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The Village: Gaming to Overcome Poverty in Africa

As you might have realized from past posts here, I enjoy computer gaming. I just recently came across a new game called “The Village” that is being created to simulate a third-world village. Your goal is to use your entrepreneurial spirit to raise this village out of poverty.

It’s a “multiplayer online real-time strategy game that immerses the player into the role of an entrepreneur building companies to bring prosperity to the villages of the third world.”


The Village Game - A MMOG

At first glance you might find this concept superfluous. After all, what practical use can gamers in the West have on the real problems in places like Africa? Let me try and explain why I think it could be useful…

It’s not just about playing a game – it’s about attention, ideas, and change through collaboration.

Attention
Getting the attention of people in the West in this time of overwhelming media blitzes is difficult. People are interested however, and creating one more avenue for people to find out about the situation in places like Africa is a good thing. Gaming opens up the world to a whole new demographic, and a game like the Village provides a non-overt educational component.

Ideas
Assuming the Village is an open enough game, there could be some very creative business, engineering and technological ideas that come out of it. If done right, the game could become a platform to test and prove out ideas before doing a pilot project or investing in a business in real life.

Collaboration
This is where the idea behind the Village truly comes into its best light. Collaboration player-to-player and between players and real world villagers is highly intriguing. The idea of drawing a line between those in the developed world and those in the developing world is very attractive. Think micro-level investment and idea sharing.

If the Village is developed to be fun, open and has the right type of interaction levels between users and people on the ground in the third world, it could be a very exciting project indeed. I particularly like the idea of it being a solution for education and for growing wealth through investment. In this case it’s not investment just by large organizations, but by ordinary people (just like Kiva).

If you are interested in helping, find out how you can here.

(hat tip GlobaLab)

9 Comments

  1. Hrmm….I’m concerned that this reflects a general confusion about what Africa needs.

    There’s not a dearth of information about Africa or the plight of third-world countries. If anything there’s too much disorganized information with not much direction. The sheer amount of information no doubt contributes to most Americans not caring as much as we’d like them to. The proper approach I think is to integrate the information is a useful way, not to create more in order to reach audiences or what have you.

    Also, I can’t imagine this game will do anything to increase entrepreneurship any more than Civilization encourages nation-founding. I think computer games could improve basic skills, but the level at which that works is far more abstract. Real video games can (possibly) improve problem-solving skills but there’s not a lot of evidence that learning video games cause people to learn anything with any more efficacy than anything else. And it’s pretty likely that this game will only appeal to kids that are already interested in Africa, and they’re the least likely to have their lives changed by it.

    Finally, suppose there are more entrepreneurs. They can’t do much without a more general improvement in infrastructure (good roads, Internet to enable rapid business adaptation, a non-corrupt government and business licensing schemes). I imagine that requires aid or foreign investors. There will be more entrepreneurs when conditions are improved.

    In general, I get that video games are cool and that the “more entrepreneurs” line is cool. But the one thing it’s clear Africa needs is less cool and more painstaking research into what works and what doesn’t.

  2. Hi Greg, thanks for your comments. First off, this project isn’t even off the ground. Going by what I read on their site and then imagining a best-executed situation, I thought it had some unique potential.

    There very well might be a dearth of information, however it seems that the same types of people keep analyzing and trying to solve the problems. Organizing the data in a different way, might do some good in and of itself. In “the Village” we see a unique opportunity to get the attention of a demographic who aren’t focusing on these issues.

    Whether they actually do anything good with it is all speculation (as is this whole post). What matters is that new minds are grappling with old issues.

    I didn’t suggest that a game like this would increase entrepreneurship – that’s an inbuilt trait that has to work on its own, and there’s already plenty of that in Africa. In fact, I find there are more entrepreneurs in “backwards” countries in Africa than in the US. True, they’re strapped down by poor infrastructure, like you stated, but that affects their gross dollar success not the number of entrepreneurs.

    What I was trying to say is that increased collaboration between investors in the US and entrepreneurs in places like Africa could become a reality if the right mechanisms are present in the game. Transitioning from a purely virtual world to the real world is no easy task, but I’m open to the idea that it’s possible.

    Finally, this isn’t just about being “cool”, it’s about trying different things, opening up age old problems to new minds and creating lines of collaboration between people that might not otherwise exist. The “old” solutions, analysis and research will still be done, however that doesn’t preclude the opportunity to try something new.

  3. All excellent points, especially about the entrepreneurs. And I’m sorry if I came off too dismissive or aggressive…I was in terse-writing mode for another project and it carried over. I actually think this is a neat idea, although neat isn’t always the same as effective.

    I support trying new things of course. I guess my concern is that I feel like this is a manifestation of an oldish thing, which is trying to sell Africa in one way or another by increasing awareness. Invisible Children used to have a shirt that said “Africa is the New Pink,” which I think accurately conveys the sentiment.

    Or perhaps even worse, it could be a manifestation of two oldish things: the hipness of Africa and the hipness of the Web 2.0 bubble.

