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The joystick becomes a messenger as heme-based online games help push social issues

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published:March 29, 2009 11:52 am

The joystick becomes a messenger as heme-based online games help push social issues
In the corporate office of Games2win in Mumbai,a team of graphic designers and gaming programmers are flipping through the Constitution to check what it says on elections. They have done their homework on voting rights and all they need is a storyboard that can convince youngsters to cast their vote after they have notched up the gaming points. Some of the ideas flitting around the meeting table include using animated avatars of an L.K.Advani or a Manmohan Singh and weaving in the code of conduct into the game,which will be launched ahead of the general election.

Alok Kejriwal,founder and CEO of Games2win,is hoping that the excitement in cyberspace will spill over into the real world. His portal offers a bouquet of games that pushes for social issues. The Help The Planet game made an appeal to save the polar bear from extinction by reducing carbon dioxide levels. To win,players had to switch off bulbs,turn off the running tap and do all they could to save energy in a virtual home—in record time. In Stock Market Suicide,players had to save investors jumping from the Bombay Stock Exchange building by catching them in a safety net held by Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram. At the end of the game,the pop-up provides investors with tips suggesting them “not to borrow and invest” and “choose financial advisors whose business is to understand the stock market”.

Sceptics may raise an eyebrow about the effectiveness of the medium but cyberspace is full of games aimed at promoting the use of joystick as a social messenger. Log on to Playforcry.org to answer clues on Hangman and fill the Crossword grid. You will come back more informed about child rights. Launched by CRY last month,the rules of the game are simple. Once you are done with playing,a request is made to pass links to friends or make a donation to CRY. “The games are already popular,so we expected a good response. The clues test general knowledge and do not require players to be aware about the details. The aim is to sensitise people and not inundate them with statistics that could bore them,” says Poonam Chengappa,senior manager,communication,CRY.

When you are trying to get people to play for a cause,boredom is the biggest sin. “Using complicated technology or an overdose of information could distance players. There has to be excitement. Knowledge-sharing should not be overbearing,” says Hilmi Quraishi,co-founder and chief learning technology officer at ZMQ Software Systems. As a prelude to the climate change conference that is scheduled to take place in Denmark later this year,his firm has created an online and mobile game titled ‘Copenhagen Challenge’. This dares the player to rescue a scientist from kidnappers,by answering a series of questions on energy efficiency and greenhouse gases. “There is an element of thrill,” says Quraishi,who also got good reviews last year for a series of mobile games called Connect-2-Climate.

Making a message-driven game involves more attention to detail and research,says Arun Mehra,chief marketing officer,Zapak Digital Entertainment. “You cannot go wrong with facts. The test run for these games is rigid and a minimum of 200 frequent gamers are asked to give feedback before the game is officially launched,” says Mehra. His portal is promoting safe sex through Play it Safe that involves distributing condoms to love-struck couples in a specific colour-coded order. “We have received an encouraging response,” he says.

Last year,his firm bagged the United Nations Population Fund Award for Creative Excellence for an online game titled Laadli. Designed in association with NGO Population First,this puts the player on the driving wheel in a Volkswagen Beetle. At pit stops,they are required to answer questions concerning the dwindling sex ratio. Ten months after its launch,Mehra notes that the game continues to be popular and an upgraded version is under consideration.

Promoting theme-based games is,however,a difficult task. “It is important to attract the attention of avid gamers who are regular visitors to gaming portals. Players need to be prodded to test the game. If it manages to interest them,they will come back,” says Mehra,who uploaded banners for Play it Safe and Laadli on the Zapak homepage.

While Kejriwal has resorted to publicising message-driven games on social networking sites like Orkut and Facebook,Quraishi went a step ahead and distributed discs of Copenhagen Challenge in Delhi schools to attain feedback from children who comprise his target audience. In another month,he will launch an online game that crusades against poaching. “The ultimate aim is to put across a message that will lead to betterment of society. The medium is incidental,” he says

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