Michelle Byrd and Asi Burak of Games for Change, helped produce the Half the Sky game.
By ELIZABETH JENSEN
Social cause gaming, or the use of games to promote awareness of societal problems, has been growing since pioneer online projects like Food Force, the United Nations World Food Program’s 2005 game about confronting famine, and Darfur Is Dying, MTV’s 2006 offering in which players navigate the terrors of a Sudanese refugee camp.
Subsequent games have raised awareness of subjects like H.I.V., sex trafficking and political conflicts, among others.
On March 4, a new game onFacebook, inspired by the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” will be introduced, with a focus on raising awareness of issues like female genital mutilation and child prostitution.
Half the Sky Movement: The Game, more than three years in the making, is one of the most ambitious efforts yet to entice a mass audience to social media games with the goal of social change. It is a concept, however, that even its supporters say is largely untested.
The game seeks to engage new audiences not reached by the 2009 book, written by the married team of Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, and Sheryl WuDunn, a former Times journalist.
A spinoff four-hour documentary was broadcast on PBS in October, with a four-hour sequel coming in fall 2014.
Even more directly than possible with the book and television program, the game’s producers hope to actively involve the public.
The central character, an Indian woman named Radhika, faces various challenges with the assistance of players, who can help out with donations of virtual goods, for example. The players can then make equivalent real-world donations to seven nonprofit organizations woven into the game.
Ten dollars, for example, will help buy a goat for Heifer International; $20 will help support United Nations Foundation immunization efforts.
To further engage players, those who reach predesignated levels unlock donations from Johnson & Johnson and Pearson, which have each contributed $250,000 to buy real-world operations from the Fistula Foundation and books for Room to Read, respectively.
If the Half the Sky game takes off and the money is claimed quickly, the producers hope other sponsors will step in, said Michelle Byrd, co-president of Games for Change, a nonprofit that promotes the creation of so-called social impact games and is the game’s executive producer, along with Show of Force Productions.
Asi Burak, also co-president of Games for Change, said the hope is to draw two million to five million players, persuading 5 percent or more to donate. Players can play at no charge, but they will make faster progress through donations.
Those usage figures would put the game in the top rungs of social cause gaming.
The genre is still new enough that “I think it’s an open question as to whether or not and to what degree people want to play a game that’s focused on a social issue,” said Ken Weber, executive director of Zynga.org, the nonprofit arm of Zynga, the company behind Facebook’s FarmVille game.
Zynga, which has raised $15 million for about 50 causes like Japanese earthquake relief through FarmVille, signed on to support the Half the Sky game, helping in its development and promotion.
Zynga felt the game had “a fighting chance,” Mr. Weber said, because the content was compelling, there was already an established book and television property, financing was in hand — producers have raised $1 million — and Games for Change had hired “a commercial-grade developer,” the Canadian company Frima Studio of Quebec City.
Other supporters include the Ford, Rockefeller and United Nations foundations; Intel; and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Half the Sky game starts out simply, as Radhika ponders how to afford a doctor visit for her sick daughter (the answer is to harvest mangoes, which players do for her).
Each step requires players to answer a question — for example, should Radhika ask her husband for help or stay silent? Neither answer is wrong, but each takes players on a different route.
As her empowerment grows, Radhika moves across the globe to Kenya, Vietnam and Afghanistan. But many of the game choices get progressively darker. One leads to a mother living and her baby dying.
Still, some of the game’s nonprofit partners have pushed for even more verisimilitude, Ms. Byrd and Mr. Burak said, questioning, for one, why Radhika can read when many women in her situation would be illiterate.
Finding that balance — how much to simplify complicated issues, how much fun to include and how much to focus on positive solutions versus grave challenges — has consumed much of the development process, the producers said.
“It’ll be a very interesting test as to what people’s thresholds are,” said Mr. Weber, of Zynga.
Players who reach the final level learn about sex trafficking in the United States and can donate to an organization in New York called GEMS, or Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, which helps young women leave the commercial sex industry.
Rachel Lloyd, the organization’s founder, said that games were “a brave new world for us, too. We’re watching and seeing how this works, if people really do engage in the way that we’d like them to.”