Half the Sky: A Facebook Game for Social Change

Last week, as part of our weekly Discussions 4 Development series, D4D discussed the Half the Sky game and the implications of creating games for social change. Half the Sky is a book that calls for increased action to empower women worldwide. Games for Change, a non-profit that makes games to inspire social change, created a Half the Sky game to support this cause. Before discussing, we played the game on Facebook and watched both the trailer for the documentary here and the trailer for the game here.

This game is of great interest to us for a number of reasons. It generated significant attention in the media, and within two weeks of its release it became the #9 emerging game on Facebook. It also has greatly extended the reach of the message of female empower to what we believe is a much larger audience, with almost 3 million unique total visitors and over 1 million unique players. This is impressive because it is happening on a social media platform like Facebook, where there is tremendous power for spreading a message to new eyes and with greater speed.

Interested in exploring the nuances of this game further, the D4D discussion focused on critically evaluating the Half the Sky Facebook app, paying special attention to what we identified as its three possible roles, as: 1) an educational tool for raising awareness and driving social action, 2) a fundraising engine, and 3) an entertaining game.

Half the Sky’s capacity to serve as an education tool is embedded in the fact that gameplay relies heavily on dialogue and situations which highlight the issues of oppression and lack of opportunity that women and girls face, through the storylines of female characters in India, Kenya, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the U.S. The player is challenged with carefully saving energy while dealing with realistic tasks related to problems of illness, economic difficulty, and lack of resources. These detailed, character-driven stories are very focused and well-motivated, but we in D4D were left with lingering questions. Who is the target audience of such an educational tool? Is it the young boy, who might seem best positioned to learn from the game and one day contribute to the long-term goal of greater female empowerment? Or is it the forty-year-old woman, who constitutes the average social gamer online today? Finally, we wondered whether raising awareness is effective unless it also inspires social action. If not, we think that implementing a tool (even a simple survey) to track the social action generated by the game would be a key evaluative measure.

Of course, the most straightforward way to view Half the Sky is as a fundraising tool. The game is driven by $500,000 of prior donations by corporate partners; this money can be “unlocked” by players during gameplay, which allows players to feel they are making a meaningful contribution even if they do not have the personal resources to do so. This is an interesting approach, and one that we think does have the intended effect of encouraging play by those who cannot give money themselves. It is a nice fall-back plan for fundraising, and it generates positive hype. However, we wonder if this pre-donation strategy is having the unintended effect of limiting player donations or masking the actual fundraising ability of the game. “Unlocking” money may undermine the need for real action, allowing passivity from the player instead of promoting his or her meaningful contribution to social change.

All of these considerations, however, are relatively minor in comparison to the issue of Half the Sky’s effectiveness as a game. That is because it cannot be a tool for raising awareness or money if it is not enjoyable and entertaining enough to keep players engaged and coming back for more. As a game, we were impressed by the beautiful graphics, well-developed dialogue, and realistic storylines. However, we noted, as have the game’s creators (see below), that the gameplay and user experience is lacking. From our impressions of the first ten or so minutes of gameply, the mini-games seem repetitive, and dialogue-based decisions do not appear to have much effect on the game outcomes. Unfortunately, this means the game may not hold the attention of players, and we suspect that Half the Sky is not something that will attract the attention of the gaming community. This is a shame, since that group would be a very intriguing target audience for a game/social impact hybrid if it were done well. As it currently stands, we would love to see more data on who is playing Half the Sky and how often they come back to play again in the future.

Half the Sky has already published a few evaluative resources. There is an impact report from 2013, which features media impressions, infographics on impact through gameplay, and demographics data for players, along with celebrity tweets and launch events. We found this only moderately helpful, as it seems to focus on positives without demonstrating rigorous evaluative methods or presenting truly meaningful data (we aren’t sure, for example, if the total donations include pre-donated, unlocked money not given by players.)  In what we see as a show of meaningful transparency, the game makers also have posted a four-part blog in which they discuss their successes, failures, and lessons learned in creating the game. This is incredibly useful and helps to explain the origin and cause of many of the flaws that we have noted in the game. We believe that the warnings they issue for future game makers should be well heeded.

However, in all of these evaluations we note a reluctance to critically analyze whether creating this game was actually a worthwhile pursuit. From our discussion, we concluded that games are in fact very difficult to use as tools for social change, because it is so challenging to create a good game with a focused mission. We believe that effective, quantitative evaluations based on a specific set of goals are necessary in order to see the actual impact that these games make. In the end, we’re left with the question: is it even worth it to create a game for social change?

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