Christina Myers, Special advisor to Dr. Alaa Murabit and co-founder of the Omnis institute
Dr. Alaa Murabit, SDG advocate and co-founder of the Omnis Institute

‘Innovating with new technologies for social change’ has become a trendy concept, with success measured by how “unique” and “out-of-the-box” the ideas are. Associating innovation to the development of such ideas has led too many people to try to reinvent the wheel, which in turn means that efficient ways of transforming ideas into sustainable and impactful social initiatives are often overlooked, in particular, local leadership and the inclusion of diverse voices at decision-making tables.

Local leadership rests on the idea that individual actions, based on someone’s vision and local experiences, are key for inclusive social change. Including diverse voices at decision-making, tables is one of the most effective ways to create initiatives that are both pragmatic and sustainable. So, how could we connect these concepts to the development of new technologies?

Video games are played actively by 2.2 billion people globally, almost one-third of the world population and twice as much as the number of people using the free texting application ‘whatsApp’ on their smartphones. However, a common misconception about games is to think they are predominantly played only by young men. Research shows that games are equally played across different age ranges, races and genders. However, a strong difference is found in the types of games that different audiences play.

To give an example, only 7% of women play shooter games globally. The explanation is quite simple: women – and particularly women of colour – are most frequently diminished and objectified in shooter games – if you can find them at all.

In Mario Kart, a game developed exclusively by male game designers, the only female character, Princess Peach, is kidnapped about 13 times and always saved by Mario, a male character. The solution to this issue is based on inclusion. Take Lara Croft, one of the most famous gaming characters of all time. In 2013 she was transformed to become less sexualised and objectified than her previous depictions. This was done by integrating women developers into the game design strategy, in other words, by including women at the table where key decisions on the game were taken.

The importance of inclusion in game design was also demonstrated by research which shows that when we have more diverse teams (in terms of race, sexual orientation, religion, age, gender, etc) of game designers, the games created are more inclusive. When we invite people to design their own games, their voices and visions are directly represented.

Gaming technologies have the potential to transform online education (which lacks inclusivity as online courses are used mostly by those who have already studied at university) into active, contextualized and impactful educational experiences. This way, we can create life-changing opportunities for millions of people globally who have access to the internet but not to quality education. By inviting people to design their own educational games, education can also be diversified and more people can access local knowledge.

We implemented these ideas into practice at the Global Game Jam (GGJ). GGJ is the biggest game design event ever organized in the world. The idea of this event is straightforward: people meet, design games during a weekend and upload the games created to an online platform. This year 113 countries participated and thousands of games were created in countries such as Congo, New Zealand, Jamaica, Guatemala and Myanmar. The GGJ is shaking game design practices (so far led by universities and large corporates in Japan, Europe and the United States) by giving visibility to games designed in remote communities and by individuals all around the world.

This year we included the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 – Life Below Water- as one of the sources of inspiration to design games during this event.

The results were that 193 games on SDG 14: Life Below Water were created. A team in Venezuela designed a text adventure game called “Legacy-Echoes from the Future” where players have to try to change their behaviours in order to alter the future and avoid the extinction of marine creatures. Another team in South Africa created a game where a hermit crab explores the depths of the oceans and has to change the meaning of what could be its home because pollution has completely changed its living environment. Game designers in Ukraine created a game called ‘Wasted Sea’ on how to take responsibility for personal waste to protect oceans by playing an angry shark and living its everyday life in these circumstances.

The greatest challenge when organizing events like the GGJ is to ensure that they are not exclusionary and create the conditions where anyone, especially women and minorities, can participate and design games. We can’t ignore that game designs is a task that requires knowledge in tech, which is a sector where strong disparities exist. By using game jams to lower these barriers, we also inject more diversity into the sector and impact it long-term.

Finding a way to democratize knowledge on game design, especially educational game design, has the potential to contribute in achieving the SDGs. It has the potential to reach over 2.2 billion people, use new technologies to create inclusive (and fun) education, give people a voice and enable them to create their own solutions to social, economic or political issues.

This is the challenge we’ve e taken on, and in May 2019 we’ll be replicating the use of game design to impact the SDGs with the first-ever game jam on SDG 5 (Gender Equality) where everyone will be able to contribute and participate equally, regardless of their background and experience with game design.