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Games in International Development: Fad or Innovation?

People have been playing more games these days in Washington D.C. And I don’t mean the strategies of the Obama and Romney spin teams.

Two recent events suggest games’ growing popularity in D.C. aid circles: this one I attended at the World Wildlife Fund earlier this month and this Tuesday’s upcoming event hosted by the Society for International Development.

Games in international development is a pedagogical approach intended to provide experiential learning opportunities that break down complex topics into easier-to-understand parts for adults, thereby serving as more effective “thought and dialogue stimulators.” In my experience with games, they have been used in place of or alongside more conventional training to help people affected by climate change to understand it, especially the concepts of risk management and adaptation.

There are many reasons to like games: 1) those of us in aid work have had to sit through too many horrible trainings and workshops to count, 2) games are a step closer to putting the “right” people in the driver’s seat of change because they are built on an assumption of agency and rational choice, and 3) they are fun! (Not to diminish anyone’s suffering in the world, but we aid workers might stand to benefit from taking ourselves a little less seriously.)

The natural comparison with games for me is participatory rural appraisal (PRA) or participatory learning and action (PLA). The key differentiation is that PRA/PLA tools can end up as a mechanism to only derive information from communities, whereas in a game, people are engaged and they “gain” the experience of having played and can relate what they learned to their own lives, regardless of what happens next in a project or program.

Skilled and experienced facilitators are needed to ensure the success of both approaches and in the context of a project or program, both PRA/PLA and games must to be supported by sound management to ensure that they are linked to action and support an overall process of development. Both approaches must also be wary of slipping into a lazy (and ignorant) perspective that uneducated people are considered “simple.”

There remain some key assumptions that need to be tested when using games within programming, namely 1) that games are a quicker and/or more effective way for organizations to engage communities, 2) that the resulting dialogue is more productive than with traditional community engagement processes, and 3) that this can “trigger” more and/or independent actions/activities at the community or individual level.

As needed in all development programs, it is vital that game designers ground themselves in the local gaming culture. We cannot only be developing and playing games from our ivory towers in D.C., but also (and perhaps more importantly) developing means to share key concepts of game design widely that would enable local nonprofits to develop games to match local contexts and purposes.

The true measure of the aid world’s success in unleashing the potential of games and sports will not be seen simply in their proliferation, but when we determine the extent of their contribution to improving community engagement and ownership within the projects and programs we support.

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This post originally appeared at: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/08/26/games-fad-or-innovation/

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