Turkey: The Real Tech Action Is in Emerging Nations

Is the Chinese Government Spying on Skype Users in China?

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville

Editor's note: This story originally included two errors that have since been corrected. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn did not win the Pulitzer Prize for the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. They are both past winners of Pulitzer Prizes, however. Games for Change was also originally identified as the game designer. In fact, Games for Change produced the game, which was designed by Frima Studio of Quebec City, Canada.
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