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Slowly but surely, activists across Eastern Europe and Eurasia are learning how games can change the minds and hearts of their fellow citizens.by George Leech 12 July 2018
Should Katya’s stepfather tell her the real reason she has to take the pills every day? Although she is HIV-positive, can Katya kiss her boyfriend, share her drink, or have a baby?
It all depends on me.
I’m an intruder in Katya’s life, yet I am present at every big decision, and the one who decides whether she will lead the happy and normal life that someone taking regular anti-retroviral drugs can enjoy, or if her HIV status will dwarf everything else. Her happiness is in my hands and dependent on my own prejudices and knowledge of HIV.
Katya is, of course, not a real person but the main character in a series of interactive, short episodes that make up an online interactive movie following her life called “It’s Complicated.” Born with HIV, Katya is meant to be one of the (conservatively) estimated 1 million, HIV-positive people in Russia, a figure predicted to double by 2020. In fact, if Katya were real she would be one of the lucky ones. Only 30 percent of those with HIV in Russia have access to the antiretroviral medicine that stops the virus from multiplying.
In many ways, “It’s Complicated” is structured like a game, where each episode is a level and Katya’s happiness is measured by points the player receives for “winning” or “losing” the level. Each episode finishes with a big decision that will affect Katya’s life, either one that defies commonly held stigma about people with HIV, or one that confirms people’s prejudices. Choose the right answer, and the next clip shows her happy. Choose the wrong answer and a different video shows the consequences. Too many wrong decisions and you have to restart the game. This is, in fact, a slick example of gamification.
Gamification is all about transferring the bits, known as “game mechanics,” which make games addictive and fun to play, and applying them to topics and processes that are considered difficult, boring, or challenging. A staple of marketing and business worlds meant to build customer loyalty, brand awareness, and improve employee engagement, gamification is now making its way into the civic sectors of Eastern Europe and Central Asia as NGOs and activists discover its power to drum up engagement in their work and causes.
“It’s Complicated” was produced by Takie Dela, a Russian media outlet that focuses on social issues, and using gamification to fight the stigma of HIV in Russia has been a huge success. According to Galina Mosalova, one of the film’s developers, the average time someone spends reading about one of their campaigns is about two-three minutes. For “It’s Complicated,” the average viewing time was 19 minutes – meaning people were immersing themselves in the story and even re-watching episodes so they could choose a different answer and see the consequences for Katya.
“This is the beauty of the concept,” says Galina, “it creates a situation where you really care about the story of someone with HIV.” That’s no mean feat in a country where HIV continues to be considered more of a punishment for lifestyle choices than an unavoidable reality.
The transfer of gamification from the private to civic sector is accelerating as the success of gamified projects such as “It’s Complicated” become apparent. Gamification is often viewed with skepticism by the civic sector, a plaything for wealthy companies with nothing better to spend their money on. “Games don’t have to be sophisticated and expensive to be effective,” says Filip Noubel, one of my colleagues at the Prague Civil Society Centre (PCSC). According to Filip, PCSC’s innovation advisor, some of the most effective forms of gamification don’t even need a computer. Successful examples include role-playing games that explain the Russian judicial system and card games in Georgia that train people to spot fake news.
Gamification workshops are one of the ways to convert naysayers to the power of games. To date, we’ve held two such workshops, in Minsk and Chisinau, fast-tracking the creation of gamified processes by throwing game designers, activists, and IT specialists together to work on specific projects – with the best ones winning support from the Centre.
Attending the workshops doesn’t just open the eyes of activists to the possibilities of gamification but also those of game designers, who get to work on a completely different set of problems than usual. That was particularly appealing to Elena Kutovaya, a Russia-based game designer who took part in the workshop in Moldova. “People who work in gamification end up repeating their work as companies usually have a limited scope of problems,” she said. The motivation and drive of activists during the workshops has also been a welcome surprise for outsiders, with fellow designer Evgeniya Cherkasova noting that a typically two-month design process was squeezed into one day.
Despite its clear potential, there remains considerable suspicion of gamification as a serious tool for civil society both from the perspective of donors and from civil society itself. Filip himself acknowledges it is often difficult to envisage how a game can accelerate change, despite the overwhelming evidence of the effectiveness of gamification. He’s hopeful that a recent PCSC event held in Prague in May – Unlock 2018, a showcase and celebration of innovation and technology in the civic sector that brought together a mix of experts, activists, and donors – can help pave the way. “Unlock provided the opportunity for people who have never heard of gamification to convert to the cause, hear what it’s all about, and give it a go,” Filip said.
Of course gamification is not the only answer to addressing the myriad social problems in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. However, in a region where there is so little space available for activists and NGOs to engage the public in their work, gamification is offering a much-needed and often much more effective way to campaign, engage, and bring about change – even in an area as sensitive as the life of an HIV-positive young girl.
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