A space for discussion, reflection and knowledge sharing of all ICT4D
Can gaming inspire social change?

Can gaming inspire social change?

‘games appeal to human psychology in a way many other communication tools don’t. Most games have a storyline, a plot that the player can become a part of [..] players are able to see the consequences of their actions, both good and bad. Finally, there’s the trophy. The game rewards good decisions. When the story, the crystal ball and trophy all come together in a virtual world, it leaves an impression on our brains that transcends the boundaries of that world.’ (Mariam Adil)

DAI research shows that 48% of young people interviewed in Indonesia played mobile games. Mobile games have the ability to increase learning, encourage behaviour change and improve digital literacy, and it is these benefits of gaming that are starting to be more widely acknowledged by development agencies. Educational games have been used for years in the USA, so isn’t it time we further explored their potential in development initiatives?

With initiatives such as the installation of wifi routers in 18 public parks across Cuba popping up globally, internet access is increasing making access to online games easier and gaming channels are becoming more diverse. As Ralph Schroeder notes ‘everywhere social media are proliferating and becoming more differentiated: from the original function of connecting ‘friends’’ and one example of this is the global rise of games on Facebook, most prominently ‘Candy Crush Saga’ which in 2014 had been downloaded to more than 500 million mobile devices worldwide.

Gaming often gets a bad rap and is cited as having a whole range of negative effects on young people from decreased attention span, increased violence and a rise in aggressive behaviour; but it’s important to remember is that gaming is not  ‘one size fits all’, and it depends on the game itself and how it is played. Lentfer points out the use of games in development can:

  1. Be a quicker and more effective way to engage communities,
  2. Result in more productive dialogue than with traditional engagement processes
  3. Trigger independent actions at the community or individual level.

She believes that:

 ‘Games in international development is a pedagogical approach intended to provide experiential learning opportunities that break down complex topics into easier-to-understand parts […] thereby serving as more effective “thought and dialogue stimulators.’

Another key element of gaming is that it empowers the player as they are in control of their virtual fate which may help inspire lasting change. This empowerment and ownership could be amplified by involving young local communities in the creation and development of the game itself with Lentfner saying ‘it is vital that game designers ground themselves in the local gaming culture. Developing [games] means to share key concepts of game design widely that would enable local nonprofits to develop games to match local contexts and purposes’.

Adil, Founder of GRID – Gaming Revolution for International Development, also recognizes that dictating, top down programmes are not effective inspiring behaviour change noting that ‘In order for a solution to work, it has to make sense to people. They should be able to visualize how the solution will change their lives, they should have a reason to break their habits and embrace change […] We need effective communication to inspire change. That’s where games come into the picture.’


Adil recognizes that games have the ability to change behaviour but changing behaviours is complicated especially when compounded with the challenges of poverty. A key barrier to the effectiveness of gaming in instigating behaviour change is the gender and age stereotype that exists around gaming which is heavily associated with boys and younger men. If games are to be used to encourage behaviour change and break stigma around subjects such as menstruation and gender equality, first we need to break the stigma around gaming itself.

GRID have created a mobile game, available on the app store that aims to break the stigma around menstrual health called MoHiM, a simple mobile phone game where players catch sanitary pads and are rewarded with keys that are used to break common menstrual hygiene myths. The app is currently being developed for low-end Android phones and will be launched in three urban slums around Nairobi to educate and empower 3,500 girls enrolled in secondary schools

Another mobile game ‘9 minutes’ gives women the education and framework that leads to healthy pregnancy and to help lower maternal death rates.

The ideas and initiatives are out there, perhaps it time development agencies considered putting more funding Into gaming for development.


Gaming also has the power for capacity building and educating development practitioners and the public on the lives and experiences people living in poverty and to aid in fundraising campaigns. For example, the UKAID supported game African Farmer simulates the complex decisions and uncertainties faced by small-scale farmers living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Earlier this year UNICEF also launched a new fund-raising project called ‘Game Chaingers’ to raise money for children in Syria asking gamers to help mine the cryptocurrency Ethereum, drawing on the solidarity of the PC gaming community.


It is clear that gaming has untapped potential for instigating behaviour change in development projects and educating the public on global development issues but there remains a clear lack of data on its usage. As Heeks notes we need to figure out:

Who is playing? • When and where are they playing? • Why are they playing? • What are they playing? • How and with whom are they playing? • What impact does their play have?

As I mentioned in my previous article asking how smartphones are changing the lives of women in the developing world, we also need to acknowledge the power of mobile technologies as a platform for gaming. By answering these questions we can maximise the power of gaming to instigate long lasting social change.

Do you know of any interesting gaming initiatives in development work?


Academic References:

Schroeder, R. 2018: Social Theory After the Internet: Media. Technology & Globalization. London: UCL Press. p 86.


  1. A A

    This is a very good topic for communication efforts in development! Gaming in development should definitely be explored I think.

    It’s really interesting how critical we can be of ICT4D and what it actually can do for social change. Like how we are bundling up the ICT as ONE method. I agree with most of these critics, but they are often talking about social media. The other features of ICT are sort of left behind in the discussion. I just posted an article about what fiction can do for social change (was reffering to the Black Panther film) and find some similarities to your topic.

    Also, in every communication effort, the tool used to reach your outcome (whether it’s behaviour change, to inform or educate) should never be the purpose. By that I mean, don’t think an app, a game or a hashtag campaign will be the solution. It’s HOW you use these tools that will cause the success.

  2. J H

    Hi Anjuli! Great post drawing attention to gaming and development. The field generally gets too much negative attention by way of testosterone filled adolescents looking for kicks through blood and gore. There is far, far much more to the scene, I think.

    Game developers are also being more conscious about issues related to development. One example is the award winning title “This war of mine” by the indie Polish 11bit studio. The game, as the title gives away admittedly about violent struggle, focuses on the horrors of war rather than grenade throwing masculine heroism of the stereotypes. Such an approach contributes to change illusions.

    On a side note, the studio, together with the NGO War Child, ran a donation campaign focusing on support to children tormented by war back in 2015. Over a few weeks almost 5 000 USD were donated, in development context not a big amount, but originating from a source that is often disregarded in these circumstances – computer gamers.

    Great work!

    J H

Comments are closed.