Game Designers and Human Rights Defenders Unite!

By Collin Sullivan, posted on

If you were creating a video game character with the goal of making her the most effective human rights defender she could be, what skills would you give her?

Maybe she’d have exceptional interviewing skills, or a strong understanding of physical and digital security practices, or she might be well versed in various advocacy strategies. Maybe she would be familiar with documentation, data collection, and information management, or with the common outward indicators of psychosocial trauma.

Challenges to Creating Effective Human Rights Training

These are among the skills that support organizations have built into curricula designed to empower human rights practitioners with the capacities that will set them up for success. However, training on these skills can be a real challenge, both in person and when providing digital or paper materials for self-study. It can be expensive, it doesn’t scale well, and it is difficult for supporting organizations to measure how effective the training has been. The material can at times be difficult to grasp, and travel expenses can be prohibitive for would-be workshop participants.

In short: there are many barriers to leveling up, and real life doesn’t come with cheat codes.

ODIHR convening with 4 people sitting around a table designing human rights training

With these challenges in mind, last December Benetech partnered with OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to host a gathering of designers, developers, researchers, and human rights defenders. The goal of the workshop was to brainstorm ideas for building an immersive human rights training experience that would effectively build up a trainee’s skillset and lead to sustained changes in security practices. The idea is to leverage games so that the learning experience will be interesting and the lessons will stick.

Gaming World and Human Rights Community Connect Across Disciplines

In the day-long workshop, game developers and designers were grouped with human rights defenders to identify a real-life challenge or lesson from the activist’s experience, and then they brainstormed ways to design a game that would represent that challenge or teach that lesson to the game player. Some of the challenges included moving sensitive data across borders, planning a Pride march in a hostile city, and using open source investigative techniques to verify information.

The workshop produced a useful starting point to further design such a game, in addition to a fruitful experience for participants. “The interactive design session at each table was super engaging, creative, and fun,” one designer told us. “What a great group of people in the room to brainstorm ideas and actually come up with prototypes.”

Participants from the gaming world and human rights community alike found value in connecting across disciplines. As one activist commented, “Meeting with such amazing people who come from totally different backgrounds than the people I usually meet during my work was energizing and inspiring.” Nearly all of the participants were enthusiastic about continuing the collaboration with Benetech as we move forward with this work.

Benetech will continue design and development of a human rights training game that teaches security skills in the context of human rights work. We have received seed funding through a Digital Impact Grant from the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society that will facilitate early prototyping. We hope to have a public-facing prototype that testers can play with and offer feedback on by the end of 2018.

No word yet on whether the game will actually include any cheat codes.

Read more about Benetech’s human rights work: