A fight is on the verge of escalation.  

Two crowds have gathered, both sides shouting obscenities at each other, brandishing weapons, and holding signs with big red and black text.

Alice watches the brewing fight, racking her brains for a way to calm everyone down. Suddenly, an idea pops into her head. She takes a handful of water balloons and throws them squarely into the crowd. 

They burst; cold water showers over the top of steaming heads. To her surprise, everyone cools down and the spell of anger is broken. 

This scenario is, however, entirely fictional. With its bright colours and cheeky characters, it is in fact Level 4 of Aiyo Alice, a newly released mobile game aimed at teenagers and young adults, tackling issues like conflict and discrimination in a fun and relatable way. NCEASL, the Sri Lankan civil society organization behind the game’s development, explains that the water balloons represent the neutralization of heightened emotional responses to conflict, like anger and fear, which can be counterproductive.  

Alice and Andy, character design

Alice and Andy, character design

“The game has two main objectives,” says Jashan Jegasothy, who has been working on the UNDP and European Union-partnered project in Sri Lanka.

“Firstly, players can learn about social issues and what they can do to help. An information center is built into the game that tells players how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, identify discrimination and hate speech, and stop bullying and misinformation.” 

“Secondly, players are presented with fictional scenarios that relate to these themes in the gameplay itself. Through performing certain actions in the game, players will develop a deeper sense of understanding about the roles they can play in promoting peace in their real lives too."

On one level, players must navigate from one end of a train to the other while avoiding being within 2 meters of another passenger carrying the COVID-19 virus. Another level requires players to take pictures of the on-screen characters and then ‘share them’ in the game only to unwittingly find the pictures becoming a part of a misinformation campaign.

When it comes to development interventions, using video games to tackle social polarisation and digital harms is something relatively new. But on the other side of the coin, video games have become known vehicles through which violent groups promote extremist messages.

 Across the world, groups such as Hezbollah have been creating video games as part of a wider recruitment strategy as far back as 2003. A couple of neo-Nazi indie games released in 2017 and 2018 involve players explicitly murdering Jews, people of colour, leftists, and members of the LGBTIQ+ community.

Extremist propaganda and radicalization efforts have borrowed elements of gaming terminology, as well as aesthetic cues from games and popular culture. The live-streamed attack in Christchurch serves as an example of how extremists invoke visual imagery commonly associated with ‘first-person shooter’ games. 

Using a video game format to drive home counter- or alternative-narrative messaging is therefore a timely yet under-explored tactic. Over 60% of the world's youth live in Asia-Pacific, while active gamers in the region number over 1.5 billion. With youth more likely to spend more time online, digitalising development interventions is particularly important to reach younger audiences.

A key advantage is that gaming cuts through the noise in the attention economy. In the online space where users are constantly inundated with content, video games offer players a more immersive and engaging experience. This promise of heightened engagement is what attracted UNDP Accelerator Labs in India to launch Corona Champion in 2020.

The Corona Champion avatar

The Corona Champion avatar

The first and beta version of the game which tests users’ knowledge of COVID-19 myths in a true-or-false swipeable format attracted a total of over 30,000 players. The game was also adopted by UNDP Morocco, Cabo Verde, and Timor-Leste. UNDP Thailand and private sector partners have also been tapping into the world of gaming through launching the SDG Game Fest, a competition for online game designs that promote the Sustainable Development Goals.

But video games also have the power to go one step further. Results from recent studies show that video games for development can also positively influence attitudes and behaviours.

“Video games can be particularly effective because when we enter into a play mindset, we engage in willing disbelief - whether it’s zombies or wizards - because we know it is ‘just a game’,” says Linda Schlegel, a researcher from the Goethe University who explores the connections between video gaming and extremism.

“That sense of separation between ourselves in real life and playing a character in a fictional world can make us less reactive and more receptive to points of view that we would immediately reject in a non-gaming environment.”

Video games could therefore provide a solution to two common challenges faced in digital development programming: ensuring that content is both accessed and engaged with meaningfully.

While developing a game from scratch is resource intensive, programmes can also apply aspects or elements of game design in non-gaming contexts to yield similar results. Gamifying user experiences often involves adding small psychological incentives - for example, digital badges that highlight achievement and can be shared with friends online. This promotes competitiveness and ‘nudges’ users towards a desired behaviour.

However, expectations should be tempered.

Schlegel asserts that while everything we consume has an effect on us, the question of how significant the effect of gaming might be has been hotly debated among academics for the last three decades.

Games and gamification are unlikely to be a silver bullet, but projects like Aiyo Alice are a crucial steppingstone towards understanding their various applications to development practice. NCEASL are planning a vigorous impact assessment process to help with this, conducting pre- and post-surveys as well as focus groups.

Digital trends and technologies have the potential to communicate, engage and advocate in ways that can make development work smarter. With the exponential rise in internet penetration and emerging technologies in Asia (and across the world), so much is clear: digital transformation must be the way forward.

Learn more

In Asia and across the world, UNDP has been working on using video games and gamification to create more effective development solutions.

Read more about UNDP’s Digital Transformation Strategy here.

More on how UNDP are supporting peacebuilding and preventing violent extremism in the Asia region

Jashan Jegasothy and Shenal Jesudian have been leading the development of the Aiyo Alice game, produced by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL). The project is in partnership with UNDP Sri Lanka and funded by the European Union. Download the game here.

UNDP Thailand, CP Group and True Digital Plus launched the SDG Game Fest, a competition for the best online game designs that highlight the Sustainable Development Goals. More

Play the Corona Champion game developed by UNDP Accelerator Lab here, and find out more about the game here.

Using mobile gaming technology, UNDP’s Mission 1.5 educates people about climate solutions and asks them to vote on the actions that they want to see happen. More

Special thanks to Linda Schlegel.

Words: Mailee Osten-Tan, with Isabella Caravaggio
Animations: Ian Dan Mari