    I would hesitate to call research an old idea though. There’s a lot of quite relevant research (especially in the technology area) that has only been around for 3 or 4 years and hasn’t yet been applied to developing areas.

    That said, I think much (most?) of the research done on Africa is pretty bad and at times harmful. But I think carefully researching things is a necessary condition for something to work.

    It wouldn’t be hard to get a site like this to catch on, but even if it did there are all sorts of known barriers to it achieving its goals.

    Perhaps we disagree as to the sheer amount of information about Africa’s condition. If you think of all the research projects, personal blogs, NGOs, missionaries, newspapers, and so forth collecting information about Africa, it becomes mindboggling. When I was at Northwestern, the Africana library was vastly overflowing with much more information than it could hold and people were sending more in on a regular basis. The problem is that it’s unorganized. Blogs aren’t really accountable to anyone, the NGO situation is at times ridiculously inefficient, newspapers favor heart-wrenching stories and are light on data, and so forth.

    I think Africa needs basically what the Internet needed before Google: a way to sort through the crud and prioritize some sorts of information over others. The problem is that this (understandably) violates some peoples’ sense of democracy. As a result, our resources are spread too thin and there are too many mini-projects that don’t fit together well to make a sizeable impact.

  4. My two cents… or three…

    I really like the idea of The Village, but i fear it lacks focus to appeal to the western dollar at the moment.

    The concept is trying to do three things all at once albeit under the guise of a game (game, forum and simulation). One route must be chosen to begin with and, hopefully, others will develop from that.

    People play games for a few basic reasons, and the relevant one for this is for escapism. People play on-online games to adopt a new persona, and live a different life to their own mundane existence.
    However, a game is never ‘open’ or ‘free form’ and will have a number of parameters in the background and events that move the player will have to overcome. The term non-linear game is often used and very inaccurate, as it actually means multiple-linear strains within the same game.

    SecondLife is not a game, but a forum. Again it uses escapism, but lacks (for better or worse) the structure that makes it into a game.

    As for true simulation, they are normally dull – at least to a gamer – as they simply re-create reality and test many different scenarios.
    There was a very interesting one created for the environment by a university which people could download onto there home PC’s and run simulations that were fed back, basically giving the uni a lot more processing power that it could ever have. But this is i think irrelevant to The Village.

    This may well highlight the difficulties of people living in small rural communities, and it may help people in cities relate to them, or if it were a simulation, it may even come up with more data. But non of these seem to be a substantial benefit on the ground where it is needed most.

    There are, as previously stated, an awful lot on NGO’s & charities that i agree are on the whole very inefficient, and the main reason for this seems to be ‘ideas’. They stay ideas for so long (meeting after meeting) that they then become redundant because the situations has changed, and i fear The Village concept will continue along that vain.

    I seem to be going on a bit, so i’ll bring this to a close, but in summary…

    If its a game.. get Africans to develop it, so they get the money and start breaking into the industry – one guy has started game development in Nairobi, so there is possibility.

    If its a forum.. concentrate on that but put it to use, where small businesses or individuals can use it to communicate and trade, see who wants what in their area. Push it onto mobile phones as there are far more mobiles about than computers here. Mmm… that has massive possibilities – could be very interesting.

    And finally, if its a true simulation, i say don’t bother. What’s the point? Do you want data, or do you want to put something into action?

  5. Greg and Jonathan – You both raise some excellent points, both for and against the game.

    Honestly, all of our discussions on this project are speculation. Who knows if it will ever become a reality.

    Kind of a sidenote, but it seems that initiatives like “the Village” automatically gets given short shrift because they come with the label “game”.

    Maybe the first question should be whether or not games can be used for anything beyond entertainment.

    The next question is what would the overlap of virtual worlds and real worlds look like and what would be possible to do with them? It’s going to happen eventually, even if it doesn’t fall under the game moniker.

  6. Hmm, well I’m a fan of games and I think games can have a lot of usefulness. My reaction isn’t against the village as a game per se, but as a second-life type virtual world that promises way too much.

    I said the domain in which it’s useful isn’t typically the domain of the game. The exceptions are things like flight simulators and military training games.

    Games can also be useful in generating revenue, increasing programming prowess, drastically improving hardware specifications (e.g. gaming consoles and graphics cards are being used for serious supercomputing). I also expect that the sort of people who find them fun are the sorts of people who enjoy science and math (namely Geeks) and that it’s good to get them to develop those interests.

    As for the second, I don’t really see the virtual world as a separate world. I’ve not joined second life or anything else, but my guess would be that they’re fun because you can do neat things not because they create a virtual world. And in many cases it’s just amusing that somebody bothered to program a feature into a game, such as the ability to upgrade body parts.

    Internet projects that I think are going to be important in the future include free distance learning (e.g. MIT’s open courseware). In some cases these may come with online forums or virtual classrooms, but I think they’re ultimately unnecessary. What’s important is that people communicate across great distances, not that they do so through online identities with absurdly large penises in a world filled with virtual advertisements from real companies.

  7. Very good point, it is all speculative chatter.

    Can games be used for anything else? Well, my understanding is that games are actually a tool for self development.

