By Meron Menwyelet | January 14, 2016

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Over the past decade, the landscape for expanding democratic principles has been shifting from a relatively stable environment where successful programs supported the electoral process, fostered citizen participation and advocated for open governance to an unstable world where the traditional tools for building democracy are no longer right for addressing a narrowing space for public expression.

It was in light of this changing world that NDI launched the Ideas Grant, a new pilot program that’s intended to spur creative and new approaches to NDI's democracy assistance work. Young leaders at the Institute were given the opportunity to develop proposals suggesting innovative solutions to traditional democracy challenges and I decided to rise to the occasion with the support of a colleague on NDI’s Operations team.   

Our idea? To develop a mobile app-based game to make training and educational materials more widely available to young women and men in a fun and interactive way. Now, you’re probably thinking that gamification or the process of applying gaming designs to promote engaged learning isn’t a new idea and you’re right. So-called serious games that draw on a large body of behavioral and cognitive research have proven to be effective in creating rich and enjoyable learning experiences that tap collective wisdom and produce actionable results.

In recent years, we’ve seen donor organizations such as USAID begin to support the development of games for social change. In 2013 for instance, they partnered with the Ford Foundation, Show of Force and Games for Change to launch the Half the Sky Movement Media and Technology Engagement Initiative, which builds on an initiative developed in collaboration with authors of the best-selling book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The Agency invested $1.4 million into launching an integrated media campaign that produced three mobile phone games for people in India and East Africa on topics as diverse as family planning and reproductive health, maternal and child health, girls’ education, and domestic violence. After conducting an impact assessment, the alliance determined that the three mobile games expanded players’ knowledge, strengthened their self-efficacy and intentions to act on lessons learned, and heightened their awareness of risks and solutions surrounding gender-related themes.

While the development of a learning game app represents a new frontier for NDI, it also represents a promising new approach for responding to the challenges and opportunities involved in promoting civic engagement. Our team has begun to lead the charge by participating in events such as the ReInvent Conference in Las Vegas hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS) where we worked to design a framework for building a story-driven, text-based game that conveys lessons in an engaging ‘choose your own adventure’ format. You can read more about it here.

The concept of gamification also builds on the Institute’s use of distance learning and engagement tools to deliver training and education programs to new audiences, such as people living in countries where the security situation prohibits safe travel by NDI staff, people in countries where the Institute has insufficient funding to maintain a presence, and people living in closed societies where the Institute doesn’t currently operate. The Technology for Accountability Lab, which NDI launched in partnership with Stanford University is a great example of how the Institute is using more electronic media, educational technology, and ICT tools to train new audiences to more effectively engage political processes.

You’re sold on the idea, right? Well, so was the Ideas Grant committee that selected our proposal for funding by the Madeleine K. Albright Women’s Project, which is dedicated to helping women break down the barriers that prevent them from engaging in politics and empowering women with the knowledge and skills needed to participate, compete and lead. We chose to pilot our project in Nigeria, where NDI has been working to promote greater citizen participation in politics among young women and men -- those between the ages of 18-35 -- which was our target demographic.

To guide the development of our learning game app, I had the chance to travel to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja this past November to conduct gender-disaggregated focus groups that aimed to understand the attitudes, behaviors and perceptions of young Nigerian women and men towards civic engagement, as well as identify their needs, wants and limitations when using connective technologies.

Below is a recap of my experience.