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Gaming for Social Change

June 8, 2016

Agent, we have received an URGENT EVOKE to help save protected land in your community. You are called to action, how will you respond?

Thus begins a player’s journey into EVOKE, an immersive online experience that uses the dynamics of a video game to develop and, crucially, to measure the skills required to create social change. EVOKE falls into the category of “reality gaming,” meaning that it simulates challenging scenarios to prepare the player to encounter such situations in real life. Reality gaming exercises are often used to teach technical skills and measure one’s ability to execute well-defined tasks. However, rather than measuring technical skills, EVOKE aims to do something unique: to teach players to work through tough social challenges by using teamwork, and evaluate the behavioral change that occurs during that process. But can gaming — something most often associated with leisure and distraction — deliver measurable changes in the development of social impact skills?

First developed by the World Bank in 2010, EVOKE’s narrative is presented in the form of a graphic novel. Players create superhero profiles for themselves and embark on quests, tackling issues as diverse as food security and child soldiers; they receive power-ups from fellow gamers, a form of peer-review similar to a thumbs-up or retweet, but applied to specific skills. The climax is an EVOKATION, or an original proposal by a player for a project to be executed in the community. “Winning” is receiving recognition that your EVOKATION is among the strongest proposed and the possibility of making it real, by offering the player support in the form of a seed grants and mentorship.

Through game play, participants learn four broad clusters of skills that represent key archetypes: Creative Visionary; Deep Collaborator; Systems Thinker; Empathetic Activist. While these archetypes fold neatly into the game’s fictional narrative, they also mirror the qualities the global development community has come to consider crucial to creating greater social impact through decades of observation and practice, and so represent fundamental elements of the World Bank’s theory of change. If a measurable improvement can be created and captured in a large community of aspiring social change makers, the quality of the resulting real-life projects could be vastly improved.

Thankfully, the interactive and data-based nature of a video game lends itself to exactly this kind of real-time measurement. In EVOKE, the four character types break down into 48 specific skills that can be identified and recorded, such as a player’s “ability to participate in diverse teams” or “display command of words and ideas.” In a challenge related to human trafficking, for example, a debate unfolds regarding whether or not the challenge is local or global. Through a series of events designed to illustrate that it is both a global and local issue, the player’s response is measured regarding three specific skills: the ability to see the bigger picture and develop ideas with clear evidence, to clearly specify the problem from a human-centered point-of-view, and to illuminate the interconnectedness of ideas. Players are rated in these categories both by their fellow gamers and by expert game-runners. The data collected refines a player’s public profile and is subsequently funneled into impact reports, ranging from a coarse tracking of web traffic to a clinical analysis of behavior change at the level of a single user.

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The first incarnation of EVOKE attracted an audience of hundreds of thousands of visitors. In its initial ten week run-time, EVOKE gathered data on thousands of registered players. Based on game measurement and post-game surveying, the EVOKE team found that participation in the game had a strong or moderate effect in a number of target areas. Not only were participants exposed to new ideas and knowledge, they also made progress in becoming stronger versions of the core archetypes, meaning they were both inspired to create new projects in the actual world, and were better prepared to make them effective.

This initial run had a global scope and focused on attracting the largest possible user-base. But like the players in the game, EVOKE’s creators learned to refine the project itself. The original EVOKE was “effective” in the same way a tree is effective when reproducing: casting off thousands of seeds with the odds suggesting a few will make it to saplings and perhaps one will become another tree. In the same way, the game was good at inspiring people to perhaps take action in reality, but ongoing tracking and measurement of the transformative effects of EVOKE on individuals at a granular level was difficult at such a large scale.

Accordingly, the second iteration of the game narrowed the focus to a single, targeted country: Brazil. And the third iteration, underway now, is focused tightly on a single community: Soacha, Colombia. The plan is to run the game with greater intimacy by bringing together university students and community members. For the first time, the virtual community will connect directly to physical, real life challenges, with gamers actually meeting in-person for live sessions of EVOKE played on a board mapping Soacha neighborhoods. By expending more energy on fewer relationships in one tightly defined location, this latest version of the game focuses less on large numbers of unique visitors to a website and more on measuring the transformational growth of individual gamers.

While the original numbers offer encouragement, and the plans to both roll out the game to more concentrated audiences and to connect it to real life are laudable, EVOKE will only be truly effective insofar as it leads to qualitative social change-making outside the game. Whether or not the game’s designers will be able to achieve this ultimate goal depends not on how many users the game acquires, but rather on tracking individuals over the long-term and translating inspiration to action.

This is the challenge the the World Bank or any other interested developer faces if using immersive game environments to create real-life social change is to become a reality. Success would have massive implications on the future of social impact work, setting the stage for video games — a medium that is much more accessible to a far greater number of people than, say, formal graduate education — to play a driving role in real life social change. As virtual reality starts to play an ever-greater role in communications and teamwork, and the pressure to turn online initiative into measurable results increases, the question for the creators of projects like EVOKE echoes the one they’ve set for their players: how will they respond?

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