What Can Serious Games Learn from Soap Operas?

The serious games industry—if “industry” is the right word for a ragtag handful of academics and idealistic startups—is in a deceptively precarious position. Funding for games and gamified applications is at record levels in the public and private arenas, but there are concerned whispers that this will dry up if there aren't more convincing demonstrations that developing an entire game is worth the investment. Presentations at this year’s GLS and Meaningful Play made it clear that being cheerleaders for games in general is no longer top priority. Now, the focus is on building games that really live up to the hype (difficult) and to demonstrate in concrete, quantifiable terms that these games are achieving their objectives (even more difficult). In the following article, I've attempted to summarize the key points of Ann DeMarle's keynote at Meaningful Play, which lucidly described the approach currently being taken by Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center.

In 2008, a game that gets its players to connect on an emotional level with an important social issue for five minutes or less was considered a rare success. Unfortunately, it remains difficult to think of many serious games that have achieved anything approaching widespread appeal; fewer yet have actually managed to translate this into even a small positive impact. Widespread appeal isn’t strictly necessary to create positive change -- consider FoldIt. But it’s disappointingly hard to come by in the world of serious games, especially given that widespread appeal is one of the most frequent justifications given for making games for change, as opposed to more traditional forms of educational media. If the image is of thousands of websurfers stumbling across a fun game, learning about a social cause, and modifying their beliefs or behaviors as a result, it’s fair to say that no one is there yet. One might even be tempted to call the endeavor fatally flawed, futile, or “a failure and a joke.”

Yet games can embed virtually any existing form of media, which means that they can rely on the same method that people with a message have used for thousands of years to touch their audiences: good old-fashioned storytelling. Narrative isn’t absent from serious games, but it’s rarely used as the lever that is supposed to move the player; a much more common approach is to attempt to generate an “aha” moment by embedding a thinly-veiled message in the game mechanics, with typically weak results. In contrast, a remarkably successful framework for how to tell stories that motivate people to make positive changes in their communities has been with us since the 1970s, as the APA reported exactly one decade ago:

When the radio drama "Twende na Wakati," or "Let's Go with the Times," began airing in 1993 in parts of Tanzania, myths about HIV and AIDS abounded, including that HIV was transmitted through mosquitoes and having sex with a condom could cause the virus.

Two years later, Tanzanians were more likely to believe that unprotected sex could result in HIV infection, talked more about AIDS, reduced their number of sexual partners and increased condom use. Moreover, they reported a decreased desired number of children, a higher ideal age of marriage for women and increased approval of family planning methods--all this while those in other parts of Tanzania without the drama showed no changes.

Did "Twende na Wakati" cause the changes? Most definitely, says University of New Mexico communications researcher Everett Rogers, PhD, who studied the drama's effects. While the radio program featured a compelling story line, its underlying purpose was to encourage HIV prevention and reduce soaring population growth. And "Twende na Wakati" did just that, thanks to the theories of Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura, PhD.

Bandura's social cognitive theory--that people learn from role models whose behavior they wish to emulate--is at the center of a genre of such television and radio dramas, which aim to prevent unwanted pregnancies, reduce the spread of HIV, promote literacy, empower women in third-world countries and increase viewers' self-efficacy.

These "entertainment-education" programs reach millions around the world, from Mexico to China, to Tanzania, and feature characters who model ways to improve their lives. They also connect viewers with real-life services in their communities, all with the ultimate goal of fostering viewers' self-efficacy to, for example, promote the value of girls in China or encourage environmental responsibility in the Caribbean.

And scientific studies show that they work: When "Twende na Wakati" was broadcast in the former control areas of Tanzania in 1996, researchers again found increases in safe sex, women's status and family planning. Moreover, entertainment-education programs are often more popular than regular dramas.

Nor was this success a fluke. In the 1970s, Miguel Sabido, then vice president for research at what is now the largest mass media company in Latin America, came across the research of psychologist Albert Bandura. The experiments he read about would later form the basis of Bandura’s social learning theory, according to which individuals encountered in real life and in the media directly shape motivations and behavior. Sabido’s first attempt to apply these principles to the design of a serial drama resulted in Ven Conmigo, a soap opera featuring a protagonist taking the difficult but rewarding journey of learning to read. Sabido’s program literally clogged the streets of Mexico City with over 250,000 viewers seeking literacy pamphlets offered by the Mexican government, and within weeks nearly a million new individuals had enrolled in literacy classes. Miguel and his sister Irene applied a similar method in the production of six additional soap operas (telenovelas) in the next eight years, achieving his educational objectives in each and motivating viewers to action. In the year that his first serial aired on the topic of family planning, over 550,000 women enrolled in family planning clinics, and phone calls to the national population council requesting information on the topic—an action explicitly modeled in the telenovela—increased from zero to approximately 6,000 over the course of the year. Nor is evidence of the programs’ impact limited to anecdotes; controlled comparisons of cases in which Sabido’s television and radio dramas were played in one area of a country (but not another) support a clear causal link from Sabido’s programs to public health outcomes (Nairman, 1993; Singhal & Rogers, 2003). In the Tanzania study mentioned earlier, the difference between health outcomes in the control vs. experimental audiences was so striking—one fourth of  viewers adopted behaviors critical to avoiding HIV—that the study was cancelled after two years so that the control population could also experience the program.

