Games in Egypt

During the week of the UN’s General Assembly meeting, the UNDP innovation team organized a series of workshops throughout the world as part of a networked event called Shift Week (with the implied meaning of shifting thinking in a range of sectors). Twenty-one workshops were put together on a range of topics from big data to crowdfunding, and took place in a range of countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America and Asia.

Poster for public event in Cairo

I was invited to give a talk and facilitate a workshop on “games and gamification” in Cairo, Egypt. The goals, at first, were fairly clear: work with Egyptians and a few people from select UNDP country offices (including Cyprus, Macedonia, and Bhutan) to explore how games and game design could impact the work of development. Together with my colleague Steve Walter, managing director of the Engagement Lab, I headed to Cairo. During our four days in the city, we met with several organizations devoted to ITC and entrepreneurship (including TIEC and ITI), gave a talk to the local UNDP staff, presented a public lecture at the Greek Campus near Tahrir Square and provided a two-day workshop at ICECairo, a remarkable maker space in the same neighborhood, for youth throughout Cairo and northern Egypt. Over 600 people signed up for the public lecture and nearly 300 were in attendance, with 128 streaming it online. About 250 people applied to participate in the two-day workshop and 40 were accepted. These 40 people were intensely engaged throughout the workshop, and as a condition of their participation, agreed to devote two-hours a week for the next six months to continued work on their projects.

The overwhelming interest in the topic was exhilarating, if not a bit surprising.

Why would so many Egyptians be interested in games for development? As it turns out, they weren’t. Most were interested in gamification as a business strategy. They figured that adding game elements to web development or existing products would enhance interest in their business. So when Steve and I presented a critique of gamification in its typical form as rote application of user experience strategies, and called for a greater emphasis on play as a principle of engagement, at first we were met with some confused, if not disappointed reactions. Many attendees of the public talk wanted to know the step-by-step strategy of gamification. When do you give out points and what online actions should trigger a badge? We challenged those assumptions—there is no simple solution to game design, motivated users are not necessarily engaged in a larger social context—we asserted. But many of the youth in attendance were un- or underemployed and they were looking for business opportunities. Games for development, in their minds, were games that helped them find jobs. They were looking for job skills, not abstractions about game design for development. Development was their employment. Period.


Winning group working on the design of TrashIt

This gave me pause. I never imagined that the development context of games should be focused on job skills. Our talk forwarded a theoretical argument about the centrality of play for civic and political engagement within a critique of gamification. Our workshop, too, resisted the addition of game mechanics to exiting processes in favor of a thoughtful design of playful experiences. With that conceit, we guided participants through the process of ideation, paper prototyping and play testing. They received hands on experience designing analog games, and explored the nuances of how games work and what they can do. Nine groups formed around areas of concern expressed by the participants, ranging from water management and green development to education and social innovation. At the end, participants voted on the best game. The winner was a game called “TrashIt,” a physical/board game about recycling and “upcylcing” for school kids in Egypt. The game was designed to create interactions between students and teachers, and generate creative thinking about how best to reuse materials in the classroom. By the end of the workshop, the game was playable and holds great promise for future development, either as an analog game or something digital and more scalable. The hope is that some members of the group will continue to work on the project and take it to the next phase.

Even though many people expected that they were going to gain immediately applicable job skills from the workshop, that was probably not what they received. They did, however, explore the possibilities of games and game-based thinking for their work and many participants were effusive about the experience. Several people approached us at the end of the workshop to say that they now think completely differently about games and gamification and the possibilities for both development and employment. What we could actually offer to Egyptians was a way of thinking that bridged social and civic solutions to development problems with the emerging markets in the country. While we didn’t disclose the magical checklist of gamified design, we provided a level of critical thinking and design experience that can hopefully lead to the creation of new social enterprises in the country.

As I mentioned, the workshop participants agreed to continue working on their projects for 1-2 hours a week. I imagine there will be some drop-off, but if the majority or even half c

Groups working on initial game designs

Groups working on initial game designs

ontinue at that pace, I have no doubt that something significant will emerge from the two days. While I feel great about the engagement of the participants and the content of the workshop, the real value in us coming from another country and organizing this event in Egypt was not the delivery of new knowledge; instead, the value of the game workshop in Egypt was establishing the context for self organization and networking around common interest and passions. Whether people left the workshop inspired to make games for social impact or to make a gamified website, they also left connected to others with similar interests and now a shared, rather intense experience of designing games.

We went to Egypt to inspire people to think through games as a mechanism for social change. I hope that happened. I know, however, that I was inspired. To talk to people about civic action in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, was humbling. Egyptians know political unrest, they know the uncertainty and they know the potential power of mobilization. Coming in from the outside, there was nothing we could offer in this regard. But, in our conversations, it is clear that there is palpable fatigue with the existing strategies for political and civic expression. Gathering in Tahrir Square in political protest may not be the most effective strategy anymore. So while we could make no normative assumptions about what a game could or should do in Egypt, we could propose new frameworks, constructs, and processes for the design and application of civic expression and action.  We didn’t leave with the killer game, as perhaps we had naively set out to do. We did leave with a strong desire to work with people in Egypt to aid in the emergence of games and game-based processes that are uniquely Egyptian.