    Whether its learning social interaction (Cowboys and Indians, doctors and nurses, Sims etc.); improving physically (sports, hop-scotch etc.) improving reactions and hand eye co-ordination (Tetris, darts etc), improving mental agility (chess, problem solving etc.) or even your bank balance through gambling; games traditionally exist to help children learn and develop, a reason why adults traditionally don’t play as many games and why games have become quite dumb and same old same old, as the need for development has (in theory at least but no usually in practice) diminished.

    As for overlap of reality into virtual worlds (here comes the matrix), that will be an interesting thing when it does happen.
    I guess the question is, why would it happen, under what pretext.

    It would make for a fantastic UI, whether for work or as a teaching mechanism – you could have a truly international school. Maybe even virtual countries, new monetary systems – as is the case with Second Life I think?

    Quick side note, but could develop into a very interesting discussion, this is a huge benefit to Africa. The infrastructure is poor in the real world, but people here are working around that – back to the point about mobile phones, virtual money etc – If this is developed, then the field is leveled giving people here a great opportunity.

    Alas though, guaranteed the two main uses for a virtual world will be military and pornography. The two stables in all cultures and societies through the ages and around the world.

    But in reality, i agree with greg. There is a lot of money to be made with the advancement of virtual worlds, but i do see it, psychologically, very different from the real world – in fact it could become very addictive.

  8. I like the concept. Sometimes the simple ideas like this can be quite effective to get people thinking. We shall wait and see Hash.

  9. Hi everyone, thanks for your genuine interest and mentioning Village the Game on the White African blog site. My name is Sheila Romero – I’m the research associate and consultant for the game. I just wanted to address some of your concerns and speculations about Village and help clarify any issues in this forum.

    First of all, regarding the notions that the game will only appeal to kids, or that games in general do “anything beyond entertainment.” Village the Game is a casual game. Casual games are the fastest growing segment of the game industry whose primary audience is women in the age range of 30 to 45. (Or as one writer suggests, “casual gamers tend to be women, over 20, with disposable income and a fair acceptance of how the Internet works.” See http://suttree.com/2006/08/07/casual-games-not-for-women).

    There is research out there that suggests that certain games, when paired with a particular curriculum (i.e. history or mathematics), can be a very useful and powerful tool in education. Researchers like Dr. Henry Jenkins at MIT have even formed forums and research groups to study and incorporate the use of such games in educational settings. A 2002 UK-based study (Report on the Educational Use of Games), conducted by TEEM, found that games have a significant impact on helping children hone their problem-solving skills, such as negotiation, planning, strategic thinking, and decision-making skills. Therefore, there is a lot of potential in games like Village to educate people about economic problem solving through sustainable development strategies in places like Africa.

    Secondly, Greg’s concern that there is “too much disorganized information” on Africa and other Third World countries out there. Village aims to highlight real strategies that are currently in place and effectively making a difference in people’s lives. For example, one of our partners, Ciudad Saludable (CS), started out with seeing a series of problems: people in Peru who were living in dumps and collecting things from refuse in order to survive; and the private sector having no options but to dump their refuse into rivers and lakes, thus causing environmental pollution. Then CS created a solution: organizing the refuse dwellers to form micro-enterprises that provide services (i.e. picking up trash in major cities and outdoor markets around Peru). It’s a win-win situation because the private sector paying for these services benefit, as do the people who make a living out of collecting the trash. (Refer to: http://www.villagethegame.com/2007/09/ciudadsaludleorg-is-partnering-with.html)

    Finally, we are not trying to use the plight of Africa or any other developing country to market this game for ourselves. We are genuinely concerned with increasing interest and investments to these regions through social enterprise, as we believe it’s one of a few ways of achieving change. It is our belief that in order for conditions to improve, it is important to get these types of entrepreneurs involved sooner rather than later. Some examples include: Kiva (which does micro-lending), KickStart (which sells irrigating water pumps to farmers at subsidized prices in places like Kenya), and Ciudad Saludable (which creates microenterprises around cities in Peru that currently have no organized method for collecting rubbish). These are real solutions that are actually working to reduce or eliminate poverty.

    Actually, KickStart is a great example of how exactly as a social enterprise it is impacting countries. To date, the KickStart has helped create 50,000 new businesses in Kenya and Tanzania (averaging around 800 new businesses per month). It has also helped generate $52 million a year in profits and wages through these new businesses. These new revenues are equivalent to more than 0.6% of Kenya’s GDP and 0.25% of Tanzania’s GDP alone! Check out http://www.kickstart.org for further information.

    In sum, Village the Game is simply trying to develop a fun game that encourages people to learn while playing, and our primary goal is to raise awareness for existing companies that are actually working with local people to help sustain economic and social development in the Third World. Even though at the present moment we are simply developing a game, we do have greater hopes and plans for the future.

    Again, we thank you for your interest and support. To learn more about us, please visit our web site at http://www.VillagetheGame.com. You may also refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Village_the_Game. If you have any further questions or additional concerns, feel free to shoot me an email. You may find my contact information by visiting our web site. Cheers!

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