Using Video Games to Teach Development Skills

photo: Caroline Bailey (left) and Mariam Adil
Caroline Bailey (left) and Mariam Adil at the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative University
December 11, 2014

Imagine you're an international development practitioner in the field. Your host country has given you a new assignment: evaluate the impact of a pilot deworming program using a randomized control trial. What are your first steps?

Gaming Revolution for International Development (GRID) helps practitioners address scenarios like this. The start-up venture, launched by International Development Studies graduate students Mariam Adil and Caroline Bailey, designs low-cost video games to simulate common issues in development fieldwork.

The concept, said Mariam, grew out of what she and team members considered a learning gap between the theory and practice of development. Mariam points to a classroom discussion as the catalyst for the idea; after debating the merits of two project ideas for development in Kenya, one of her classmates declared, “I guess we’ll never know.”

“It got me thinking that in development, we seldom observe the ‘counterfactual,’ the scenario that would have happened if we had done things differently,” said Mariam. “And I thought, if only we could simulate economies, like SimCity, then we could observe the impact of projects. That was the moment GRID was born.”

Since its launch last Spring, GRID has debuted two games. ‘Randomania,’ the first, addresses common political, ethical, and resource constraints in the field. Users experience, in one scenario, a simulated meeting with country officials who want to measure the impact of a new deworming initiative. Through a series of questions and multiple choice answers paired with explanations, users learn more about designing an impact evaluation in the field.

‘StereoWiped,’ currently in prototype form, is a social impact game that focuses on breaking the social constructs that fuel racial, gender, and professional stereotypes.

screenshot: Randomania video game

Randomania enables development practitioners to simulate real constraints while designing impact evaluations for fieldwork.

To test and refine Randomania, the GRID team paired with the World Bank’s Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF), which also provided funding for the project. The game has since been played by more than 300 policymakers in World Bank workshops, and it will be provided as a complementary learning tool in future World Bank workshops focused on impact evaluation.

“Given that each workshop participant on average manages at least two projects, and each project has at least 1000 beneficiaries, we estimate that Randomania has improved monitoring and project evaluation of initiatives impacting at least 600,000 beneficiaries,” said Mariam, who also works as an economist with the World Bank’s Education Global Practice.

The GRID team attended the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) last Spring where they committed to developing Randomania. Shortly after, they presented their concept at the GW Business Plan Competition, earning a finalist spot. They plan to participate in both CGIU and the GW Business Plan Competition in Spring 2015.

For the team, the experience has not only provided valuable lessons on development work, but it has also been a crash-course in managing a start-up. Team member Caroline highlights the value of having a cohesive, passionate group.

“The administrative and logistical tasks of running a start-up don’t seem as daunting and mundane if you know there is a team of individuals who really believe in the idea and are supporting you in every step,” said Caroline.

Over the next year, GRID plans to unveil three more games based on StereoWiped. They refer to their goal of improving development implementation through games as “Game Plan 2030,” echoing the World Bank’s roadmap to end global poverty by 2030.

“We don't just want to make games—we want to be the agents of change in revolutionizing how games make the practice of development effective,” said Mariam.