Technology Salon


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6 Considerations for Successful Serious Games for Development


The inaugural Technology Salon in Bangkok on April 30th explored whether mobile games can really help to improve development outcomes. Lead discussants included:

  • Sowirin Chuanprapun of UNESCO, which has been exploring the use of gamification to enhance its broader programs, including the release of Sai Fah – The Flood Fighter, a mobile-based game that they released in 2014 to help young people increase their awareness of flood preparation.
  • Sittichai Theppaitoon of Debuz, a commercial gaming company based in Thailand, whose games also include Captain Mandala HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit. They are also in the process of developing a game on land management for the Thai government.
  • Lucien Parsons of Operations Catalyst, a game development consulting firm led by Lucien, which has helped to develop games for the US Department of Justice, MedStar Health, Lockheed Martin, among others.

The three lead discussants provided a brief overview of their background with games for development, after which we opened up to a lively discussion among participants. Some of the key points discussed are summarized here:

1. Effective games need to be more than just ‘chocolate covered broccoli’.

Developing a game that simply replicates the same methods used in traditional pedagogy are just flashy wastes of resources. Using games to promote rote memorization is no more effective than other methods, although games are much more effective for other types of learning, such as emergent simulations to teach people how to react to specific circumstances. Games are good for simulating practice, and penetrating the ‘animal brain’. Research has shown that games are useful for some types of learning and less useful for others. For example, a study found that surgeons were more precise after having played Nintendo Wii for an hour a day.

2. Games are only part of the solution.

The Sai Fah game was not intended to be an answer to itself for flood prevention, but rather a tool in a much wider program. UNESCO trained more than 2000 teachers in using the app, who were then able to guide students using it in schools and community learning centers. Teachers felt this was an effective tool for teaching about flood preparedness because it was far more engaging than static materials and instructions they’d had access to in the past. Additionally, game play was followed by community mapping exercises, where participants jointly discussed and documented where key flood preparation resources and obstacles were located.

3. Measurement needs to be built into the game, but can be enhanced through in-person engagement.

Games themselves are an ideal tool for measuring new skills or knowledge, because typically players need to master skills in order to advance. But to gauge retention and longer-term impact, other evaluation tools must be used, and to date, these have rarely been built into development-game initiatives. One participant shared the example of Ingress, an alternate reality game that is melding the virtual and real worlds, as a possible model for how to measure real-world actions through a game. Another asked if it was fair to hold games for development to a higher standard than development in general in terms of the expectations of results and measurements that some people may have from them.

4. Donors must be realistic about the game development process.

One group member recounted an RFP that provided 10 days for development and design of a game. A new funding facility from USAID encourages creative solutions to problems that might include games, but doesn’t mandate creation of one. In any case, the focus on user experience required for an effective game takes time and multiple iterations. Sai Fah took 6 months to develop, after the learning content was already produced (and many thought this was a short period.) Fewer than 10% of commercial games break even, and less than 1% of mobile games do, underscoring the difficulty in getting games right even under normal market conditions.

5. Game localization is about much more than simply translating language.

Translating a game into another language is easy, although is not in and of itself localization. In the case of Sai Fah, they are currently translating the game into Bahasa Indonesian. In addition to that though, they also need to make changes to the graphics and content. For example, Buddhist temples and Thai food are not relevant to an Indonesian audience, so those elements of the game will need to be re-created.

6. Now is the time to be exploring partnerships with mobile game developers.

One of the lead discussants brought up the fact this moment in time presents a unique opportunity for exploring partnerships to create games for development. Some of the large gaming companies have a lot of money on hand, which they have invested into creating entities with a focus on games for good, such as and the Rovio Foundation. The mobile game industry is also particularly brutal, and a number of smaller developers are struggling to survive. Therefore, there may be opportunities to work with these smaller firms for a lot less money than what it would have cost a couple of years ago.

Josh Woodard is the Regional ICT & Digital Finance Specialist based in FHI 360’s Asia-Pacific Regional Office and Ari Katz is the Regional Director for Beyond Access and Country Director for IREX/Thailand

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