Arm Chair Activism: Serious Games usage by INGOs for Educational Change

Arm Chair Activism: Serious Games usage by INGOs for Educational Change

Payal Arora (Department of Media and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands) and Sorina Itu (Department of Media and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/ijgbl.2012100101
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The battle between educators and entertainers continues when it comes to gaming. While this is so, the edutainment battleground has expanded to include actors outside formal schooling agencies, namely International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs). These actors employ digital games with the aim to educate and activate towards specific social causes. These serious games are viewed to have tremendous potential for behavioral change through their interactive and persuasive aspects. This paper examines serious games deployed by certain prominent INGOs and analyzes the educative aspects of such new media platforms. What is revealed at the design, audience, and content level compel us to examine what constitutes as education through serious games. Here, education is seen as social marketing employing sensationalism, morality, and emotional capital to stimulate activism. Such games sustain the converted rather than create new understandings of complex social issues.
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This is an era of leisure. Information is the new entertainment. As social media pervades daily life with its constant micro-updates, it influences how we interact, process and act. The demand for digital gaming is clear, with a market of 25 billion dollars in revenues per year (Susi et al., 2007); what is less clear is the role it has in education and activism. The debate between education and entertainment is hardly new, with much written on this tension, birthing the concept of edutainment as a compromise to some, and a new breed of learning to others (Singhal & Rogers, 2002). Within this world, serious games (SGs) have sprung up, capitalizing on this platform of entertainment to communicate messages deemed pro-social, educational and meaningful (Bogost, 2007). This has made gaming more palatable amidst skeptics. Yet, it continues to create controversy in academia as seriousness, not enjoyment, is often equated with higher learning. However, if we step outside the institution of formal education, we see SGs harnessed by a range of new actors such as International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs). While several studies have been done on the implications of SGs in schooling (Garris et al., 2002; Gee, 2007; Ritterfeld et al., 2009), few have focused on such games by and for INGOs as an educative- activism tool.

Therefore, this explorative study will investigate the nature and process of INGO serious games to gauge its learning and activism potential. We seek to identify some of the features typifying serious gaming. We look into the range of SGs created for and by INGOs, the selection of information about social issues that INGOs include in the game design and their intent and mission. Therefore the overarching research question is explorative, what is the nature and design of online serious games created by INGOs? Three research sub-questions are:

  • 1.

    What is the range of characteristics that constitute a SG?

  • 2.

    What are the INGOs’ intent, purpose and desired outcomes for SGs?

  • 3.

    What are the key strategies employed in SG design to lead to activism?

Through triangulating of interviews with INGO staff, content analysis of the gaming platforms and auto-ethnography, we find that instead of critical learning and activism through SGs, we encounter emotional manipulation, top-down pedagogy, and social marketing. We argue that in the design and deployment of SGs by INGOs, attention needs to be paid to the following:

  • 1.

    Design: Information is embedded as a key motivation for players and old institutional top-down pedagogical style prevails;

  • 2.

    Audience: The focus is on the already converted versus new members given that certain ‘inside’ knowledge is necessary to proceed, creating few novel learning opportunities;

  • 3.

    Content level: Education takes the form of social marketing, leveraging on morality and emotion than on critical thinking to foster activism.

While admittedly, this is a small sample and in no way represents all SGs employed by INGOs, it serves to open up ways to critically approach INGO serious gaming by offering a framework through the design, content, and audience focus. This paper intends to serve as a starting point for discussion on the nature of informal education through SGs as used by INGOs as it reveals assumptions instrumental in the construction of these new media platforms.


Theoretical Framework

This theoretical framework is constructed around three core concepts, namely (serious) gaming, entertainment-education and social change. Considering that the analysis is exploratory, alongside the fact that INGO serious games per se have not been intensely researched by scholars, we present different perspectives academics and game designers have taken with respect to such endeavors.

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