Playing for Impact: Gamification in ID


game_pegs Sport and game play have long been instruments in international development programming in communicating ideas, furthering education and fostering community participation in locales around the globe. They are also prevalent in many ID workshops, bringing welcome relief from lectures or meetings. Importantly, game play is often used as a tool to bring up and break down sensitive issues that are better understood when experienced rather than simply taught. Brenda Romero, the longest-continuing working female in the gaming industry, has tapped into the power and potential for change that gaming can harness, and her methodology could be adapted to facilitate dialogue amongst the wider public about issues important for development.

Brenda Romero has developed an analog (non-digital) series of 6 games called “The Mechanic is the Message”, which uses the game play itself to communicate the message. Each of Romero’s games involves mechanics, boards, pieces, and rules to help people think through difficult concepts like illegal immigration, slavery, and the lives of diaspora communities. While playing, players come to recognize the underlying context of the game (the event or issue) thought they actions they take. The hope is that as this dawns on them, players will experience and process difficult emotions, concepts, and ideas based on the issue or event that the game evoked. Romero hopes that the newly gained perspectives and understandings will encourage people to think more critically about these and other social issues and perhaps seek to engage with their communities in some way.

To illustrate, consider a game in her series entitled “Cité Soleil”, which is the name of a slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It is a reflection of life in slum, and the complex economy that exists between the people just trying to get by and those trying to put political pressure on those in power to better their living conditions. It consists of two different games (representing the two groups of people), with two sets of rules, and two goals, on the same board, with the same pieces at the same time. From this description alone, the confusion and difficulty inherent in the situation, real-life and simulated, is expressly clear.

Romero_TrainAnother game, entitled “Train”, has a board set on a piece of broken glass, with a typewriter to one side. Players load yellow pegs (representing people) onto trains and choose cards that indicate their destinations. Imagine the shock upon receiving a card displaying “Auschwitz.” Some responded by breaking the rules, and allowing pegs to “jump” out of the train. Another man stuck around after the game was over, playing backwards, to “free” each person from the train.[1] Romero stated that emotions ranged from anger, sadness, and utter shock. Additionally, there almost always emerged some sort of dialogue between players about the game and how the players felt and reacted, illustrating that Romero was successful in creating impact.

Experiential gaming could have a huge impact in increasing awareness, compassion, and perhaps responsibility to engage with issues in the Global South. Themes could range from disaster relief, the difficulties of drought for rural farmers, the impact of ethnic conflict on governance or the impact of climate change for coastal populations. Rather than being a passive observer, as many of us in the Global North are, through games like these, people become participants and are forced to engage with the issues, and their implications.

Brenda_Romero_speakBrenda Romero has no intention of commercializing these games. Rather, they are being showcased as art installations at a variety of museums across the globe. She is also using them as a basis for communicating the importance of understanding culture and history at international speaking engagements. The impetus to bring value to gameplay, which games like these provide, is something that could be very successful in advancing the cause for development and fostering a sense of global community among those perhaps not so familiar with these issues.

At minimum, games like these help people break down complex topics, and sensitizes them to a variety of issues, which is a lesson that everyone could gain from.

If games like this were commercially available to you – would you play? Let us know in the comments below.

You can listen to Romero (video below) discuss how she used her game One Falls For Each of Us, to teach her young daughter about the slave trade. More information about her project can be found here.



Sarah Anstett

Sarah Anstett

Sarah is a writer, researcher, and development practitioner currently based in Toronto, Canada.

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