Facebook game aims to bring attention to women’s issues

As Radhika moves across the globe, her empowerment grows, but many of the game choices get progressively darker — one leads to a mother living and her baby dying

By Elizabeth Jensen  /  NY Times News Service

Sat, Feb 23, 2013 - Page 9

Social cause gaming, or the use of games to promote awareness of societal problems, has been growing as a result of online projects such as Food Force, the UN World Food Program’s 2005 game about confronting famine, and Darfur is Dying, MTV’s 2006 offering in which players navigate the terrors of a Sudanese refugee camp.

Subsequent games have raised awareness of subjects such as HIV, sex trafficking and political conflicts, among others.

On March 4, a new game on Facebook, inspired by the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is to be introduced, with a focus on raising awareness of female genital mutilation and child prostitution.

Half the Sky Movement: The Game, more than three years in the making, is one of the most ambitious efforts yet to entice a mass audience to social media games with the goal of social change. However, it is a concept that even its supporters say is largely untested.

The game seeks to engage new audiences not reached by the 2009 book, written by the married team of Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and Sheryl WuDunn, a former Times journalist. A spinoff four-hour documentary was broadcast on PBS in the US in October last year, drawing 5.1 million viewers over two nights, with a four-hour sequel coming in the fall of next year.

Even more directly than possible with the book and television program, the game’s producers hope to draw in the public — in particular, women with an average age of 39 who play Facebook games.

The central character, an Indian woman named Radhika, faces various challenges with the assistance of players, who can help out with donations of virtual goods, for example. The players can then make equivalent real-world donations to seven nonprofit organizations woven into the game. For example, US$10 will buy a goat for Heifer International, while US$20 will help support UN Foundation immunization efforts.

To further engage players, those who reach predesignated levels unlock donations from Johnson & Johnson and Pearson, which have each contributed US$250,000 to buy real-world surgeries from the Fistula Foundation and books for Room to Read respectively.

If the Half the Sky game takes off and the money is claimed quickly, the producers hope other sponsors will step in, said Michelle Byrd, co-president of Games for Change, a nonprofit that promotes the creation of so-called social impact games and is the game’s executive producer, along with Show of Force Productions.

Asi Burak, also co-president of Games for Change, said the hope is to draw between 2 million and 5 million players, convincing 5 percent or more to donate. Players can play for free, but they will make faster progress through donations.

Those usage figures would put the game in the top rungs of social cause gaming. Recently, developers of games like the virtual city-building WeTopia have shifted to a Facebook platform, to encourage social sharing, and linked the games to player-controlled real-world donations.

“I think it’s an open question as to whether or not and to what degree people want to play a game that’s focused on a social issue,” said Ken Weber, executive director of Zynga.org, the nonprofit arm of Zynga, the company behind Facebook’s FarmVille game.

Zynga, which has raised US$15 million for about 50 causes such as Japanese earthquake relief through FarmVille, signed on to support the Half the Sky game, helping in its development and committing to promote it to the nearly 300 million monthly Zynga users.

Zynga felt the game had “a fighting chance,” Weber said, because the content was compelling, there was already an established book and television program, financing was in hand — producers have raised US$1 million — and Games for Change had hired “a commercial-grade developer,” the Canadian company Frima Studio of Quebec.

Other supporters include the Ford, Rockefeller and UN foundations, Intel and the US National Endowment for the Arts, which last spring shifted grant money away from public television to an array of untested games.

The Half the Sky game starts out simply, as Radhika ponders how to afford to visit a doctor with her sick daughter (the answer is to harvest mangoes, which players do for her). Each step requires players to answer a question — for example, should Radhika confront her husband or stay silent?

Neither answer is wrong, but each takes players on a different route.

As Radhika moves across the globe to Kenya, Vietnam and Afghanistan, her empowerment grows, but many of the game choices get progressively darker. One leads to a mother living and her baby dying, and sometimes Radhika fails.

Still, some of the game’s nonprofit partners have pushed for even more verisimilitude, Byrd and Burak said, questioning, for one, why Radhika can read when many women in her situation would be illiterate.

Finding that balance — how much to simplify complicated issues, how much fun to include and how much to focus on positive solutions versus grave challenges — has consumed much of the development process, the producers said.

“It’ll be a very interesting test as to what people’s thresholds are,” Weber said.

Players who reach the final level learn about sex trafficking in the US and can donate to an organization in New York called Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, which helps young women leave the commercial sex industry.

Rachel Lloyd, the organization’s founder, said that games are “a brave new world for us, too. We’re watching and seeing how this works, if people really do engage in the way that we’d like them to.”

She said she hopes users will be moved to push for more economic opportunities for women, or become a mentor.

“I do think we have to push people to step outside their comfort zone and move outside online into the real world,” she said.