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[Column] Alex Owiti: Gaming for social good is a better tool for positive socioeconomic development to the African Youth


Gamification for social good started way back in the day when the young and the old would play together as they passed important social messaging that would change behaviour or instil discipline.

For instance, the Sudanese game for naming the ancestral tree played an important role in the Nuer Constructive Contructivisit Ethnic Identity. Dereje Feyissa in his book, Playing Different Games: The Paradox of Anywaa and Nuer Identification, argues that the Nuer Identification mode is not primordialist as among the Anywaa but constructive.

The game enables the Nuer to understand and appreciate their lineage and roots as well as the strength of their connectedness. The game helps to paint a picture of the ancestral tree, drawing the value system among other shared similarities even if a Nuer is abroad. He or she can be able to identify his or her kin through the game.

However, today the gaming industry in Kenya has received a fury of adverse sentiments because of many youths losing their lives at the expense of their meagre earnings in pursuit of bigger dreams brought about by the delusional promises of engaging in betting spurs as those companies made away with millions of shillings and lives of promising youths.

Betting has been the face of gaming industry in Kenya, yet it has been shrouded by a lot of negative behavioural changes that has seen many youths get into crimes and deaths that they never anticipated as a result of negative influence on their dopamine.

I remember Cabinet Secretary Matiang’i fighting furiously with the betting companies and village betting shops to help rescue the youth from the addiction that was now destroy the youths and taking away their future.

Many looked the Cabinet Secretary as a mad King as the proponents saw the revenues and the profits to be made rather than the lives that we being destroyed.

However, gamification for social good is now taking up centre-stage with an aim to influence the youth positively. The effect to their dopamine is meant to impact them positively and influence their behavior toward social good and empower them by providing the right information through gamification.

Usiku Games, a local mobile game development company is now designing games through the #GamingForGood initiative as a counter-balance to the testosterone driven Sports Betting industry that is sucking $37 Billion annually out of the continent. Their goal is to create a fun, entertaining alternative that still provides that dopamine hit, while also making a positive change in the world.

To demonstrate how gaming can be used for social good, the company recently developed a game in partnership with Seedball Kenya Limited to help curb the adverse effects of climate change. The Game intents to help with reforestation of Kenya’s lost forest cover. Kenya targets to increase its forest cover to 10 percent from the current 7 percent by 2022.

A Seedball is a coated tree (or grass) seed inside of a ball of recycled charcoal dust mixed with some nutritious binders. The biochar coating of the ball helps protect the seed within from predators such as birds, rodents, and insects and extremes of temperature until the rains arrive. Once soaked, the seedball will help retain and prolong a moist environment around the seed to encourage germination.

The initiative targets areas that have been severely affected by deforestation because of charcoal burning activities. Seedballs Kenya has distributed over 10 million seedballs since its inception in 2016:

In the game, the player flies a small plane and try to plant trees by dropping Seedballs. At the end of the game, the players are congratulated for planting (e.g.) 379 virtual trees. The player is then encouraged to turn them into 379 REAL TREES by donating ksh.1 per tree.

In recent years, Kenya’s forests have been depleted at an alarming rate of approximately 5,000 hectares per annum. This is estimated to lead to an annual reduction in freshwater availability of approximately 62 million cubic meters, translating to an economic loss to the economy of over USD 19 million, according to the Kenya Forest taskforce report.

On the same breadth of climate change, the company developed a game called Let it rain. Let it rain is a game that was developed to the weather forecast and help farmers to plan accordingly when it came to planting their crops. At a time like this last year, farmers made predictions of the Long Rains Onset Dates in their various Wards and Counties.

This was in a Gamifying Weather Forecast Campaign dubbed ‘Let it rain’: a project by iShamba together with Mediae (Producers of Shamba Shape Up), Alliance of Bioversity International, and CIAT and in collaboration with Usiku Games.

The Onset Dates of the rains were confirmed using the newest technologies and verified by KALRO and CGIAR through Awhere. A total of 245 correct predictions were made and a Grand Prize of Ksh.1,000,000 shared based on the number of winners per county.

Let it Rain has since then stirred up a national conversation on how relevant weather forecasts are to farmers. It has also seen iShamba build over 25,000 profiles for all farmers who participated and has regularly provided them with customized climate information.

At the same time, the company has also developed a game to help the African girl to restore the self-confidence themselves and African fashion sense, by reinventing the typically white-dominant fashion industry.

The game called BeYOUtiful enables African women to select clothes, accessories, and beauty enhancers to meet their body size, shape and complexion.

