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Real help from a virtual world

Video games educate players on global issues and raise funds for organizations in need.

By Saba Hamedy / April 11, 2013



Radhika is just an average Indian woman who wants to help other women. She travels from Afghanistan to Kenya, addressing everything from poverty to illiteracy.

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Radhika, however, is not real. She’s a fictional character (see image, below) in the game Half the Sky, launched by journalist and organization cofounder Nicholas Kristof in early March. By using a Facebook account to download the game, users can learn how to help real women in the developing world.
Half the Sky is part of a larger trend of social cause games, which nonprofits use to connect gamers to causes.

“It could be that [the nonprofits] want to raise funds [for their cause]. It could be that [they] want people to gain new perspective on a social issue,” said Asi Burak, copresident of Games for Change, an organization that has promoted social cause games since 2004. The group also holds an annual festival to bring together funders, nongovernmental organizations, and educators with game developers.

And it’s not just nonprofits that are creating games for the greater good. The United Nations (Food Force) and MTV (Darfur is Dying) have also collaborated to create and distribute games that serve as tools to educate on global issues and raise funds for organizations in need.

So how does Half the Sky work? Users help Radhika to complete “quests” by solving problems. For example, in the first round, users help Radhika obtain a vaccination for her daughter. The first challenge is to start a dialogue with her husband about the importance of helping their child. Then, users help Radhika pick mangoes in the backyard to sell. That money pays for a cab to the hospital and the vaccination. At the end of the round, the screen flashes the message: “Give a gift to change a life.” Users then have the option to donate, or invite friends to donate, to real-life groups that address the challenges Radhika has overcome.

“The whole idea is that Radhika can do certain things and make an impact in the virtual world, and the player is aware that he or she can do the same thing in the world whenever he or she wants,” said Mr. Burak in a phone interview.

According to Burak, all social impact games are “created with a purpose in mind.”

“There is going to be a point where kids, teachers, parents, young adults, and adults will all be able to find games they are interested in that will be relevant to what’s going on around them and not just fantasy worlds or sports,” Burak said.

Saba Hamedy is a Monitor contributor.

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