Art Works Blog

Grant Spotlight: Half the Sky Movement: The Game

Meet Radhika, the heroine of Half the Sky Movement: The Game, a Facebook game that takes players on a journey of empowerment through opportunity. Players meet Radhika in her small village in India where they have their first chance to co-create solutions to significant problems facing many women around the world. In the course of the journey, Radhika meets other characters and travels through five countries before arriving at the podium of the United Nations.

Half the Sky Movement: The Game is led by Games for Change, a nonprofit that supports the creation of social impact games. Games for Change received a $75,000 Art Works grant from the NEA in 2012 to help develop and launch the game. (The NEA is among five other funders that provided support.) As NEA Media Arts Director Alyce Myatt noted, [Half the Sky] was one of the first games to be submitted [for NEA support] reflecting artistic excellence in graphic design: navigating the considerations and challenges of creating artfully rendered characters and environments along with well crafted storylines that successfully engage a general public. As with our other media grants, the Arts Endowment is committed to supporting media as art in addition to media about art.”

The game is part of a global initiative called Half the Sky Movement that raises money and awareness of women and girls living under difficult circumstances all over the globe. Author and columnist Nicholas Kristof and author Sheryl WuDunn started the movement through their humanitarian work that became a book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and then a PBS special.

Seven non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including the Fistula Foundation, Heifer International, and Room to Read are key collaborators. Their respective issues are explored in the book and define the quests upon which Radhika and game players embark.

Launched on March 4, 2013, the game has already garnered impressive statistics. As of this posting, there have been 623,500+ players, 1,781,000+ unique visits, an average of 9,000 players added daily, more than 144,000 book donations as a result of the game, and more than $88,875 donated for fistula surgeries, and a total of $261,225 in direct and sponsored donations.

As players progress they can make direct donations or accumulate points and move toward point thresholds that unlock real-world donations from the game's sponsors, including the NGOs. Those donations include books and live-changing surgeries from sponsors such as Johnson & Johnson and the Pearson Foundation. In fact, Half the Sky Movement is the first game on Facebook with direct virtual to real-life donations and social actions contributed by players.

The NEA spoke with Games for Change Co-president Asi Burak about what it's like to create a game that people all over the world can and want to play.

NEA: How did the idea to create a game around the book and the TV series begin?

ASI BURAK: The idea came from Nick and Sheryl. It was inspired by Nick's encounter with Games for Change through our 2009 conference where he was a keynote speaker. At the time, MTV’s game, Darfur is Dying (created by Susana Ruiz), was gaining a lot of traction. Nick was writing about Darfur and the game showed him not only how many people can be reached through games but how you can reach beyond the converted with games. He said again and again, the game is not going to be as meaningful as the book. At the same time it can reach people who are not going to read the book. The idea that the game would be a gateway for people to get to know the Half the Sky Movement was at the top of our agenda all the time. It influenced the choice of Facebook as a platform. It influenced how we approached all of our decisions.

The reason Games for Change took on Half the Sky is that it was such a high profile opportunity that we said, let's do this as a demonstration project. We can get together a coalition of funders and a coalition of partners and that's what we did.

NEA: Aside from Darfur is Dying, were there other games that guided the development of Half the Sky?

BURAK: Definitely. First I'd like to say that Games for Change is not a [game development] studio. Think of us like the Sundance Institute. Our core mission is to make sure that more and higher quality games for change are created, and that the community shares knowledge. We also curate games and so we have around 100 on our website. People from all over the world create games to raise awareness of issues.

A good example is WeTopia. It is a Facebook game that we learned a lot from especially in regards to raising money. But unlike Half the Sky, WeTopia's content is disconnected from the issues it seeks to support in that you're building a utopian city and through that you make donations but you don't see any suffering. It's a choice that they made. But we're making a game based on a book and our game activities can't ignore the fact that the book deals with very tough issues.

Darfur is Dying was very interesting because it was the first to guide players to take action outside the game---in that case it was sending letters. One of the most important things that we did in developing the game was to secure sponsors [that make donations when players hit certain point targets.] For us it was an opportunity to tell people, you have power, you can donate without spending money, and that generated much wider participation as a result.

NEA: Can you talk about how you worked with the different NGOs on the visual components, the design, style, representation, etc.?

BURAK: That was a very long process and probably one of the more challenging parts of the experience. We made a decision to work with seven nonprofits because we wanted to cover all of the issues that appear in the book. So it was constantly working back and forth with them.

We treated them as content experts but there was a tension between how much the expert wants to teach and how much the designer wants to include in the game. Games are really good at giving you options and decision points. Text is not something that is super friendly to players. It was a constant balancing act to tell the NGOs, we need to focus at a very high level on these issues. Some of them worried that it was too simple. Yes, it was simple, but it was also much more than people know because players come with almost no prior knowledge.

The way we made everything possible is that we decided to make the game about one woman that you can follow from oppression to opportunity. She has a journey that not only improves her condition but as she accumulates power, she improves the condition of others. That was the key. Once we chose Radhika as the heroine/protagonist, moving from a very modest beginning to speak at the United Nations at the end, to be a political leader, we had an arc, an overarching story that we could then tie to the content.

NEA: Can you describe briefly the development process?

BURAK: Frima from Quebec City was the developer and they led the charge in terms of the content and the art. We were the translators between the NGOs and Frima. As far as the art goes, that came very early and it was tense and consuming. The decision to have five countries with their different looks also came very early.

Frima developed the game, the code, the art, the content. We were like the producers, explaining the vision, making sure that sensitivities around issues were attended to and obviously taking responsibility for marketing, for PR, for everything beyond making the game. A huge win for us was having a game designer at Frima [who] had a background in anthropology. He wasn't the usual commercial developer that we needed to educate. He had sensibilities, he read the book and watched the TV series and he had the right attitude. That was great.

NEA: You noted in the lessons learned blog on your website that you brought in a writer for script later in development. Tell me about that process.

BURAK: It was interesting. We went to the open BETA with 2,000 players---most of them were Games for Change partners---and we got some harsh comments on the content.

At some point, we said instead of driving all the partners crazy, let's take someone from the outside. Let's keep the development running and not delay the process. The guy we hired looked at everything. He had experience writing for theater. He's an expert at writing concise dialogue and conveying nuances with a few words. He had constraints of course. He couldn't write longer than the existing text and he had to follow the narrative arc. But he was able to make Radhika more reflective. Instead of being always happy, now she could be disappointed, she could fail, she could be concerned, she could be afraid. This realistically reflected that the issues were complex.

NEA: How about the music?

BURAK: The music was done by Frima and we had almost no comments. We just allowed it. It's interesting---many people play Facebook games or games in general without sound. But in this case, many people commented that it was one of the only games where they didn't turn off the volume because the music's pleasant. That was successful.

NEA: How long did the project take from start to launch?

BURAK: It was less than a year once we had the money. The first funding came in April 2012. We started with the developer in May and we started officially in June. So nine months for development. But if you include the whole process from our conversation with Nick and then the fundraising, you have a three-year process.

NEA: Anything else you'd like to add?

BURAK: We are very proud to be one of the first games that NEA ever funded. At some point in the process even our partners and Nick Kristof were concerned because we didn't know how the game would be accepted. But it was accepted very well. It's important to remember that this is the first round with such a large-scale project. The numbers look really good and it makes everything better that we are paving the way for others. Having NEA as a funder is unique for us. It goes back to our mission. We represent a whole community so hopefully we have served the community by making a project that will be regarded by NEA as a great success story.

<em>Want to learn about other videogame and other media arts projects that have received NEA support? Check out our new Grant Search tool!</em>

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