How We Can Leverage Online Games for Social Impact

Games have been a point of contention in the education technology field for well over a decade, but thanks to the raw determination of Henry Jenkins, James Gee, Katie Salen and other game enthusiasts, the deconstruction of the games paradox has made space for games with social impact.

I am Ariam Mogos and recently I had the opportunity to participate in the DC Tech Salon on “How Can Serious Online Games Improve Development Impact“, and I must admit that the conversation felt a bit top-down.
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At this roundtable discussion, folks from the World Bank, USAID, the Woodrow Wilson Center and Zenimax spoke of their successes and failures, and it was evident everyone believed the development community is making significant strides. Many salon participants were concerned with how games could be more fun and how to ensure youth were engaged with game play vs game mechanics.

Deep learning was the key objective, but I couldn’t help but feel that we were focused on a singular approach. From my own personal experience with youth, I’ve witnessed the deepest learning emerge from youth expressing their ideas and thoughts through making. Why not pilot more programs centered on game design?

Don’t just play… make

Over the last few years there’s been an explosion in maker culture, and the rise of DIY has been global. Technology, a key component of the maker movement, has significantly aided African-led development, and as an African youth myself, it’s the type of development I’d like to see unfold across the continent.

Solomon King, a Ugandan entrepreneur and tinkerer, has introduced robotics to the country’s youth through Fundi Bots, an initiative to foster creativity, productivity and homemade solutions. Youth and adults are not just consuming products or knowledge, but designing and making, which is incredibly empowering.

In the United States, the Obama administration’s National Stem Video Game challenge has picked up meaningful traction since its inception in 2010. According to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, this year 46% of youth designed educational games. When asked why, many youth said they wished they could teach their peers about their interests and use games in the classroom.

Youth and adults can learn quite a bit from mastering game design and mechanics, including storytelling, logic, problem solving and of course computer programming. I want to point out that game design can and should be taught to anyone, regardless of age because of course, adults play games too (the recent release of GTA5 reminds us all too well).

My reflections on international development experts designing games is not to say that these efforts are not appreciated or unwanted. It’s important that critical issues in the development field are deployed in an interactive, local and engaging way. At the same time, participation, co-creation and ownership are at the core of social impact, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.

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