The Population Media Center describes Sabido’s theoretical framework in much more detail, but his approach has three critical characteristics. First, Sabido did his homework—he did extensive on-the-ground research to ensure that he was addressing the right problem, and acquired a deep understanding of the sociocultural barriers to change. Second, rather than having characters explicitly instruct each other about the relevant behaviors, he used ordinary, relatable characters that made positive and negative decisions, and simply illustrated the consequences of their behaviors. Done badly or over too short of a timespan, this can come off as preachy, but needs not be so, if done gradually and skillfully; nearly all popular movies demonstrate the rewards of moral behavior or the risks of its converse. Third, he made sure there was follow-through with a call to action by a celebrity in the show’s epilogue, again taking great care not to deliver a moral message too ham-handedly. “Epilogues are very important, but they can be very dangerous… they can be perceived as pedantic,” Sabido expressed in an interview in the Journal of Development Communication. “If one uses moral epilogues, they have to be sympathetic to the audience’s condition.”

Finally, Sabido facilitated follow-through by making sure that difficulties were realistically depicted. “What do you think happened when all these new people arrived at their first reading class? They quickly found that learning to read was difficult and not always a whole lot of fun,” wrote Patterson et al., who used Sabido’s story as a case study in the popular business book Influencer. “Fortunately, the characters in the television show had demonstrated the difficult side of the learning process, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. People understood the pleasures of reading, but knew they’d have to work to become proficient before these pleasures would be theirs.”

To date, no one has attempted to incorporate these principles into the design of a serious game--until now. In 2010, the Emergent Media Center (EMC) at Champlain College launched Breakaway, a game intended to educate children and young teens about violence against women and girls, to take action to prevent it, and to demonstrate mutual respect. The game was developed as part of a partnership between the Population Media Center, the United Nations Population Fund, and Ann DeMarle of the EMC. By helping players to identify with a character whose views on women change throughout the course of an extended story—the transitional character—they hoped that players would be open to changing their own views. “Specifically, the method wins over the audience through compelling soap opera style narratives dependent on three types of role models: positive, negative and transitional,” DeMarle told me. “Through a series of episodes that carefully build in complexity and character decision-making, the transitional character is faced with a social problem in a very real and personal life situation.” Their approach is explicitly modeled on Sabido’s method, along with the FIFA Fair Play Code—the game of soccer was selected as the topical backdrop of the game narrative, owing to its near-universality.

But does it work? There has not yet been a systematic effort to quantify the impact the game is having on its target audience, although initial anecdotes have been promising. One Champlain college sophomore, Mahmoud Jabari, introduced the game to 300 children at a summer camp in the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestine. He and his volunteer team were impressed by marked changes in many students’ attitudes over the course of the camp. In some cases, boys who originally opined that girls should not be allowed to play sports changed their minds completely, and were playing alongside girls by the end of the program. EMC staffmember Sarah Jerger likewise reported encouraging results about the game’s deployment in Africa: “When we traveled to South Africa on the research trip, it made what we were doing real. We learned about underprivileged kids’ family and home life and saw what the game was able to do.” [1] Demographic statistics suggest that the game is reaching its intended audience, and that the vast majority of players make more positive than negative choices within the game, suggesting that most players take the decisions they make within the game seriously. However, a true impact study has yet to be conducted. Such a study could be exactly what the serious game industry needs to convince skeptical observers looking for concrete, measurable results.

Although Breakaway may not have made the same impact on its players were it not for the scaffolding provided by the summer camps and other structured programs in which it has been deployed, these initial reports are encouraging. If the EMC's process encourages other socially-minded developers to put a stronger focus on narrative as a lever for emotional engagement, and if they can demonstrate their impact with the kind of rigor necessary to convince the broader community, the future for serious games is bright.

Nairman, H. (1993). Soap operas for social change. Westport, CT: Praegar.
Singhal, A. M. & Rogers, E. M. (2003). Combating AIDS: Communications strategies in action. New Delhi: Sage Publications India.

What Can Serious Games Learn from Soap Operas? by Gabriel Recchia, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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