The vast majority of the existing western originated fashion games feature a white, Barbie-esque model with unobtainable body shape. These games typically place the model in objectifying and irrelevant scenarios, such as red-carpet events, fashion runways, and princess’ ballrooms.

Unlike the existing games, which start with women in skimpy lingerie, the models in beYOUtiful recognize the cultural modesty in parts of Africa, celebrating beauty without objectification.

The game features bold curvy models, and tall slender Maasai women, dark-skinned Ethiopian women, and fairer South Asian models.

The game also features models with albinism and women with physical disabilities to celebrate the fact that every woman is beautiful and deserves to feel so.

The fashion available to place on these models also represent the local African cultures, including kitenge fabrics and Muslim headdresses designed by top Kenyan fashion designer Wanjiru Muriu-Anami.

The beYOUtiful game features women in positions of power: she is teaching a university class, she is presenting in a board room, she is in a fitness gym, or she is an executive chef in a fancy restaurant. These all subtly give the message that “you are powerful and you can be anything you want to be”.

In the future, the organization plans to partner with NGO’s focused on women’s empowerment, to leverage beYOUtiful as a tool for educating girls about their potential, in a fun, unintimidating environment.

Usiku Games is therefore not just creating the next generation of mobile games that are relevant and interesting to today’s African youth, but it is creating an entire movement around #GamingForGood – finding ways to use gamification to make a positive social impact in our communities.

In Kenya, we are seeing fast mobile and internet penetration creating a conducive environment to develop alternative games that are fun, educative and entertaining. Recent CA report show that as at the end of 30th September 2020, the number of active mobile subscriptions (SIM Cards) stood at 59.8 million from 57.0 million subscriptions reported in June 2020. This translated to mobile (SIM) penetration of 125.8 percent during the period under review.

On the other hand, digital payments have grown significantly in Africa. In Kenya people are willing to pay for games via mobile money which has become the way of life. CA report indicates that as at 30th September 2020, active mobile money transfer subscriptions and mobile money agents stood at 31.8 million and 245,124 respectively. As was the case last quarter, the values transacted on mobile money platforms continued to increase with the adoption of cashless payments aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

And because of the right business environment, Kenya is now attracting venture capitalists who are investing in gaming development to help spur socio-economic development among the youth.

Mordor Intelligence report indicates that the global gaming market was valued at USD 162.32 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach a value of USD 295.63 billion by 2026, registering a CAGR of 10.5% over the forecast period (2021 – 2026).

Game developers across emerging economies are continually striving to enhance gamer’s experience, launching, and rewriting codes for diverse console/platforms, such as PlayStation, Xbox, and Windows PC, which are incorporated into one product provided to the gamers through the cloud platform.

While Africa Gaming Market – Growth, Trends, and Forecasts (2020-2025) report by ResearchandMarket.com indicate that Africa is expected to register a CAGR of 12% during the forecast period (2020-2025). The most recent trend is the growing availability and popularity of multi-functional gaming console, which is emerging in the market and helping in growing the market of video games in the region.

The report also indicates that mobile gaming generates close to half of the revenue that the gaming industry gets annually and more than 200 million Africans are below 35 years, and this figure might double in a decade. Africa has a huge market for gaming and smartphone companies.

Mobile gaming, therefore is gaining popularity in remote parts of Africa. For example, more than 290 million people in North Africa use mobile phones. The mobile market in the region generates $90 billion annually.

However, acceleration in network rollouts by mobile operators in Sub-Saharan Africa has been a vital driver of the reduction in the coverage gap. Infrastructure deployment in Sub-Saharan Africa increased 3G coverage from 63% in 2017 to 70% in 2018, extending access to more than 80 million people. 3.3 billion people live in areas covered by mobile broadband networks but do not use mobile internet – this usage gap’ is more than four times greater than the coverage gap. Such factors might harm gaming companies operating in the region.

In Kenya 4G penetration continues to be highest in the urban areas with over 90 percent penetration for 3G network in both rural and urban areas. Transition to 5G is also underway creating even better environment for gaming development based on the network’s capability of high-speed broadband technology.

This shows that Africa is the next frontier for mobile gaming and nothing stops innovators and game developers from creating and designing games that are relevant to our culture and lifestyle. The gaming industry in Africa should now move from violent and bikini kind of games that have synonymous with the traditional gaming industry to more relevant and fun.

 Africa is rich in history and culture, artefacts and wildlife that can be captured through gamification for purposes of posterity and for the next generation.

Alex Owiti is the Director of Communication and Public Relations at Usiku Games.

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