Interview – Asi Burak – Games For Change

Asi Burak

For a quick piece I wrote for the Guardian, about developing games in the developing world, I talked to Asi Burak, co-President of GamesForChange.

What is Games for Change?

Firstly, to define our unique role and mission: Games for Change (G4C) is not a game studio.  In some exceptional cases, like the Half the Sky games, we can go on and executive produce a project.  And in other cases, we serve as strategic advisors.  However, think of us more as the Sundance of gaming for good – the convener, facilitator, and catalyst.

What do you hope to achieve with the development games you support?

I like to cite social entrepreneur Dr. Paul Polak, who once said that the majority of the world’s designers focus on solutions for 10% of the world’s population.  The other 90% (more than 6 billion people) live on less than $10 a day.

At the same time, in many developing countries, the local education and health systems fail to equip youth with the most basic skills and knowledge.  I believe that gaming technology could bridge some of these gaps.

We have increasing evidence that well-designed digital games could drive meaningful impact; from raising awareness to building basic skills to promoting sustainable personal development that lasts beyond episodic play (‘behavior change’).   These are not simple projects, and they depend on a complex set of partnerships, but when they work – they can be very effective.

How do your games differ when targeting the global North and the developing world?

When designing games for audiences in developing countries you face a new set of challenges.  Limited access to technology is prevalent, especially in non-urban and remote areas, where your solutions are needed the most.  Or consider language: limited to no reading skills and numerous dialects across a single region or country.  Gaming ability itself could be low due to limited exposure to digital games, so when you design a game you might be introducing the gaming medium as a whole.

If you are headquartered in the West, you need to solve communication challenges, bridge cultural sensitivities and differences and build marketing and distribution capacity in an uncharted market.  In most cases, you could only do that with strong partners on the ground that are deeply involved in the development, production and outreach – from local NGO’s to local developers to game publishers and mobile operators.

How do you decide what technology to build your games on? Do you have to use different tech for development games in different regions? How do you promote the games for those regions?

You must rely on deep market research that is intertwined with your definitions for the project; mainly who is the audience, what is the context of play and what are the concrete impact objectives (or ‘theory of change’).

We have a robust methodology to define those constraints – think about it as a funnel.  From a “blue sky” of multiple platforms, technologies and solutions you get to focus on the most dominant and accessible gaming platform for your particular project.

As an example, for the Half the Sky games we published in India and Kenya (in partnership with Mudlark and E-Line Media), we chose Java based mobile phones.  Those feature phones are pretty basic, they don’t have touch screens and they have limited memory.  The games we developed had to be under 200 kilobytes(!) which is the equivalent of a word document you would attach to an email.  But this was the technology of choice for the people we wanted to reach with millions of devices out there and an emerging market of games and players.

Since we chose these mobile phones, we had to figure out what are the best channels to get the games out there.  We usually consider both consumer-facing channels, such as mobile operators and app stores, vs. context related distribution: how to embed the games in relevant and existing efforts with local NGO’s, schools or other community programs.

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Nine Minutes.

What constitutes a success for a development game? How much does one of your games typically cost to make?

A solid example is one of the Half the Sky games I mentioned above.  The game is called “9 Minutes” (pictured above), and it is aimed at pregnant women and their spouses.  Or women and girls that consider becoming pregnant.  The fun and action-packed experience simulates the full 9 month cycle with all the do’s and dont’s that are most critical for a successful and healthy delivery.

The USAID funded evaluation in India shows measurable positive shifts in knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions toward promoted safe pregnancy and delivery actions following exposure to the game. 608 women and 308 men participated in the study.  When participants were asked to name beneficial pregnancy activities, significant increases were made from pre- to post-test intervention.